Indian Designer Alan Kaleekal Tells Us What It Takes To Build A Truly Sustainable Label  

Creating designs that go beyond the ideas of conventional and ‘pretty’, Kaleekal further developed his brand as a means to share his stories and ideas.
Creating designs that go beyond the ideas of conventional and ‘pretty’, Kaleekal further developed his brand as a means to share his stories and ideas.Kaleekal

Even before sustainability became the buzzword that it is today, there have been many designers whose focus and practice have been about its core tenants. Alan Alexander Kaleekal is a designer who debuted at Lakme Fashion Week in 2015 in the Gen Next Category. The Kerala origin designer rose to further fame, being part of the team that brought home the award for India as the best showcasing country at the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week that year. Creating designs that go beyond the ideas of conventional and ‘pretty’, Kaleekal further developed his brand as a means to share his stories and ideas in the years since. 

Deconstructing the accepted silhouettes and innovating with fabrics and techniques, Kaleekal’s design is something that he referred to as his attempt at pursuing perfection through imperfection. In a 2016 interview with Live Mint, he talked about the crux of his design philosophy stating, “Pretty for the sake of being pretty is not something I aspire for. Working with the idea of a naive interpretation of a contemporary wardrobe, the garments from each collection are undone, unpolished and slightly off, awkward even. Conventional garment details are rethought and purposefully misinterpreted. Repetitive at times, most of my work is an exercise in redundancy. I like the idea of pursuing perfection through imperfection.”

Creating Clothes That Last Beyond Fleeting Trends

Eight years since his debut, Kaleekal’s approach and aesthetics have evolved. Post-pandemic, much like society at large, his label has become more mindful not only in its approach to design and production but also in the way it engages with its audience and customers. While burnout culture has always been glamorized in fashion and the rise of social media has made it more prevalent, Kaleekal tries to step away from it all by not adhering to the demand of the industry to create products whose relevance is constantly fleeting. With luxury labels releasing 12-16 collections a year and fast fashion brands releasing a new collection every week, Kaleekal felt that in many ways contemporary fashion as we see and consume it currently, has lost the meaning, emotion or value attached to it. 

Speaking to Homegrown about his label, Kaleekal says "We try not to do seasonal collections that feed this continuous cycle of immediate visual gratification. Currently, each collection takes anywhere from 8 to 12 months and involves laborious research not just on the fabric and textile front but also on the pattern-making and cutting front. Slow fashion that is kind to humans and nature alike is perhaps the only way forward for us.”

Talking further, the sense of pressure that designers feel to be constantly online and to keep up with the short-lived internet news cycle is something that Kaleekal had a lot of feelings about. Living in a world of immediate consumption and continuous engagement forces us to constantly be looking for something new to buy. Kaleekal feels that there is palpable pressure that all creatives feel that they have to keep their customers constantly engaged and excited or else they will lose interest in their product and their voice will be lost among the innumerable competing players.

But the danger of this attitude is the rise in wastage and throw-away culture. According to Kaleekal, “Social media plays a large role in how we consume content and their algorithms do not let you exercise restraint, rather it encourages this short-lived cycle. When this pace is considered normal, it reduces the life and relevance of a particular product/design to mere days or weeks encouraging wastage and throwing away culture.” 

He goes on to discuss the need for people to understand how no consumer product is ever cheap. If it is, somebody along the supply chain is paying the price for it. In his words, “When you consider the human and environmental cost of fashion you realize that it is much more than the price tag of the item you purchase.” Kaleekal’s hope for the industry, in general, is that fashion becomes smart enough to make sense for future generations.

As sustainability gains mainstream attention, Kaleekal acknowledges the risk of greenwashing, where brands slap the label onto their products without genuine commitment. He emphasizes the need for a radical shift from linear to circular fashion models, where products are designed to be regenerative. With sustainability simply becoming a keyword that is slapped onto products, there is an immediate need to address the high production numbers and the rate of consumption in the market. Without these aspects being addressed, the current idea of sustainable fashion remains an oxymoron. 

