Madhu Jain

Seed to Stitch: Sustainability in Indian Fashion

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Indian ready-to-wear is riding the wave of sustainability that is replacing flamboyance with sense and sensibility


Last year, handlooms witnessed a great revival both on and off ramps and became a major talking point in the Indian fashion industry. The government’s efforts to make Benarasi weaves the fabric of the year contributed to a growing consciousness too. Ecological practices have been steering the fashion industry towards a greener environment. And while one-off initiatives are a boost, there are some designers who are shaking things up at the very core by opting for the sustainable route right at the onset of their careers, tirelessly narrowing the gap between grassroots and glamour.

Determined trendsetters

11.11 Eleven/Eleven

Designers Mia Morikawa and Shani Himanshu of 11.11 / eleven eleven — the pret label of CellDSGN Pvt Ltd — have consolidated the roots of their brand in the luxury space with an organic method. Their seed-to-stitch approach towards making garments generates human capital, with zero use of machinery and electricity, resulting in the lowest production of industrial waste. “Since the launch of our 100 per cent handmade line in 2013, we’ve been guided by desire to create consciously,” says Morikawa. The brand is now synonymous with khadi denims where the hand-spun denim is made from 100 per cent khadi cotton and is dyed in natural indigo. The kala cotton used is 100 per cent native organic cotton, the production of which is an environmentally conscious process and a viable alternative to agricultural practices that require irrigation and chemicals. This season, they have revisited bandhani, clamp-dyeing and block printing as embellishment techniques while continuing with their ever evolving signature hand-painted aesthetic.

While Morikawa and Himanshu work together to add value to traditions, designer Rina Singh of Eka singlehandedly nurtures her brand by working with handloom clusters around West Bengal. “We have a long-standing relationship with the weavers and provide employment to almost all the families that work with us throughout the year. Supporting them adds sustainability to my business,” says Singh. She does not work with a whole lot of traditional textiles and weaves, but tries to modernise the methods and bring a new flavour to the looms. The fabrics she employs are natural yarns and blends of wool, silk, linen and khadi cotton. “I never buy off the rack, all the fabrics for any given season are worked on at the looms by us,” she adds. Anavila Misra of Anavila, applauded for her immaculate sari drapes just as much as for her saris, is all about fuss-free apparels. She uses fabrics like linen, organic cotton, cotton linen, silk and wool, and jamdani, khatwa, and hand-block prints.


The up-and-coming designer Priyanka Ella Lorena Lama, of P.E.L.L.A, who recently showcased a capsule collection at the HUL Green Wardrobe Week with Lakmé Fashion Week, used indigenous pure eri, aka ahimsa silk, and its yarn waste, noil fibre. For her recent summer resort collection, Maitake, showcased at Lakmé Fashion Week, she also incorporated reclaimed wood work by budding artist Mayank Saini. “The wood is retrieved from packaging used for shipping containers, giving it a new life. It is not about reusing; it is about not creating any further waste,” says Lama. The exotic mixture of lightweight handwoven pure ahimsa silk, cashmere and pashmina is what she usually plays with each season. “Each thaan (fabric roll) is different and some have inherent impressions on the fabric. We consider them to be the impressions of beauty of the human weaving it,” she says. Not only the fabrics and techniques, but the NIFT graduate also incorporates zero-waste principles in pattern-making itself. “Every design includes minimum measurement and sewing but is painstakingly hand-rolled and hemmed, which is invisible to the naked eye. Each garment is made from a single block of fabric with no zippers or buttons for fastening, save for a sash which holds at the waist,” says the young designer.

Craft revivalist and textile conservationist, designer Madhu Jain has been instrumental in introducing bamboo fibre, an alternative textile, in 2004. “Textiles made of bamboo yarn are ideally suited for hot Indian summers because of their breathability and anti-bacterial properties. They are naturally UV-protective and biodegradable. I don’t use factory-produced fabrics, though there are some great innovations out there. Each textile is rendered differently and has its own unique production technique.

For instance, the Srikalahasti kalamkari that I specialise in uses organic raw materials such as indigo, iron rust, cow’s milk and katha (catechu). I have just experimented with it in a khadi version which has proved to be a highly successful line,” says the veteran.

Slow fashion
While high-street chains pour with fresh and affordable designs every week, with supplies exceeding demands, sustainable fashion faces many challenges. “The Indian handlooms sector is in desperate need of a boost. With markets leaning towards synthetic, man-made textiles, weavers are turning away from old traditions and migrating in search of jobs,” adds Jain, who is currently supporting 300 weavers. “When you make things with hands and add details manually, you add cost at every step,” says Misra. “We have to partner with retailers and other organisations that understand the what, why and how. Infinite patience and pure passion is necessary to take the slow route,” adds Morikawa. Singh too agrees that it is a slow process but the results boast longevity and she contends that her designs transcend age, race and cultural barriers. “The boutiques I work with across the world are wholehearted supporters of this fashion movement that we endorse. Also, these relationships are not fickle. The challenges in real time would be the weather conditions, the floods that stop the weavers from being back on the loom unexpectedly…the rains that hinder the process of beating the wood used to make the printing blocks…the harsh summers that make the yarns crisp, causing them to break at every odd warp. But we’ve learnt to overcome these setbacks. Sometimes I do feel that our signature style creates limitations for us in terms of our entire product portfolio. But then that’s that! Not everyone gets this language. We might have a less number of buyers who would like to invest in a piece of handmade clothing sans embellishment and frills, but with the growing ecological awareness, that number is growing too,” she says.

