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Conscious clothing

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The concept of sustainable fashion is slowly gaining ground in India. Some designers tell us what it means

Fashion, by definition, is an ever-changing thing; what was trendy a few months ago is suddenly no longer desirable. As the Japanese-French fashion designer Kenzo Takada said: "Fashion is like eating, you shouldn't stick to the same menu."

The concept of sustainable fashion, however, is slowly gaining ground. According to Green Strategy, a consultancy firm based in Sweden which specialises in sustainability, clothing companies are increasingly transforming their business models and improving supply chains to reduce the overall environment impact and improve labour conditions. Consumers are also recognising the need for such practices and veering away from fast fashion, acknowledging that while such clothes might be inexpensive, the true cost, though often unseen, is higher.

Green Strategy has pointed out the seven ways in which sustainable fashion may be seen today. These include high quality and timeless design; clothes made in an environment-friendly manner; fair and ethical practices, including traditional production, artisan crafts and animal rights and long use through good care, repair and perhaps redesign. They also speak of renting, loaning or swapping; recycling clothes and giving it to second-hand or vintage stores.

This last suggestion, unfortunately, has yet to take off in India; while it is relatively common abroad and people welcome the opportunity to buy inexpensive clothes, in India, there still seems to be some shame attached in purchasing second-hand clothing. Sustainable clothing also tends to have a higher price tag than fast fashion, which makes it less affordable to most.

In the context of World Environment Day, we asked a few Indian designers what they felt about the trend and here’s what they had to say.


Payal Khandwala recently launched her first line of reversible saris in order to maximise the utility of an outfit. Referring to her creations as being her endeavour towards sustainability, she says: “In the past we’ve teamed our saris with wardrobe staples, the shirt, the blouse, a tee, a tank, a waistcoat and a jacket. The idea is always to offer our customer flexibility. But what if we could wear the same sari, with the same drape and same blouse, yet somehow still make it look different?”

These saris are designed in a way that they can simply be flipped, altering the look in a subtle but significant way. “Reimagined to be modular, we can reuse and repeat them while feeling and looking a little different each time,” she explains. Paired with halters, tube tops and Payal’s permanent pleated blouses, tops, tanks and waistcoats, in addition to her signature wraps and tunics and handwoven in mulberry silk and cotton, these saris have an interesting twist. You can also accessorise them with handmade pleated flowers, recycled from studio waste, to dress the hair and minimal Tachi arm cuffs in stainless steel and brass.

Speaking of how she incorporates sustainability into her garments, Payal says: “We always try our best to source responsibly from our vendors, dyers and weavers. We also focus on making sure that all our employees have health insurance and systems in place for the health and education of their immediate families. Economic sustainability is just as important for the well-being and the morale of the team as well as the industry.

“In addition to this we try to recycle waste from the studio, try to reuse our surplus fabrics in accessories, try and design clothes with zero wastage and the most important, we make clothes that are timeless. As a philosophy we always recommend clothes that don’t follow trends, so that one can buy less and wear more often. Slow fashion is a key shift in paradigm if we are to be truly sustainable in this industry. This planet certainly doesn’t need more clothes, especially cheaper ones that we think are more dispensable.”

Payal believes that demand today for sustainable clothing is definitely increasing as awareness increases. “But we are a long way from changing the mindset of fast fashion,” she feels. “We have to ask more questions and as consumers be conscious of what we buy and why—and the impact it has on the environment, our planet and our workforce. Cheap clothes equal cheap labour and irresponsible business practices. The onus lies on us as the buyer to choose wisely.”

Sustainable clothing is not, however, a mainstream concept as much of it tends to be highly priced. “I think the price can be a deterrent but with more awareness of what fast fashion does to our planet I think we can change our preconceptions about sustainable clothing,” she remarks. “Clothes that are made responsibly are made with more care, more love. They take longer to make but they last longer.

“We have to shift how we consume our clothes,” she adds: “If we care about personal style more than fashion then we will buy less, but buy better. This way we will cherish them for longer and waste less. We must learn to repeat our clothes. We can only do this if we don’t let fashion dictate what we buy. If we are trend-free, only then can we begin to be truly sustainable.”


