In the recently concluded Qatar India 2019 Year of Culture in Doha, the exhibition of nine contemporary Indian clothing brands quickly established what can be seen as a paradigm shift in Indian fashion. With a focus on craft and handwoven textiles, seamless co-creation with the artisanal clusters of India, and most importantly, an overall emphasis on slow fashion, these creatives exemplified Indian fashion’s entry into an Age of Nuance.
Relatively young, these designers — Mia Morikawa and Shani Himanshu of 11.11, Sohaya Misra of Chola, Gaurav Khanijo, Santanu Das of Maku, Chinar Farooqui of Injiri, Shreya and Priyal Mewara of Ode to Odd, Pallavi Dhyani of Three, and Urvashi Kaur — represent a certain design mindset that is sweeping across India. They may constitute a microcosm in a much larger industry, but they are, nonetheless, an undeniable chorus of change in the fashion world. While global fashion has accepted that the need of the hour is to slow down, streamline production, reduce inventory and edit collections, in India it’s this rung of designers — homegrown, small-scale, mindful, craft-oriented fashion businesses — that is leading the way for conscious, not conspicuous, consumption.
Fashion, worldwide, has a high energy consumption; according to The Business of Fashion’s The State of Fashion 2020 report, it accounts for 20 to 35% of microplastic flow into the ocean and outweighs the carbon footprint of international flights and shopping combined. We cannot turn a blind eye to this global problem any more.
Of course, we have had pathbreakers from the earlier generation — James Ferreira with his zero-waste ethos, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Abraham & Thakore, Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi, among others — with their exemplary work with artisanal communities of India. But what differentiates most young designers today is their acknowledgement of the negative impact of their profession on the environment, and their willingness to address it at a design level. Most importantly, their focus is not just on the end result — the valuable product — but the entire supply chain, which allows them to address sustainable practices on every level: from sourcing and packaging to the after-life of the products they have created. They may be small-scale businesses, but they are the true foot soldiers of sustainable fashion in India. The year 2019 saw a surge in this dialogue on sustainability; 2020 will be even bigger because, in all honesty, there is no other way out. No one can do business on a dead planet.
What this means is that the first-tier designers of India who have amassed great wealth and success from the wedding and festive-wear industry of India, those who seldom stuck their neck out to address the problems of consumption, pollution and wastefulness in their business practices, need to take a cue from this younger generation of designers. They will be called out for excesses that harm the environment. So far, few have taken meaningful action whatsoever to make a change, in spite of their size and clout. It is the young designers, along with craft champions — Good Earth Sustain, Rahul Mishra, Sanjay Garg, Pero, Anavila, and Eka, to name a few — who understand that doing good will make money. Research after research shows that, increasingly, consumers (especially millennials) are willing to pay more for products that have the least impact on the environment.
But sceptics have an argument: responsible brands constitute only a small fraction of the gargantuan Indian fashion market, so what real change can we expect? Yes, the industry grows exponentially, and change is slow. According to data from McKinsey’s FashionScope, the Indian apparel market will be worth $59.3 billion in 2022, making it the sixth largest in the world, comparable to the U.K.’s ($65 billion) and Germany’s ($63.1 billion). The report says that the aggregate income of the addressable population (individuals with more than $9,500 in annual income) is expected to triple between now and 2025. According to Sanjay Kapoor, founder of Genesis Luxury, an Indian luxury retail conglomerate, higher incomes are likely to create a whole new class of consumer: “We are moving on toward the ‘gold collar’ worker. It’s a term that defines the highly paid professionals who are happy to look good, happy to feel good, and are expanding the consumption of today.”
But now consider this: when a 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a radical climate activist and the latest luminary on the Time cover, calls out seasoned politicians and ordinary consumers like you and me for apathy toward climate change and is able to inspire and galvanise 7.6 million people to protest on the streets in the Global Climate Strike in September, it is time to know the tide is turning and time is ticking for every designer, producer and consumer to be on the right side of history. We cannot continue to cohort with an industry that dumps, according to a statistic by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one garbage truck of clothes in landfills every second. That is the equivalent of filling one and half Empire State Buildings per day with discarded clothes.
So, as the Indian market grows, it is imperative that we have changemakers, however small, who infiltrate and upend a regressive system of take-make-waste; seek consumer responsibility; and collectively resuscitate a dying ecology.
To reduce this sustainability movement in India to a ‘trend’ is abominable, to say the least. The young brazen designers of India, working with limited budgets and resources, should be applauded and upheld as the shining example of what can be achieved on a grander scale. Never underestimate the small rumbles that reach a crescendo.
The writer is a lifestyle journalist and sustainability activist.