The fashion industry is riddled with issues that percolate into society, but perhaps the most overlooked in the entire process are the talented hands at the very source: the weavers and the craftspeople. Ethical fashion is far rarer than you’d imagine in India, and these skilled workers often toil away thanklessly for their work, which eventually goes on to dress showstoppers in their moments of glory. It’s a relief to note then - although it did take some serious scouring - that there are a handful of fashion businesses who’ve always had their eyes trained on the bigger picture, while maintaining a unique sense of aesthetic and an unmistakeable identity.
Here are some ethical fashion businesses who are highly self-aware of their identities both as Indians and as designers, and draw generously from their roots while simultaneously giving back to those who are helping their designs see the light of day - ultimately, those that need it the most. From the traditional textiles of Auroville, to empowering Jodhpuri women by teaching them to weave, these are designers who are doing some fantastic work in crafting modern personality-filled Indian sensibilities through textiles:
When Toronto-based Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar moved to Bombay in 2009 to delve into their Indian roots, they also drew their philosophies from the idea of time – “by appreciating the past, questioning the present and creating for the future.” As they traversed the country, they discovered many of India’s disappearing art forms, rendered obsolete in a mechanised era. With a view to reinterpret these ancient practices of textile design in a contemporary way that fell in line with their stylistic ethos, NorBlack NorWhite was born as an entity that is aware of the artisans who need patronage and make sure they give back consistently, even as they create garments that are a confluence point between their love for traditional Indian fabrics and contemporary sensibilities.
II. No Nasties
“One every 30 minutes – that’s the average rate at which farmers are committing suicide in India. 2,50,000 farmers suicides in 15 years. It’s the largest number of suicides recorded in human history. It’s happening right now, right here in India. And it’s not getting any better. These numbers were too disturbing for us to ignore. We decided to do something about it.”
No Nasties was started by Apurva and Diti – ‘two bicycle riding, frisbee tossing, organic farming, city dwelling, Mumbai residents, who (try to) do no nasty’. Apurva is now steering the ship forward with products that show a highly sensitive approach to business and aesthetically sound. With ‘Minimal design, attractive artwork, sustainable packaging’ - Homegrown absolutely loved their snappy attitude towards saving the planet.
Their manufacturing factories stick stringently to ethical fair labour practices, sans child labour or discrimination, and the company is at every step joining hands with like-minded folks. No GMO seeds, no synthetic pesticides, and definitely no nasties.
III. GRASSROOT by Anita Dongre
Reinforcing Anita Dongre’s philosophy of fashion with a conscience, we have the eco-conscious GRASSROOT, her organic clothing label that creates handwoven, sustainable fabrics that uses environment-friendly techniques and traditional crafts. Touted as India’s first organic line since its launch in 2007, it was hands down the highlight of the Delhi leg of Wills India Fashion Week where it made its debut. Replete with motifs of flowers and leaves and reflecting an evident fondness for organic cotton and vegetable dyes, it offers a versatile range of wardrobe essentials that are aesthetically pleasing and cater to the sensibilities of the socially conscious Indian woman. It’s uplifting to see the cause of the unsung craftsmen and the revival of dying traditional textile practises receiving the attention they have always merited in the country through pioneering efforts like these.
IV. Love is Mighty by Monisha Raja
Monisha’s vegan line of shoes Love is Mighty was born in 2011 out of her love of animals, adventure and nature, honed with the vision of harnessing the potential of modern innovation and design to breathe new life into the dying world of indigenous arts. Exquisite handwork adorns the products, a painstaking effort of the tribal artisans in India she has collaborated with. The avid painter, who lives in New York City, ensures that not a single animal is harmed in the entire process and is incredibly cognisant of the thousands of years of Indian traditions that are at the verge of disappearing. Monisha creates these shoes using the fabrics and skills of craftspeople from the rural villages that stand to lose the most. The old-world textiles and her own modern designs then combine to create the gorgeous shoes from her collection.
All cotton, natural vegetable and mineral dyes and wooden buttons, Mogra Designs a design label rooted in a passion for travel, crafts & easy style. The brand promotes a sartorial elegance alongside fair trade, and you can be guaranteed that the clothes feel as great as they look. For their summer collection, they collaborated with these three gorgeous women who inspired a collection for real shapes, sizes, skin-tones and personalities. Not only are the clothes crafted entirely from 100% naturally dyed, hand block printed cotton, the material itself has been responsibly sourced from Bagh Village (MP). Definitely designed for the real Indian woman.
“What I wear is a message, I make it conscious.”
