In-depth: India’s top designers tell us how fashion could emerge even more responsible post-pandemic
Sustainability in fashion was on an upward trajectory — globally. The year 2019-2020 saw international fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M (no matter how greenwashed) attempt to clean up their act by introducing conscious initiatives in stores worldwide. In India, the mainstream design circuit was introduced to The Circular Design Challenge, the country’s first sustainability award in fashion, which put to the test over 900 brands and their innovations, in just its debut edition.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Looms across the country fell silent, raw materials (including dyes and fabrics) were stopped in transit, migrant karigars and artisans made a beeline to head home, and labels lost their season’s opening sales.
As revenues continue to plummet at every level of the supply chain, brands and suppliers seem forced to focus on ensuring the survival of their businesses. Conventional logic would dictate a shift in priorities to keep the lights on — protecting initiatives and making new investments would have to wait. As a trickle-down effect, sustainable sourcing, ensuring worker welfare, a ban on the use of toxic substances, reducing waste and cutting down carbon emissions may find themselves put on the back burner, at least temporarily. And, given the industry’s slow-paced approach to addressing the impact of fashion on the environment, the risks of backsliding are plenty. But, there may yet be hope.
“Sure, if you look at things from an overhead cost perspective, things can be hard. But, one must consider that if a brand has chosen to be responsible and sustainable, it is because they are mindful and understand the ecological repercussions of fast-fashion. When the world around is changing — primarily because of environmental circumstances — this conscience will not be lost,” says environmental engineer and textile designer, Siddharth Mohan Nair, who runs the khadi-based brand DesiTude. And he’s not alone on this line of thought.
Hailing from a family of agriculturalists in Saharanpur of Uttar Pradesh, Rina Singh, the founder of the brand Eka is not blind to the social setback caused by the 50+ days of the lockdown. Yet, she is not hopeless. “I will not exaggerate the situation and say that we are facing huge losses, but we are not healthy either. We support 150 weavers and tailors, and it is hard to ensure all their benefits. But, we are giving them their basic sustenance. A decision that we, as a brand, will stand by is that none of our employees will be laid off,” reveals the designer, who had collaborated with the global brand Uniqlo to retail her brand of ethnic wear in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines. Viewing sustainability through the livelihood lens, the former NIFT faculty explains that any compromise on this front would not just affect the grassroots level change that she envisions, but weaken the brand’s integrity. “I know we are on the right path, and we will not take a step back — it would compromise the authenticity of the brand,” explains the designer.
Connect the dots
Designer Karishma Shahani Khan too is a firm believer in keeping core ideologies intact. After all, it is what has directed her label, Ka-sha’s textile-focussed approach towards sustainability — that includes employing natural fabrics, using a signature zero-waste cutting pattern along and upcycling techniques.
However, with the coronavirus halting much of the industry, the designer believes that brands could re-emerge after the pandemic with blank slates, allowing for some change in direction. “The ongoing climate crisis (and fashion’s contributing factors) are too urgent to ignore. Sustainability efforts won’t be going away anytime soon. Even broadly speaking, the entire industry is plagued by the same problem. This can be a moment to re-evaluate and have those hard conversations about what we, as responsible labels, could do differently. If we come together and handle the situation right, this could be an opportunity,” says Karishma, whose suggestion stems from her noteworthy collaboration in aid of the flood-affected weavers of Chendamangalam, Kerala in 2019.
Now, as the 30-year-old ties up with the Pune-based social project called Quilt Culture (that repurposes old saris into bedding solutions), Karishma suggests similar synergies between designers, weaver co-operative societies and artisan clusters. A move that she feels promises not just better market visibility, but unique handmade products.
But, one critical question remains. Going forward, will brands continue to prioritise new investments in favour of sustainability? Sreejith Jeevan, who helms the brand Rouka, knows the answer hinges on whether the public will categorise fashion as a basic need and continue to spend on it. “The pandemic has taught us two lessons. One, need-based solutions will always be prioritised over luxury items. And second, with unemployed skill moving back to the villages, we have understood the true cost of fashion and who it affects.” Working on a necessity-driven module, the Kochi-based label has engaged with local weaving clusters to create approved-PPE masks (consisting of a non-woven layer that is flanked by two layers of handwoven fabric) to generate employment. Re-evaluating dependence on labour and suppliers from distant geographies, the textile design graduate from NID, Ahmedabad will begin work on products and ensembles using hyper-localised skill — inclusive of the fabrics and natural dyes. “It is a concept that we worked on for Rouka’s Origin line and we are looking forward to building on it.”
The craft edit
A key advantage that will work in favour of brands within the sustainable segment is the absence of stagnant or dead stock — a result of their commitment towards mindfully creating limited editions or made-to-order edits (a polar opposite to mass-produced fast-fashion). It is on this principle that designer Sanjay Garg is formulating a route-map for his luxury ethnic wear brand, Raw Mango. Sensing a shift towards the new necessity-driven consumption patterns, the primary area of focus for his label that engages with highly specialised skill would be — smaller, more-detail oriented pieces which are keepsakes worth investing in. “The next few collections, including our annual Festive 2020, are still in the early production stages. Since we do not produce seasonal collections per se, none of our stock remains stagnant. This, in turn, offers us the choice to develop collections and pieces that are even more seasonless, edit our offerings and focus on producing smaller numbers.”
Evolving products could also signal fundamental changes in what and how brands sell to their customers. To tackle this issue, Mandeep Nagi, Creative head of the New Delhi-based label Shades of India is working on a two-pronged approach. “We are lucky to be at a level that is neither too luxury nor too prêt. Our commitment to handlooms and hand-embroidered work still stands. We will be exercising our creativity in terms of repackaging our apparel — perhaps, as ensembles sets instead of separates,” she explains. Mandeep points to the need for competitive pricing among sustainable fashion brands to attract a newer millennial customer-base. “Post the relaxation of lockdown rules we are working on creating bundles, which will include (maybe) a kurta, pyjama and dupatta. This way, we offer our patrons a holistic look at a certain price point.”
“The current crisis has spotlighted the need for agility. We previously worked on the exhibition model, where our saris were showcased at different cities through pop-ups. This template will not work in the new normal that we are looking at,” explains designer Vijayalakshmi Nachiyar, who currently employs 30 weavers and 42 looms under her label Ethicus. Known for her efforts with weavers of the Negamam region near Pollachi, the 49-year-old is now shifting her campaign online to highlight weaving techniques that go beyond mainstream weaves like the Benarasi or Kanjeevaram drapes. Apart from working on ramping up e-commerce capabilities and social media marketing (like most of the other brands we spoke to), she is actively looking to diversify her product line into menswear and tap into a newer customer base. “We are also continually engaging with our clientele on Instagram and other social media platforms to handle queries, educate them about lesser-known weaves and keep them updated about our operations.”
Weaves shall overcome
Going purely by the industry’s preoccupation with fashion’s buzzword (sustainability) over the last couple of years, designer Gaurav Jai Gupta says that the coming year is sure to see a spike in the number of brands leveraging a crisis like the pandemic to push their claims of sustainability. “Ideally, we should have a gateway to monitor what passes for sustainable. For now, whether or not these labels are truly sustainable will remain in question. However, for brands like ours (Akaaro), who are serious about their commitments, we are self-assured about our products and will continue with the same paradigm. This crisis will not throw us off course.”