Known for hand-painted Kalamkari garments that are washed in milk and painted in natural herbs, Divya Sheth strongly believes in sustainable and organic living. This reflects in her work as she uses traditional arts like ajrakh, jamdani and bandhani all in natural dyes in close conjunction with master craftsmen of India.

Divya says "In today’s mindless, micro-cyclic fashion scenario, it is soulful and mindful to choose to be slow. As a spiritual person, choosing fashion was a mismatch but nonetheless, where there is a will there’s a way."

 The brand, launched in 2014, has a strong zero waste philosophy, Divya says. “All the balance textiles are used in trimmings, tassels and other creative ways to incorporate them. The pattern-making process also carefully considers the minimum waste principle.”

Apart from using only natural dyes, on natural fabrics that are biodegradable with a minimum carbon footprint, the brand also pays close attention to create eco-friendly packaging,” Divya says.

She also strongly believes in creating local opportunities for craftsmen and their families and villages to stop urban filtration and enlivening the art and craft by developing an interest in the next generation craftsmen.

Divya showcased at the FDCI Odisha Handloom Fashion Show in Delhi recently. The collection featured fabrics that are handwoven in the villages of Bargarh and Nuopatna of Odisha with 100% cotton yarns and a colour palette of their signature combinations of indigo, white and black. The painstakingly handwoven Ikat fabric is a result of a premeditated tie-and-dye technique called Bandhav, in which the threads are pre-counted and dyed and then handwoven to achieve the desired motif.

Divya, who has received various awards including ELLE Graduates - Modern Indianwear Designer of the Year 2018 says of her clothing: “In the pursuit of global environmental sustainability, we produce ‘food for skin’ which not only nourishes the body but also the environment. We only use natural dyes. The dyes penetrate into our bodies. Therefore dyes like turmeric and madder are not only therapeutic but also replenish the skin.”

Divya says that she incorporates sustainability through zero-waste techniques; natural dyes on natural biodegradable fabrics with a minimum carbon footprint; minimal and eco-friendly packaging; long-lasting products that can be used for a lifetime; and non-polluting processes. “Philanthropy, animal care and social responsibility is always an agenda,” she adds.

She believes that there is a substantial demand today for sustainable clothing. “Sustainability is not merely a trend but a way of living, therefore with the market becoming more conscious of the benefits of sustainable fashion, the demand is rising. It is the way to be, it is the present and the future.” Divya also says that a wider customer base must be made aware of the innumerable benefits that such clothing offers.


Jessie Sandhu, creative director and partner, The Grey Heron, named her brand on a beautiful day in Maldives, when she saw a “serene and magnificent creature balancing motionlessly on the edge of an infinity pool and in that moment time stood still”. Jessie says: “We aspire to imbibe this perfect balance of calm, strength and energy—the peace in the stillness of form and the passion in the determination of the gaze.”

The more she travelled, she realised that while India was a country of colour, art, workmanship and culture, there was also a need to create a line that was organic and aesthetic. “We follow the principle of ‘less is more’, she explains. The collection consists primarily of western silhouettes in a colour palette that is largely whites, off-whites and beige with a small dash of colour every season. “This season’s colour prediction was ultraviolet and we have added that to our palette for Spring 2018,” she explains. “We use natural fabrics and you would largely find cottons, linens and mal fabrics in our collection.” The brand was born in November 2016 and has been the choice of celebs such as Malaika Arora, Kriti Sanon, Lisa Ray, Sonali Bendre, Dipannita Sharma, Shaheen Abbas and Pooja Hegde. “It will also be available in Dubai and London.

Speaking of how she incorporates sustainability in her garments, Jessie explains: “We feel that little steps go a long way and have a lasting impact. At The Grey Heron we strive to use fabrics derived organically, which means protecting the environment alongside our need to produce clothes. It’s important that everyone does their bit towards sustaining the ecological balance in the long run. Organic clothing is clothing made out of yarns that are grown without pesticides or insecticides.”