Based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, Upasana Design Studio subscribes to socially responsible design, with their philosophy ‘integral design’ is based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. Garment design and manufacturing is done differently when it comes to Upasana, with their conscious involvement in various projects where they try to push the notion of ‘design’ beyond just the product and instead contribute to the bigger picture in the world through their projects. Upasana represents India through its traditional Indian textiles in Auroville as well as several parts of the world, and the studio also creates a platform for other designers from across the globe to flourish creatively and learn about the ideals that Shri Aurobindo championed.
VII. Forty Red Bangles By Ramona Saboo
Forty Red Bangles is one of those organisations that recognises the raging potential of the spirit of collaboration. The brand name refers to the concept of marriage, and it weds – so to speak – ethnic couture with sustainable development to create beautiful, elegant designs that ‘find their roots in traditional organic sources’. A tale of four cities - Melbourne, Jodhpur, Mumbai and Singapore – it was founded in 2010, inspired by Ramona’s own forty red wedding bangles, a mark of her newly wed status. The four cities have each contributed to Ramona’s idea of ‘home’, another concept which she infuses creatively into her product line, which include organic women’s clothing and accessories, handcrafted jewellery, all-natural candles, up-cycled home-wares, organic kids wear and handmade toys as well as a range of apparel for men.
Each piece is ‘handcrafted and personality-filled and pays homage to the earth’ and the socially conscious company also partners with NGOs such as Gramshree, an organisation that is powered from the creative hands of women artisans from Gujarat and Sambhali trust, an innovative NGO that is helping Jodhpuri women weave their way to empowerment. They are also associated with Aura Herbal Textiles Ltd. that is involved in process of producing herbal textiles and dyes.
Anokhi is one of the oldest brands that has been creating and pushing forward organic fashion for over 40 years now. A master at block printing with vegetable colour dyes, Anokhi blends contemporary styles with striking graphics and colours against a backdrop of commitment to ethical morals. This is an organisation that has really made waves with their driving ideologies. They hone relationships with artists and extend support to enable them to work from their homes in Jaipur. With steely ideals of conservation and development, the company is one of the best examples of an alternative role model for ethical business practices, especially with regard to the revival of traditional textile skills.
Bhu:sattva has evolved from the ethics of non-violence, germinating from an idea to blend ethics and sustainability in the entire supply chain, ultimately ensuring a Fair Trade concept. The Gujarat-based organic clothing brand uses fabric with natural fibres as diverse as hemp and bamboo, organic cotton, silk and soya bean, to aloe vera, banana, jute and khadi. The colours they used are those found oozing out of beetroot, pomegranate, henna, catechu, teak tree leaves, turmeric, and indigo.
Evidently, Bhu:sattva is incredibly connected to the Earth and the core designing team and artisans started working together to create a wide variety of products, appealing to a diverse clientele. The techniques utilised by the team are a tip of the hat towards traditional skills employed by artisans through forms such as intricate hand embroidery, block printing and painting. Bhu:sattva is staunchly against fast fashion, as a part of which the livelihoods of the hands that create them are casualty to the throwaway prices they are sold at. Bhu:sattva enables the cultivation of organic cotton, which provide the farmers who grow it with the livelihood they rightfully deserve.
Ethicus has cotton trails criss crossing across Kabini Elephant Corridor and Annamalai Tiger Reserve, giving weavers from breathtaking lands the means to cultivate cotton the traditional way, without the abuse of pesticides and harmful chemicals. Vibrant saris, stoles, dupattas and other forms of womenwear are made from this cotton, with Ethicus using Apache Organic Cotton and Ahimsa Silk in interesting ways to create quality products. What’s more - the brand also educates farmers in sustainable techniques of growing high-quality cotton at large volumes through a program they conduct.
Ethicus’ products are crafted by skilled artisans reviving traditional jacquard techniques on handloom and using eco-friendly and natural dyes, all honed with the vision of international quality products made following eco-conscious policies and practices. Everyone from the farmer to the weaver to the businessman gets his due, as it should be.
XI. Mother Earth
Reaching out to over 20,000 women and more than 15,000 crochet artisans, 40% of Mother Earth’s products are made by self-help groups which have shares in the company in a co-operative model. Rich traditional textile techniques of artisans across India take centrestage with this brand that offers clothing, accessories, linens and home textiles that truly celebrate these practices. Store location are scattered over the country with Bangalore, Kolkata, Mysore and Mumbai already sporting Mother Earth stores, and with Indian retail group Futures Ventures already having picked up a majority stake in Mother Earth, an exciting future seems to be in the pipeline for this ethically sound fashion business.
