(Credit: Akaaro)

The ethical Indian designers determined to make a difference

How can the retail industry be fairer for the craftspeople that work in it? Phyllida Jay meets some of the artisans and designers bringing social change.

Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for independence made wearing khadi (hand spun and hand woven cloth) in India central to recovering the nation’s identity, and a vivid symbol of a whole social philosophy.

Now, in India today, a number of entrepreneurs, retailers and designers are using fashion and garments as a means through which they hope to bring about social change.

India’s consumer market for fast fashion is growing at an exponential rate. But a 2016 Goldman Sachs report illustrated the extreme disparity that characterises India’s development, with only a relatively small minority of its 1.2 billion people benefitting directly from economic growth.

Some retailers, designers, charitable organisations and companies are working hard to put the benefits and the power that comes with economic growth back into the hands of craftsmen.

Looming developments

Mudassir Ansari is a 20-year-old weaver from Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh. He recently completed a four-month course with the Handloom School, a pioneering initiative by WomenWeave, an NGO founded by Sally Holkar in 2002.

The skill of handlooming is treasured in India, but unfortunately the industry has become less revered, and known for trapping craftsmen into a cycle of low income, low literacy and undignified working conditions.

More than 4 million people are employed today in India’s handloom-weaving sector, yet there are very few educational institutions that guide and train traditional weavers for today’s new business needs. The Handloom School was founded to allow young weavers to become skilled in their craft and value its heritage, while also gaining a more expansive education and exposure to markets for textiles. Its curriculum includes design, languages, technology, business and sustainability.

The Handloom School’s ethos might be Gandhian but the focus is decidedly high-end fashion, Ansari says. The opportunity lies in developing market-savvy designs and sourcing new, upmarket clients. I feel only that can make weaving work for small scale weavers.”

Getting first-hand experience of the apparel business, the other side of the table for a weaver, was eye opening

Like any millennial, Ansari hopes to be able to build a career that feels vocational and provides a decent living. He is passionate about weaving and wouldn't choose to do anything else.

Ansari’s course at the Handloom School included a short internship in Delhi with Good Earth, a small retail chain that stands as a benchmark for contemporary craft-based luxury. It was his first visit to the capital. “Getting first-hand experience of the apparel business, the other side of the table for a weaver, was eye opening,”he says, adding that it helped him to develop a keen eye for orders and double his monthly income.

Thirty-five-year-old Delhi-based designer Gaurav Jai Gupta has worked closely with the Handloom School. He believes contemporary design is key in firming up the future for India's rich heritage of textiles. He’s renowned for his innovation with handloom. "I like combinations like merino wool and stainless steel. Last season we also made metallic saris.”

Rahul Mishra is also taking Gandhian philosophy to couture design. The 37-year-old designer uses intricate embroidery in tessellated patterns often inspired by Islamic architecture and chintz.

“I didn't agree with the way embroidery was being practiced in India,” he says. “Most of the embroiderers are Muslim men, mostly from areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. They’re pressured to migrate from their hometown villages into big city landscapes where they live in slum areas in bad conditions.”

“We explored the idea of reverse migration. Now we have more than 80 per cent of hand-embroidery production in small village centres we created by reverse-migrating slum dwellers. Migrant embroiderers are now reunited with their families and enjoy good working conditions.”

  I didn't agree with the way embroidery was being practiced in India

With craft the second largest employer in India after agriculture, the livelihoods of India’s weavers and craft workers remains a key issue, often dominating sustainable and ethical fashion agendas.

One of the most successful businesses keeping craftsmanship as its core driving force is retail behemoth Fabindia, popular with affluent urban consumers. Founded in the 1960s on Gandhian principles, it has expanded from just one store in the 1970s, to more than 250 today. Fabindia works with 55,000 Indian artisans, employing their skills of hand weaving, dyeing and embroidery. It connects rural producers with modern urban markets, fostering sustainable employment for skilled rural workers, and preserving traditional design in the process. The company also runs a co-educational private school in Bali, Rajasthan, with more than 50 per cent female enrolment.

Organic change

Fabindia is also one of the many Indian companies starting to embrace the trend for using organic products. The natural, chemical free process of producing cotton organically is thought to reduce soil and water pollution, while promoting biodiversity and more sustainable farming practices.

Twenty-seven-year-old Bangalore-based software development engineer Manisha Roy wears an organic sari by Chennai based Ethicus at least once a week to work. “I like the fact it's handwoven but also organic,” she says. “I want to do my bit for the farmers as well as the weavers and of course the environment.”

Manni Chinnaswamy founded Appachi cotton in 1996 when he decided to transform the 60-year-old family cotton-mill business into a fully organic operation, working with farmers in the fringes of the National Forest in the Kabini region of Karnataka. Appachi’s retail arm Ethicus sells around 6000 saris annually to an age range spanning 20 to 70. In August 2017 Ethicus showed at Lakme Fashion Week’s Sustainable Textiles Day in Mumbai. The catwalk models draped in Ethicus saris, sashayed around mounds of raw cotton, driving home Appachi’s motto of “farm to fashion.”

Organic cotton sells most successfully as baby clothing, evident in retail giant Mahindra’s e-commerce platform First Cry and its organic swaddling cloths. These represent new ways of building on traditional practices of wrapping new-born babies in hand spun khadi, and  the idea that cloth must be ’pure’ is key.

But not everyone in India is embracing the trend so warmly.  Arvind Agriculture is one of the largest producers of certified organic cotton in India, encompassing more than 40,000 acres of farmland and 6,000 farmers. Arvind’s Head of Sustainability Abhishek Bansal says: “Only five per cent of the products made out of this sustainable cotton are sold domestically.” Similarly, although Fabindia has a successful organic food range, the company’s head of communications Prableen Sabhaney says organic cotton clothing “has only been a very small part of the children’s range.”

Waste not, want not

Another pressing issue in India is waste.

Combatoire-based Urmi Weave creates practical totes and messenger bags made from household-waste plastic which is often found choking India’s streets and rivers. Urmi Weave is building relationships with local Kabadiwalas (scrap collectors) to turn trash into treasure by melting plastic waste into material for weaving, using patterns with names like Shiva Eye and Flower Bud traditionally used to make local Koodai bags.

Founder Kavitha Chandran connects sustainability to social impact, providing employment to local women weavers. Collaborations with Behno and Manish Arora have seen the bags grace New York boutiques and Paris Fashion Week.

Although high-end designers are only a small part of India’s vast fashion market, by rooting waste in aspirational fashion and luxury, they can slowly shift perceptions. Couture designer Amit Agarwal’s diffusion line AM.IT, reimagines waste materials, whether metal, plastic or old saris, as ethereal designer pieces. "I love to hunt for things and I derive an enormous pleasure from finding beauty in things that no one else values,” Agarwal says. “I like working hard to get something, it’s an Indian middle-class mentality perhaps!”

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