He adds, “For supply to change, demand has to change with it; a radical shift is essential. That’s why the change from linear to circular models in fashion is necessary.” Kaleekal also mentioned the need for a ground-level shift in policy towards sustainability and how it can make a difference. France's anti-waste law, offering incentives for repairing and reusing clothing, serves as an example of progressive thinking in this direction.

Kaleekal’s Resolute Focus on Textile Research and Innovation 

While Kaleekal is working on new collections, the label has diversified into design projects that involve textiles, archival research and revival. They were recently commissioned by Malvika Singh, as part of her Sarees of Memory project to revive and recreate a traditional Kerala saree from a 150-year-old photograph of the Travancore Royal family. Earlier this year, Kaleekal had designed the costumes for a feature film as well. But most importantly, they are currently researching and working on new and innovative pattern-making techniques that involve minimal cutting in an attempt to be more circular. According to the designer, “The aim is to make garments that can be taken apart to be remade into something new. This would mean that if the seams of the garment are undone, one can get back the initial length of fabric intact and ready for reuse.”

But Kaleekal’s dedication to sustainability extends beyond his own brand. He was part of the groundbreaking Ramie Project, a collaboration with Didier Lecoanet and Hemant Sagar, in association with the Meghalaya government and the French Embassy in India. This initiative aims to cultivate the Ramie plant and develop it into a fibre with a zero carbon footprint. Ramie is a plant-based fabric with qualities similar to linen and silk, known for its antimicrobial properties. The first phase of the project involved developing limited quantities of the fabrics and creating designs with them. These designs were part of a 6-month long exhibition at La Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode museum in Calais, France. The project is currently in the research phase, following which the team hopes to produce the fabric on a larger scale and make it available for designers and creators across the country.

His recent designs under his eponymous label include those like ‘Blush Response’ and ‘Monolith’ that push creative boundaries. With regard to these designs, he talked about his approach towards fashion and how it has always been personal and esoteric. He said, “Every time I explore a theme or an inspiration, the primary aim has been to challenge ourselves into doing things we haven’t done before. In a way, I love creating things while at the edge of discomfort.”

This is reflected in his recent designs. ‘Blush Response’ explores the world of colour through garments saturated in a single shade - a brilliant Kurosawa red. Crafted from double-layered satin cotton developed in Kerala, the pieces of the collection are an attempt at visual hypersaturation and a step away from the brand’s usual focus on hues of black and white. ‘Monolith’ as a collection delves into innovative pattern-cutting techniques, creating sculptural silhouettes through folds and pleats. Since their first collection which debuted at Lakmé Fashion Week back in 2015, Kaleekal has been employing zero waste pattern cutting. However, this collection has less cutting and more manipulation where lengths of fabrics are folded in on each other to form new patterns and shapes around the body. In his words, “It almost works in the way traditional origami does and results in sculptural column-like silhouettes with pleated detailing.” Both of these designs are part of larger collections in progress, each requiring meticulous attention and time to develop due to their zero-waste patterns.

The Challenges of Building A Truly Sustainable Label 

Creating a niche homegrown brand with directional aesthetics and global is not without its challenges. Kaleekal's designs blend custom-made Indian fabrics with international silhouettes, challenging the traditional Indian fashion market. In his words, “As a brand, most of our collections involve monochromatic garments where proportions, cut and fabrics are the only decoration, with minimal to no surface embellishments. This is quite a shock to a market that is traditionally known for colours and embroideries. However, it is heartening to see that there is a consumer base in India that appreciates and understands what we do.”

Looking ahead, Kaleekal envisions fashion as a medium of art and expression rather than mere consumer products. He plans to create fashion films and explore innovative ways to showcase design. “My current focus is on research where we explore the scope of textiles, colours and proportions beyond the limitations of contemporary fashion. Eventually, I’d love to make our zero-waste patterns open source and accessible to everyone so that more people, especially younger designers, can benefit from our research and experiments.”

Kaleekal's resolute dedication towards pushing the boundaries of creativity, sustainability and innovation is something that the modern Indian fashion industry requires. True artistry in fashion has always been about innovation and experimentation, rather than conformity. In embracing the imperfect, the sustainable, and the thoughtfully crafted, labels like Kaleekal are paving their own path towards a more mindful future for the fashion and design industry.

You can follow Kaleekal here.

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