XII. Krishna Mehta
Creative director of the brand, Krishna Mehta has cast her web wide, with over 30 stores nationally and 20 stores across Scandinavia. Undoubtedly one of the fastest growing designer brands in India, her products retain an international appeal which is what makes the brand really work. She is a staunch supporter of weavers from Manipur and believes, “If the designers don’t do it then how will the rest of the country know that something like Manipur handloom even exists, let alone how to buy or use it? We need to open up as it is a beautiful handloom sector. Or else, it will soon die.”
Krishna Mehta has also set up a block printing unit called PALAK (Palanpur Hastkala Pvt Ltd) in Gujarat, where differently-abled men and women are trained in specific skills related to hand printing, dyeing and embroidery. We think this is ingenious, as it not only provides them a means to become financially independent, they are also able to earn a livelihood closer home, eliminating the need to relocate in pursuit of a job.
A senior design faculty with a hefty 8 years under her belt, Shruti Sancheti launched her own fashion label in December 2009. Through her designs, it is evident that there is a marked awareness of the importance of Indian textiles and promoting Indian sensibilities. Exquisite design, an impeccable finish and immaculate detailing are trademarks of the products. The timeless appeal and elegance of Indian textiles manifest themselves in all their glory, and Shruti Sancheti has worked extensively towards reviving traditional cultural weaving practices. She has sourced directly from weavers of Vidarbha, worked with the Weaver’s centre in Nagpur (under Ministry of Textiles) and is currently working with INDRAYANI, Maharashtra State Handloom Board, to revive weaving in the region.
“Fashion is a religion, not just a profession.”
Born and brought up in Hyderabad, Mr. Shravan Kumar Ramaswamy is a fashionista with a difference. Not only does he have an unparalleled command on latest trends and styles, he donates a part of his earnings from the store to help get medical insurance and benefits to the local weavers who work long, arduous hours to generate fabric that is often used thanklessly by retailers. Mr. Shravan has showcased his work all over the world, but remains firmly focused in giving back to the source, in a commendable show of work ethic.
XV. Raw Mango
Handloom saris, despite being worn by a large number of women in India, have long been perceived as an avenue with no room for further experimentation and Raw Mango is here to change that. Adapting simple traditional designs to make them contemporary in a sophisticated way, they’re creating a new aesthetic that’s refreshingly modern and indigenous at the same time. Raw Mango was created out of a drive to reinterpret fashion and design without any preconceived notions. Besides quality product, Raw Mango is also about a larger program that has created a new value for an existing and often overlooked product, managing ultimately to uplift an entire community in the process.
XVI. Behno by Shivam Punjya
Brainchild of Shivam Punjya, behno is an advanced contemporary womenswear label designed in New York and exclusively produced in India. One of the newest initiatives on this list, it capitalises on the confluence point between ethical thinking and luxury design, and the brand was founded with the goal of addressing poverty and global health issues.
“If you had asked me a couple years ago if I ever saw myself working in fashion, I would have chuckled,” CEO Shivam Punjya says in an interview. “I wanted to work in the consulting space for developing economies. Everything for behno has fallen into place so serendipitously and organically!”
The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangaladesh was also a turning point for him in establishing the company. To produce garments in India in an ethical manner, behno has partnered with renowned non-profit and industrialist organisation MSA ethos to create an ethical garmenting factory in rural Gujarat, in an effort to destroy notions of ‘Made in India’ garments and fabric being inferior to those manufactured anywhere else in the world, once and for all. The label offers aesthetically minimal design pieces, and has Jason Paul McCarthy in charge of the creative direction, as well as Vogue’s fashion features director, Bandana Tewari, championing the cause of ethical fashion in its support.
The idea is to given women from less privileged backgrounds an opportunity to acquire new skills and venture into the industry to earn on their own terms, with their own initiative. In a classic and powerful case of giving back the rural artisans their true power, Okhai Handicrafts creates special handcrafted apparel and lifestyle products employing talent from across the country. Exquisite designs in styles unique to their traditional culture and heritage are paired with modern processes and style sensibilities of today, to boost the self-esteem and entrepreneurial drive of these women so they can ultimately earn a livelihood.
Constituting ladies’ wear, men’s wear, home décor products and accessories, Okhai products use mirror work, patchwork and embroidery to reflect the vibrancy of the rural ways of life, an ode to their history and their rituals. Set up by Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD), Okhai has supported several self-help groups in the villages of Okhamandal too, as a part of which members are trained in the processes of modern handicraft production. Currently 400 rural women have seen an upswing in quality of life thanks to the initiative, and the goal is to reach 5, 000 over the next three years. At the rate at which they’re going, we have full faith that they’ll outdo themselves in their commendable venture.
Feature Image Credit: Keegan Crasto