Contemporary identity
When asked at which point in time the whole sustainable shift began in the country, Singh explains that the movement started when veteran designers such as Rajesh Pratap Singh, Abraham and Thakore, Ritu Kumar and Rohit Bal put sustainability of crafts at the forefront of their brand philosophies. “They worked extensively with artisans and craftspeople across India and with the best available natural textiles. The only difference between then and now is that no one used it in their marketing strategy. Today it has become a design language which for me is a more contemporary take on traditional textiles,” says the designer.

As much as there is a shift towards all things bygone and indigenous, there’s also a change in the mood. Clothes have become a lot simpler in form, function and appearance. There’s a growing love for earthy, subtle hues as well as light and comfortable fabrics. The results of going natural have been refreshing as people are now more attracted towards ease and utility rather than trends. The connection between sustainable fashion, comfortable silhouettes and minimal adornment is getting stronger every season. “I prefer zero ornamentation because I feel that the textile that is so laboriously crafted is corrupted by adding five more elements to it. The whole idea is to bring attention to the painstakingly woven fabric, its feel and its fall. Heavy embellishments cannot be sewn on handmade materials and the functional aspect of the garment is maintained only by not machining the textile heavily,” says Singh.

There is a wave of change in the Indian fashion industry, and the most impactful one the industry has seen in years. As awareness is gaining momentum, more and more designers are using India’s sartorial traditions to make their designs super covetable and cool. So be it Rahul Mishra’s Gandhian philosophy, Aneeth Arora’s Kutch-inspired designs on Chanderi and Maheshwari dresses, Suket Dhir’s androgynous silhouettes in fine mulmul, wool and bamboo or Anita Dongre’s Grassroot, to name a few, the synergy between fashion savants and weavers and artisans is empowering the nation. As individuality takes the lead, a new consumer has emerged, one who’s willing to blur the lines between ancient and au courant by passionately proclaiming that we are what we wear.

*This story first appeared on Verve

8 Elegant Ensembles for the Eco Warrior

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Verve showcases a selection of thoughtful looks that are shaping the sensibilities of sustainable fashion today


Red and black tunic, from Sartorial…for working exclusively with pure vegetable dyes. Madder root was used to obtain the red colour, lime-resist kiryana for the splash of black, and indigo dye for the blue. The pure handloom silk was attained from weavers in Bengaluru, and the buttons from scrap indigo fabric.

Ikat black kurta, grey churidar, both by Madhu Jain…for promoting indigenous forms of textile weaving and design, and giving a boost to ikat in the Indian market. The entire Uzbek-inspired collection was created by merging Indian ikat with that from Uzbekistan, to create a new weave that incorporates the sensibilities of both regions.

Gypsy loafers, from Gush…for encouraging the slowly dying skill of footwear karigari. The heel of the shoes has been hand-carved by skilled artisans, who use lightweight waste wood and minimal to almost no machinery, to make sure they get the fit, shape and slope right. The tassels and embroidery are also done by hand. In spite of being a time-consuming process, the brand believes in manual handcrafting to ensure quality over quantity.

Yellow flared tunic, from Kalki Design Studio…for creating home-grown natural dyes, developed from plants or flowers grown in the studio’s backyard. The yellow colour was developed from myrobalan or kadukkai flower and the red from myrobalan, alum and madder. A botanist helps to find sources from which to obtain the desired colour.

Khadi layered dress (worn as jacket), from Crow…for creating a contemporary khadi-only collection that uses no dyes. The fabric was intentionally left unbleached so as to retain the rawness of the material, which is completely handcrafted. Use of the charkha reduces the consumption of electricity by machines. The leftover fabric is also used to make shopping bags or passed on to the artisans to make pillow covers.

Rabari throw (worn as skirt inside), from Aish…for choosing to work with handloom and handwoven fabrics for every collection, thereby supporting the crafts communities and weavers throughout the year.The label believes in creating collections that are classic and not limited to a particular season. This scarf is made from handloom Bengal cotton, with hand embroidery and mirror-work from artisans in Kutch.

Ikat clutch, from Sonica Kapur Design…for training nearly extinct artisan communities in design and production skills necessary for them to survive in the international marketplace. Ikat motifs are made by weavers in the villages of Pochampally in Andhra Pradesh where weaving is a generational skill; women prepare the yarn, men execute the weaving and the elders are involved in simpler tasks like yarn spinning on the charkha. This accessory combines traditional ikat motif with chrome-free leather that has been processed in wet white tanneries using chemical-free processes.

