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Sustainability is the new trend in Indian fashion. But what does it really stand for?

The Indian fashion industry needs a clear criteria of economic, social and ecological sustainability

opinion Updated: Aug 21, 2017 16:35 IST
Shefalee Vasudev
Shefalee Vasudev
Designers with five crafts groups from Paramparik Karigar at the #CraftisCool show that opened the Sustainable Day at LFW
Designers with five crafts groups from Paramparik Karigar at the #CraftisCool show that opened the Sustainable Day at LFW

Sustainable is easily the big buzzword in Indian fashion today. It drives competitive conversations, offers good branding and turbo charges collaborations with artisans and weavers on various levels. Fashion that is economically, socially and environmentally correct will soon get a landing strip as a viable retail model where people will elect to buy what’s called “responsible”.

The most recent boost to this buzz comes from the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) in Mumbai. What was formerly developed as Textiles and Handlooms Day each season to rope in artisans and work is now renamed “Sustainable Fashion Day” with this Winter Festive 2017 edition.

The opening show on Thursday was called #CraftisCool. This cliched social media-savvy label was in effect a showcase by five master craftsmen from the Paramparik Karigar group, a 20-year-old crafts sustenance body. These karigars were paired with five talented young designers to create non ethnic, modern looks from old techniques of dabu printing, shibori etc. The day progressed to another curated ensemble called ‘Restart Fashion’. It brought together three post-consumer waste fabric makers with three designers to create fashion from discarded and upcycled materials--wool included. A series of inventive textile shows later by established textile designers like Sunita Shankar, Akaaro and Anavila brought home the idea that if curated with design agility and collaborative commitment to handlooms, Indian fashion’s next big story could indeed be ecologically responsible clothes.

Yet the immediate symbolism that leaps out of such separately marked days is that sustainable fashion is equal to textiles and crafts. While that actually is only one tenth of the definition of sustainability . When a stage is shared between a Lambani craftswoman from Sandur in Karnataka in her tribal costume and jewellery with a designer or when otherwise neglected artisans walk the ramp ahead of designers who are tweaking and modernising their wares, the signalling meanders through socio-economic interpretations. It makes you wonder if social equality should precede ecological ethic and process management which is a strong building block of sustainable fashion.

Sustainability is about craft and community, but it also implies a vast dynamic – which means consistent livelihoods, gender equality in employment, fair wages, green processes of production and manufacturing, no sweat shops or child labour, proper waste disposal, use of non toxic dyes, and most importantly how water is used, cycled and saved.

None of these designer-artisan collections that come to fashion weeks are sealed by a common hallmark of values that symbolises background checks mandated to be called “sustainable”. There is no uniform criteria, no single set of guidelines of certification like Craftmark, Khadi Mark or India Handloom brand that are seals of authenticity.

So a flood of sustainability persuasions rush in. One designer boasts a 100% sustainability GRS certification, (like Chola who worked with Anandi textiles on upcycled cotton) given by a German certification body, while another is clueless what or how waste and water management can be a part of fashion.

Not only that, the bracket “Sustainable Fashion Day” limits it to a bunch of shows and designers by selection. Those designers not showing on this day but who also pursue assorted sustainable processes or create crafts based fashion are thrown out of the ring. Few in the audience may know that stalwarts like Manish Arora and Manish Malhotra also provide artisan livelihoods or work with specific clusters from time to time even if their broad brand statement is not synonymous with textiles.

At this stage it is largely about unleashing a friendly beast. About opening conversations through thoughtfully curated work. It gives clunky techniques like Rajasthani dabu printing a modern uplift, opening dialogues between designers, stores and artisans and pushing designers to magnify livelihoods of craftspeople by extricating them from frustrating working environments.

The real beast though is at large. Which is why an important aspect of the sustainable fashion day was a show titled Craftmark by All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA). A social organisation that works on the preservation and promotion of Indian handicrafts through sustainable initiatives, AIACA created Craftmark which is a seal, an assurance of authenticity, accepted nationally and internationally. Craftmark displayed three collections at LFW with certified craft processes, but it is also currently developing Craftmark Green, an evolved seal of authenticity that includes ecological responsibility with the existing formula of economic and social justice.

Madhura Dutta, the Executive Director of AIACA also admits that sustainability is a confusing, complex term. Bringing up carbon foot print, use of natural materials, dyes, efficient use and reuse of water and energy, she explains the three ascending levels of turning a brand or a crafts group “green”. Minimum criteria is basic adherence, desirable criteria and best practices. Once a designer or an artisan group adheres to the basic criteria, the commitment to sustainability has begun. “The tools for Craftmark Green are currently being tested with field studies.They will influence policy and help evolve a clear framework,” says Dutta.

That is work in progress. What we have now is an overlap of a dozen good intentions, a bouquet of personalised definitions of sustainability and fashion customers left to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Overheard at one of the lounges at LFW: this “garib chic” (poverty chic) is too much, what about fashion?” Simplistic and crude, but a reminder perhaps of how much awareness might be needed to make friends with the noble beast called sustainability.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor, digital & content, IMG-Reliance

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 21, 2017 15:22 IST

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