From opulence to sustainability, Indian fashion gets redesigned


  • A growing number of Indian fashion designers are exploring sustainability and eco-consciousness in their collections.
  • UN Environment estimates the fashion industry produces 20 percent of the global waste water and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. A shift to responsible fashion however, is expensive.
  • The benefits of high-end designers turning to sustainable fashion and traditions seem to trickle down to the weaving and associated communities with many reporting better health and higher income.

For as long as he remembers, Karnataka-based Rajshekhar Virupaxappa has been weaving and dyeing fabrics. The knowledge of yarns and dyes comes naturally to him. But nearly eight years ago, when his hands started burning and skin irritation, body ache and fever became frequent, he realised it was time to go back to the traditional, natural ways of his profession.

“I realised that the root cause of my bad health was overexposure to chemical dyes and polyester,” recalls the 40-year-old, fondly called Keludi in his village.

Around the same time, fashion designer Vaishali S. was exploring Karnataka for its once-revered handloom weave Khunn (pronounced as Khand) for her debut collection. Like Banarasi, Khunn is also a brocade weave dotted with small motifs and is light in weight. She eventually met weaver Virupaxappa in a non-descript village in Bagalkot district. While the rendezvous led to Vaishali rolling out a successful sustainable fashion collection, it gave Virupaxappa an opportunity to embrace natural weaves and dyes and thus, better health and income. Over the last few years, the master weaver is happier with his better health and earnings, while the fashion designer has grown her operations in India, the U.S. and parts of Europe.

“The world is changing. As weavers working with fashion designers we need to understand the trade, the people and the environment,” said Virupaxappa. “When I used to use chemicals, it was purely due to lack of knowledge and faster completion of work. But over the last few years, I realised, natural, sustainable way of fabric weaving may need more effort and time, but it has multiple benefits. As my health improved, I understood how a shift to sustainable fashion is also good for a greener world. If nature is giving us livelihood, we must make an effort to keep Mother Earth clean and green. Synthetic fibers and chemical dyes harm us, our families and our environment. Little efforts go a long way in protecting the environment,” said Virupaxappa, an arts graduate, adding that his income went up by nearly 30 percent after making the switch.

Luxury fashion goes green, goes back to tradition

Eco-conscious fashion is a growing trend among luxury designers in India. With more awareness about fashion waste and toxic dyes, designers are working with weavers to go back to traditions and using more natural practices in their clothing.

Though there is no specific data about India, the United Nations Environment estimates that worldwide, the “fashion industry produces 20 percent global waste water and 10 percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.”

Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned in the world, the U.N. body says, indicating how fast-fashion needs to give way to responsible fashion. To put things in context, India is one of the biggest textile consumption and export markets. The Indian textiles industry contributes two percent to the country’s GDP and gives employment to some 45 million people. It also contributed 15 percent to the export earnings of India in 2017-18, as per union commerce ministry data.

As the world is growing environmentally conscious and a sustainable lifestyle is the new indulgence, upwardly mobile Indians are gradually embracing ‘green’ fashion. The well-educated, well-travelled, conscious urban Indians, with high disposable income, are the target group for this fashion trend which demands a hefty investment.

For example, synthetic dyes, which are chemical compounds, are replaced with natural dyes that are obtained from plants (leaves, barks, roots, fruits and rind), animals (urine and secretions) and minerals. Pomegranate rind, for instance, gives a golden yellow colour, Prussian blue is extracted from indigo leaves and powdered turquoise gemstones are used for making turquoise colour. These are toxin-free and less water consuming, but around 400 percent more expensive than the chemical options, informed Virupaxappa, which is one of the reasons for the higher price the designers charge from customers.

From adopting zero-waste philosophy, to reviving ancient hand-weaving and embroidery techniques (considered more environment-friendly), rolling out separate labels and brands dedicated to environment conservation – a growing number of Indian designers are debunking the myth that sustainable fashion is unglamorous and churning out chic ‘green fashion’ lines.

Some call it a clever business strategy; others contribute it to the growing environment consciousness among both high-end fashion creators and buyers. Designers like Paromita Banerjee, Anita Dongre and Gautam Gupta’s entire design philosophy draws from sustainability, while Vaishali is on a mission to revive forgotten Indian weaves. Veterans like Rohit Bal, Ritu Kumar, Ritu Beri and Puja Arya are gung-ho about sustainable fashion in work, words and at symposiums. Similarly, designer Aneeth Arora has launched two new labels – Pero Recycle and Pero Upcycle – to contribute to environment conservation.

“If we do not start embracing sustainable fashion now the future will be grim,” said Gupta, sitting inside his factory in Shahpur Jat, an urban village in Delhi, as his staff kept chugging the sewing machine to upcycle a sari while another staffer used leftover fabric to create applique. “Fast fashion is like fast food — quick, appealing but unhealthy for both the body and environment,” said Gupta, whose designer clothing ranges from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 300,000.

Designer Gautam Gupta working on upcycling a saree in his factory in Shahpur Jat, Delhi. Photo by Shweta Thakur Nanda.

The nearly two-decade-old label has a zero waste and zero advertising philosophy. “We use only handspun natural fabrics and dyes. And the leftover fabrics are used to make buttons, tassels and potlis (bags) and in applique work to adorn the outfits. We solely depend on word-of-mouth for advertising as all our revenue meant for publicity is used for paying our craftsmen better,” said Gupta. He claims that his sustainable fashion philosophy allows him to pay a 25 percent wage premium to his weavers.