Jessie believes that sustainable clothing in India is moving beyond the trend phase and turning into a lifestyle choice. “It’s here to stay,” she says. “People are more aware of the impact our day-to-day living has on the environment and we can see a steady demand in people opting for more and more sustainable clothing.”

She does not think that such clothes are as high-priced as some might believe.

“Of course the prices are slightly higher as the crops out of which the yarns are made need more looking after as quick fixes like pesticides for killing insects are not used,” she explains.

“Hence the prices of these fabrics are slightly higher but not so high that it would dig a hole in your pocket. If more people opt to start buying organic clothing it would increase the demand and make it cheaper and farmers would be forced to produce crop without using quick fixes. This would make it more mainstream,” she adds.


Jaipur-based Nangalia Ruchira has always been “amazed and intrigued” by the embroidery and techniques of Rajasthani craftsmen. She has also been interested in tying and dyeing techniques of the dyers in her city. The brand hence has been experimenting with different dyeing methods. The organisation began working in 2013 with a workforce of 20 persons, and as it grew, Nangalia Ruchira started its sub-brand Bargain Basement in 2014. It is now widely available on almost all e-commerce platforms. The designer has now opened two stores in Jaipur.

A commerce graduate from Hans Raj College studying for the Indian Administrative Service, Nangalia realised designing clothes and styling was something she preferred. “After interning for six months under Wills India Fashion Week designer Samant Chauhan, I realised my stint with fashion was not a casual fling,” she says. “After returning to my hometown and exploring the clothing market, I realised the potential and inherent talent in the hand embroidery workers of Jaipur and the talent in ‘dyers’ who can create new patterns through hand dye,” she explains.

Nangalia believes that an ill-fitted dress can add to your personality, confidence and panache, just as an ill-fitted one can do the reverse.

Nangalia recently introduced a collection called Pakhi, with wedding dresses made in 100% organic cotton with hand-block printing done with vegetable dyes in Jaipur. “Our wedding dresses are simple yet dressy and affordable too being organic,” the company says.

Nangalia finds that while demand for sustainable clothing is growing, it is currently more predominant in the higher echelons of society in India.

“It’s a fashion fad among the rich to wear organic,” she says. With growing awareness and greater supply of such clothes by designers, the demand will rise, she feels. This would also lead to competition, and hence lower prices that would help take such clothing to the mainstream.

Amit Aggarwal

Amit Aggarwal, a graduate of National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, trained with design houses the world over before starting his label in 2012. He has been invited by the Dutch DFA to Amsterdam to be part of a design delegation, and is a finalist for the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Award. His work was exhibited at the Arken Museum in Copenhagen showcasing the future of Art and Fashion from August 2012 till January 2013. In the same year he was invited by TED in India for a talk on fashion, its future and his journey so far. After a series of showcases in Paris and India, Amit started his diffusion line under AM.IT, an eclectic mix of organic and manmade textiles with very contemporary styling. He showcases both his lines on the international fashion calendar in Paris and currently retails in 16 countries through luxury stores across the world.

Amit’s label combines locally sourced factors with a progressive aesthetic, moulding and freezing amorphous forms into structures made utilising industrial materials. These are transformed by hand-done techniques into intricate garments with a definite shape.

AM.IT, the ready to wear, aims at exploring traditional weaving and printing textile arts from the Indian subcontinent and making it relevant by superimposing it with unconventional materials and industrial waste.

“Sustainability has always been a part of my lifestyle as well as my design ideologies,” says Amit. “In the past, the brand has worked with materials like Bindi negative sheets, recycled straws, polybags and upcycled vintage Patola and Banarasi sarees to create unconventional and structured silhouettes and to give these materials a larger purpose.”

Amit believes that today’s consumer is becoming increasingly aware and exposed to sustainability in clothing and therefore want to know the materials that make it environment friendly. “So, yes, I do feel that the demand is increasing every day.”

In terms of pricing, he believes that this depends on various factors, such as the time and cost to research and develop the materials used as well as the branding and marketing of the product.

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