Fashion in India and I go back a long way. 20 years to be specific. During this time, I’ve styled and directed fashion for two of India’s leading magazines. My work has spanned creative direction, design, communication, and styling, and I currently consult with multiple firms and labels. However, my interest in exploring slow fashion as a concept is a rather recent thing.
Over the past two decades, I have seen fashion in India grow. From a small, disorganised industry to a serious business segment. From looking to the West to rediscovering and rebranding our roots. From a bridal-centric market to inclusivity of other local craft cultures. I’ve seen it evolve from being the form of expressionism it’s traditionally been to becoming a tool for social mobility and activism. I’ve seen it become an idea that truly embraces everyone.
But over the last couple of years, I have also become more aware of the less spoken, ambiguous, dark side of fashion. Its challenges, both environmental and human.
This awareness began in my last job. As a fashion editor, inordinate amounts of incredibly gifts would come my way, and what used to be a sense of gratitude and amazement over design, had started dwindling into a feeling of being overwhelmed. Was there such a thing as too much?
This, in part, had to do with what I was reading about fashion, design, and patterns of consumption and its environmental effects. It prompted me to pause and consider how to re-engage with my habits and thinking around all things fashion, and ultimately my lifestyle.
So, I started small, with a few things that I could practically do. Shopping less was one, and shopping with some consideration was another – using locally made, craft-based or upcycled products, and those with biodegradable materials and natural dyes. I started rewearing old clothes and began looking for vintage styles. I passed on several of my clothes, shoes, and jewellery to people who would want it, and began loaning to and borrowing from friends. This is actually so common in India that it was easily doable, almost natural. I share on my social media the pieces I re-wear very often and in different ways (also hoping to be a part of the dialogue on how we need to lower the pressure of wearing new things in fashion all the time). I am often surprised with the response I get – I’ve been encouraged more often than I thought I would. #lovedclotheslast is a hashtag made famous by Fashion Revolution, a global platform looking to work at several levels of awareness and change in the business, and it’s one I use quite often.
I have not purchased leather in over a year. However, I am not averse to buying hides that are pre-loved or naturally dyed.
Yes, I miss spontaneous shopping sometimes, conditioned as we are, but it’s not like I’ve stopped entirely. My attempt is to moderate. This is the second year that I am limiting myself to 10 purchases a year. Slow fashion is something that I am trying to explore. Like Vivienne Westwood said, I am learning to ‘buy less, choose well, make it last’. This means that I look up a whole bunch of things and buy what I really want.
It helps that there are a handful but growing tribe of mindful brands around, like 11.11 that use natural dyes and kora cotton. Doodlage uses surplus waste materials, and Chamar upcycles waste tires into sharp bags. Sui uses hemp and linen (which consume lesser water compared to cotton), and Amit Aggarwal works on some of his Indian couture with upcycled materials. On a larger scale, Raymond’s has launched a ready-to-wear khadi label – Khadi by Raymond – where local handloom is applied to a mass scale sale.
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Saturday night live! I am wearing a @rajeshpratapsinghworks #chanderi tunic shirt, a @namratajoshipura #waistcoat and @ggpanther churidar trousers. All about three to four years and over 10 wears old. #rewear #repeatstyle #lovedclotheslast #contemporaryIndianstyle #mixandmatchstyle Thanks for the click @ojaskolvankar
Sometimes, the price points of these designs are higher than a high street store and perhaps smaller in offering of styles at the moment, for reasons of small volumes and intensive human-based processes. But if you can afford them and enjoy their aesthetic, it’s a good place to start. It also sends a message to industry and designers – that there is a gap to design increasingly better and produce responsibly. That there is a small but growing audience and need for it.
The part I love and find easiest perhaps is buying vintage clothing. It’s old styles that use no current resource. Earlier, India didn’t have many vintage stores but in the last couple of years the three vintage destinations I have seen sprout are No Borders Shop, Bodements, and Carol’s Shop. Fashion Revolution’s India chapter also organises events in Mumbai and Delhi that allow people to swap old clothes. Mumbai-based Radhika Dhawan, a consultant, has been running Back Alley Thrift Shop for several years now, selling pre-loved styles. There are a few people and organisations working to make it more viable and hopefully in time, this too will gain momentum.
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Channeling #onethousandandonedays ( cuz at nights, I sleep! ) I am wearing a new, hand pleated, oversized blouse by @saakshakinni with linen trousers that are about eight years old, by erstwhile store #Attic / @half.full.curve girls. #style #localstyle #somethingoldsomethingnewstyle #contemporaryIndianstyle #comfortstyle #repeatstyle #raisedeyebrowstyle #LakmeFashionWeek style #brownwoman style
I have started by relearning fashion again – be it textiles and dyes or supply chains and policies. And it is quite daunting. So now, I (think I) know that while organic cotton is better than pesticide-induced ones and textiles made with petrochemicals, like nylon or polyester, it consumes huge amounts of water to process. So perhaps tencel, hemp, and linen may be better from that point of view. I also read of Pinatex, a plant-based (pineapple, to be specific) material that looks and replicates several qualities of leather.
Over the last two odd years, a certain degree of moderation and mindfulness that started with fashion in my life has today moved onto my lifestyle as well. I carry several reusables in my bag, and have considerably reduced my use of plastic water bottles, throwaway shopping bags, and disposable coffee or teacups and cutlery. I am also a struggling vegan. But better options both in materials and design that seem to be emerging as alternatives are arriving on the scene each day due to growing interest.
That said, slow fashion is a universe that is hard to navigate. Mindful design has several facets – upcycling, recycling, circular design processes, biodegradable materials, low-resource intensive materials, waste management, natural dyes, alternatives to plastic usage, and return back policies are only some. What you are buying into amidst all the lack of consumer awareness, clarity, and greenwashing can be confusing and inundating. It’s a nascent movement that requires industry education, change, and regulation.
Several large platforms, like the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, are trying to address these issues on a large scale. On a more accessible level, there are companies (Eco-Age, Fashion Revolution, Sustain Your Style, Eco Warrior Princess), and journalists like Bandana Tiwari (former Vogue India) and Clare Press (of Vogue Australia) that are dedicatedly helping both industry and aware consumers understand materials, processes, and footprints better. Though many of these are active in Europe and the US where consumption patterns are exponentially higher, there is still a lot to learn from their errors and ways of addressing it for a developing market like us. But also let’s not forget that traditionally, as a country, India has practiced mindfulness that’s rooted in craft, processes, and materials – handloom, natural dyes etc – for a long time. These are solutions that are easier on the environment that we can offer to the world. It also helps that the mainstream fashion media in the country – Voice of Fashion, Grazia, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar – is talking about the sustainability and slow fashion. Gautam Vazirani, who heads sustainability endeavours at Lakme Fashion Week, has devotedly been working towards making designers, buyers, and fashion brands more aware of the subject.
And till it becomes clearer for a regular consumer who may not want to invest so much time and effort in trying to understand this (for shopping was supposed to be fun), we do what we can as individuals given the environmental and human challenges. Changing an industry is a huge task. Changing personal habits, far more doable, through conversations, a little research, and consumption moderation.
No one can or should tell anyone how to live his or her best life. However, knowing what we do about resource and waste management scarcity beyond borders, we can share stories of thoughtful consumption. And we can come together. I would love to think that if we have enough people beginning to shop considerately and ask questions, big companies (who can make a larger impact) would have to make changes. It is slow, but it’s something to do. Waste less. Be thoughtful. As someone said, the most sustainable piece is the one in your wardrobe already.