Making sustainability and tradition a part of high-end fashion, seems to have a trickle-down effect on the weaving and associated communities too. To ensure the well-being of the weaving community she works with, designer Vaishali, who collaborates with about 900 weaver families across India, claims that her world of work revolves around these 900 families and she is always in touch with them for both business and personal reasons.

“Often the natural fabrics these weavers make are not needed immediately, but I still buy it to use them later,” she says over phone from New York, where her collection was on display. As a mark of community sentiment and better commitment to sustainable business ethos, Vaishali roped in Khunn women weavers for a fashion collection photo shoot, leaving aside professional models.

Her clothing line begins from Rs. 12,000 and as the intricacy of work, the time invested and exclusivity increases, the price can go up to a few hundred thousand. The designer says she allows her weavers to have a fair say in deciding pricing of fabrics and often spends days to educate them about new techniques and trends.

While organic cotton is used by many for manufacturing sustainable collections, some designers are working with more sustainable alternatives to reduce water usage. “We work with other natural fabrics made from banana, bamboo, coffee beans, and natural silks,” said Gupta.

Designer Vaishali S. roped in women weavers for a fashion collection photo shoot, leaving aside professional models. Photo courtesy Vaishali S.

Kolkata-based designer Paromita Banerjee uses Kala cotton. Indigenous to the Kutch region in Gujarat, this is a rain-fed crop that is by default organic due to its high tolerance for both diseases and pests. Kala cotton is coarse but instead of using chemical solutions for treatment, she uses traditional methods to soften the yarn.

“For instance, we use the age-old hand beating technique to make the yarn soft, do a meshy weave, and wash it with reetha (soapberry) and cow dung during post-production,” explained Banerjee, who uses only natural fabrics like such as Khadi, Jamdani and Ikat for her lines is working towards reviving old handprinting techniques like Ajrakh.

“I like doing things in a slow pace using old ways because it is sustainable and in high demand,” said the designer whose outfits start from Rs. 25,000 onwards, the price of the intensive effort and time that has gone into each piece.

And then are brands going the extra mile in ensuring sustainability in their business practices as well. Fashion label No Nasties makes clothes out of organic cotton and says it practices fair trade including in wages, better working conditions, sourcing of raw material and does not use animals or animal products in manufacturing. Fashion brand Ba No Batwo uses scraps like textile waste, discarded plastic, glass and wooden packaging material to create designer wear, accessories and home décor. Ba No Batwo owner Gargi Parmar says her company has no concept of visiting cards or printed invoices to reduce waste.

While weavers and designers are gradually shifting to sustainable fashion, what aids their shift the most is demand by conscious consumers. The upwardly mobile Indians and a segment of environmentally conscious people are pushing up sales. “In last couple of years, we have observed more than 25 percent growth in sales for our sustainable fashion products,” says designer Gupta and adds that he gets at least 15 upcyling requests every month, considered a good number in fashion fraternity.

Designer Banerjee says it’s not just affluent Indians, even young college students have started switching to sustainable products especially those made from scraps as their price points are relatively low. “A designer product with a lower price point and desire to be eco-friendly is spiking sales”. Banerjee has created a special line for college goers including tote bags, notebooks and accessories sold between Rs. 600 and Rs. 1200.

“When I buy sustainable fashion, I know I am making a responsible choice,” said Shampa Roy, a professor of Delhi University who uses mostly handloom clothing. She says the choices are now plenty, carbon footprint is low and the modern twist to our traditional weaves and cuts that designers are offering are too good to ignore.

The economics of sustainable luxury clothing

While there is still a common notion that luxury is about extravagance, off late there is growing trend and acceptance that conscious fashion is more luxurious. “Many connect luxury clothing with newness, high price and opulence. A segment of designers and customers consider rarity, exclusivity and eco clothing defines luxury,” says Nikita Arya, who organises multi-brand fashion exhibitions across India. “As old techniques are dying, owning them is itself a luxury. This shift in mindset of customers is also aiding sustainable fashion.”

Arya says while a segment of sustainable fashion is gaining traction among people in their late twenties, the responsible fashion is more consumed by customers in their mid-30 to late 40s. The reason could be manifold including greater environment awareness, stable profession and better income. Growth is catching up and is largely driven by customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth publicity, says Arya, underlining how the number of designers and manufacturers exhibiting eco-clothing has jumped by 50 percent in last three years.

Most designers, however, say as compared to regular clothes, creating sustainable fashion is a tedious, capital intensive, and time-consuming – which in turn impacts their profit margin. “The production cost of sustainable garments is two times more than regular clothing, which in turn affects our bottom line,” says designer Shweta Deliwala of No Nasties.

Upcycled denims by sustainable brand Pero which creates customised clothing pieces. Photo courtesy Pero.

The basis of sustainability is the triple bottom line approach which encompasses economic, social and environmental components. Sustainable businesses were earlier considered an optional activity but consumer consciousness has made it a serious business opportunity, says Rishi Raj Sharma, a management professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab who has researched on sustainable development in business practices.

“There is a need to radically scrutinise our actions and reasons for limitless consumption. Else the consequence may far exceed our imagination. Your current action will have a bearing on future generation,” Sharma asserted.


Banner image: A growing number of high-end fashion designers are turning to environment friendly fabrics and practices in their work. Photo courtesy Vaishali S.

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