Beige anti-fit tunic, from Bias…for adopting slow fashion which concentrates on the quality and longevity of the garment. Made from handloom cotton khadi, sourced from Khadi Gram Udyog in New Delhi, the fabrics used to make this trend-free collection are 100 per cent biodegradable. The fabric can be spun again into fibres
at the end of the garment’s life.

Khadi and kala cotton jumpsuit, from 11.11 / eleven eleven…for creating links between farmers, weavers, vegetable dyeing and block printing traditions, while consolidating roots in the luxury space. Kala cotton is one of the purest and oldest forms of non-genetically modified cotton.

Beryl blue scarf, from No Nasties…for being a 100 per cent organic and fair-trade brand. The scarf has been made in a sustainable factory certified by SA8000, using completely organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and 100 per cent fair-trade cotton certified by Fairtrade India. In addition, factory offcuts from excess fabric were used to guarantee zero wastage.

Neck-piece made with natural materials like jute, shell and bone beads, by Jamini Ahluwalia.

Striped shirt, by Anita Dongre, for Grassroot…for collaborating with a network of trusted NGOs to provide a life of dignity and economic independence to artisans. The collection was made with 100 per cent cotton voile that was handwoven by women weavers belonging to SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association )Trade Facilitation Centre, with a view to provide a platform to showcase their craftsmanship.

Cotton silk double border sari, by Suchismita Dasgupta, for Nextiles…for providing a platform to any art and textile professional, who works with the vision of developing and promoting Indian textiles. A contemporary version of the Pachhapaar sari, this was especially handwoven by the weavers in Nadia, a district in West Bengal. The brand focuses on liaising with the weavers directly without involving middlemen.

Ikat jacket, from Sonica Kapur Design.

Foot accessory made from scrap fabrics woven together with a jute thread, by Paromita Banerjee.

Natural biodegradable linen pants, from Eka…for constantly working with handloom clusters, thereby helping families over generations, and for comfortably opting to not be in the mainstream market while offering a brand that supports an alternate fashion movement. The brand never uses fabrics that are off the rack. Instead, it has developed a strategy which works months in advance to deliver end results, choosing not to be threatened by the world of fast fashion.

Hand accessory made from scrap fabrics woven together with a jute thread, by Paromita Banerjee.

Merino wool and silk top, from Akaaro…for drawing attention to handlooms on a global scale. Akaaro is one of the first brands to weave their own fabric, a pioneering idea that quickly gained momentum in the industry. The top has been handwoven together with fabrics that are created in designer Gaurav Jai Gupta’s own weaving studio in Gurgaon.

Blue tunic (worn inside), off-white tunic with pleat detail, both by Vibhuti Behl, for Roha…for consciously creating a collection made from kala cotton, khadi sourced exclusively from Khamir, and naturally-dyed Ajrakh prints from Kutch. Since its inception, the label has been associated with Khamir, an organisation that works to strengthen and promote the rich artisanal traditions of the Kutch district.

Woollen bag, from Péro…for modernising the idea of upcycling in every collection. The bag is made from wool waste from the previous seasons, where the wool is cut into knit panels equivalent to the size of the bag, in order to avoid the accumulation of further scrap.

Maroon organic cotton dress, from Upasana…for creating the local organic brand Paruthi to support India’s organic farming community. Upasana has been working with the organic cotton farmers as part of the Kapas project. Paruthi in Tamil means ‘cotton’. It is the result of a sustainable business collaborative that is striving to protect and promote the fragile cotton communities of Tamil Nadu.

Wide-legged kalidar pant, by Paromita Banerjee…for emphasising the feel of ‘handmade’ and catering to global aesthetics with a local approach rooted in the handloom culture. Made from Malkha khadi with a kalidar detail of kalamkari block print, the weaving of this khadi skips the spinning mills with the yarn coming directly to the weaver right from the primary producers, the farmers. Kalamkari as a technique follows a natural process of printing which is beneficial to the village industry.

Black-and-white top, made with 100 per cent organic cotton; mirror-work jacket, made from 100 per cent handloom Khamir cotton and handloom Bengal silk lining, with manual mirror work done by a cluster of craftswomen in Gujarat. Both from Aish.


Tucked away in the industrial neighbourhood of Byculla in Mumbai, the property, designed by Studio Mumbai Architects, was the ideal setting for the eco-conscious premise of this feature. Located in a former tobacco warehouse, a leafy compound connects seven units that make a case for urban living as it should be. Each unit is punctured by a central courtyard, allowing foliage, sunlight and natural ventilation to flow through. The underlying philosophy of working with nature rather than against it and repurposing available resources, with an emphasis on local materials and expertise harnessed in close collaboration with skilled craftsmen, support a nuanced approach to contemporary sustainable architecture.

Photographed by Anushka Menon. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Assisted by Anuradha Gandhi. Make-Up and Hair by Avni Rambhia. Model Courtesy: Gabriella Demetriades, Toabh Talents. Location Courtesy: 561/63, N. M. Joshi Marg, Mumbai

*This story first appeared on The Verve