Two things are happening simultaneously across India’s fashion landscape. Global fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara continue to capture market share (with stores mushrooming in the country’s metros), against the backdrop of the slow but steady rise of independent, ethical fashion labels. Whether it’s an enterprise that’s using banana fibre to make jeans, an indie label (The Summer House) that’s turning the plastic in our oceans into swimwear, brands that are upcycling textiles for the runway or ones that are creating cruelty-free leather products, Indian designers are shouldering the responsibility of making fashion sustainable together. The world’s most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil, fell from grace when news of the devastating Rana Plaza disaster broke. Since that fateful day in 2013, the hits just kept coming.
Founder of US-based non-profit Remake (that aims to start a ‘conscious consumer movement’), Ayesha Barenblat answers the question “Why is fast fashion a bad thing?” in clear, succinct bullet points on a Quora thread that’s definitely worth a read. A revolution has been in the making for a long time and, in India, the conversation around the need for sustainable fashion has finally come into the mainstream. In addition to the emergence of mindful design houses, brands and labels, and a new generation of conscious consumers, the Lakme Fashion Week has been dedicating a day to the celebration and showcase of slow fashion during its annual five day-long event. This year, Sustainable Fashion Day was a remarkable display of how North East India is catalyzing sustainable fashion in collaboration with United Nations, India. Titled #NORTHEASTMOJO, the show presented five designers who spun local craft traditions into stunning sartorial creations, along with the proficient artisans of these crafts. Despite having a rich textile heritage, this was perhaps the first time that the usually under-represented Seven Sister States were put exclusively on the national fashion radar.
So, we decided to dig deeper to truly understand the aesthetics and ethics that drive these brands away from both high-street fashion and traditional haute couture.
What we discovered was that not only are they committed to being completely eco-friendly by using 100% natural fabrics and minimising their waste output, but they all also hero indigenous weavers and techniques. Many of these labels have taken their state’s handlooms to international runways, turning the spotlight on India’s massive pool of artisanal talent. When people begin to realise the human stories behind these textile traditions, it inevitably initiates conversations and collaborations between designers, artists and artisans, with an aim to keep these dying crafts alive. Could this be key for the Indian slow-fashion movement? A return to our upcycling ways, the preservation of largely sustainable craft and textile traditions and a keen focus on generating sustainable employment for the makers, the guardians of these ancient traditions.
These six conscientious designers from the North-East definitely think so.
I. Daniel Syiem Ethnic Fashion House (DSEFH), Meghalaya
The brainchild of Daniel Syiem, this label from Shillong stresses on high quality, rare fabrics, classic styles and mindful consumption. Primarily using fabrics like Ryndia (a heritage textile that is hand-woven by the local weavers of Meghalaya), the fashion house aims at preserving the endangered hand-weaving traditions of North East India’s native tribes. To revive these ancient textiles, DSEFH innovates at the yarn stage to create beautiful patterns, designs and vegetable dyes, while simultaneously generating employment for local artisans. Their production ethics include natural processes, mindful use of resources, recycling and minimal wastage. So far as its distinct aesthetic identity goes, the label lends itself to minimalism, clean lines, drapes and unique profiles made in western silhouettes. Having showcased their incredible designs in the the fashion meccas of the world – London and New York – DSEFH is a brand that proves that slow fashion can thrive without compromising on style.
II. Kuzu, Sikkim
Designed in Sikkim and manufactured in various parts of India, Kuzu creates sustainable clothing and home textiles by working in harmony with nature, and in collaboration with various artisans from the marginal communities of the Himalayan range. In an interview with The Hindu, Karma Sonam (founder of Kuzu), said that as the weavers mostly consisted of trained village women many of them can’t leave home. So the Gangtok-based brand provides training and equipment so that they can work from home. Kuzu, that uses warm colours and design elements inspired by the bountiful flora and fauna of Sikkim, is made in yarns that are 100% natural and eco-friendly. At present their collection includes Eri silk scarves with delicate and intricate hand embroidery along with brocade bomber jackets. Sonam, who is also one of the co-founders of Echostream, initially worked in Mumbai and Delhi before returning to Sikkim to promote indigenous textiles, has moulded Kuzu into a socially and ecologically conscientious design label.
Designer Jenjum Gadi, one of the stars of Lakme Fashion Week, returned to the ramp this year, after nearly a decade, in collaboration with Sonnie Kath from the Dimapur-based Exotic Echo Society. With the goal of creating sustainable employment for the rural poor, Kath began the organisation in 2008, primarily working with Loin loom weavers (who are usually women), to create home furnishings, accessories, shawls and beaded jewellery. Gadi has used the same loom (which is cotton with natural dyes), and conceptualised a striking, unisex look for LFW–-inspired by nature, tribal patterns and weaves. Feminine skirts with surface embellishments, vertical striped coats, fluid pants, knee length hoodies and frayed edge shirts – eclectic and comfortable all at the same time – were all part of the desinger’s summer collection.
IV. Khumanthem, Manipur
For Richana Khumanthem, her brand endeavours to bring the textiles of Northeast India, and Manipur in particular, to the attention of the national and international fashion industry. She believes that this can be achieved only by bridging the gap between the local artisans and the consumers, and so indigenous handlooms and handicrafts are the backbone of her luxury brand. Imphal-based Khumanthem strives to form a long-lasting relationship with their customers, by not only crafting high-quality, unique, statement pieces but also cherishing and sharing the story behind each handloom creation. In true slow fashion-style Khumanthem strives to contextualise and highlight the intrinsic value of their designs in the new world’s commercially driven markets.
V. Tilla, Tripura
Based in Ahmedabad, Tilla is a fashion and interior design studio inspired by its designer Aratrik Dev Varman’s home in Tripura. At the core, Tilla’s values stem from the handmade and self-reliant nature of village crafts and their ability to adapt in infinite, creative ways. Varman uses hand woven Indian textiles like khadi, jamdani and kanjeevaram to create clothing that is wearable, elegant and fuss-free. With an identity that’s rooted in adding contemporary twists to age-old heritage crafts, the aesthetic is evocative of serenity in an over-fraught fashion industry.
VI. Sanskar, Assam
Dominated by the use of recycled vintage fabrics and indigenous silks, Sanskar is an ethical fashion label created by Sonam Dubal. The designer who is originally from Assam, told the Indian Express that, “The craftsmanship of the region is an ecological treasure that needs to be highlighted and preserved. I’ve committed myself to this cause.” Now completely aligned with the sustainable fashion movement, he works on Indo-Asian silhouettes made in vibrant, native fabrics. His latest collection, that celebrates the textiles of Assam, uses Eri silk, also known as Ahimsa silk. “It has the incredible property of keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter,” says Dubal in the same interview with the Indian Express. Stepping away from the practice of tokenism, Dubal believes that larger dialogues about the preservation of India’s artisanal traditions will give them (and the craftsmen) international acclaim.
Feature Image Courtesy: Khumanthem and Jenjum Gadi.
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