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Fashion
February 05, 2020

Exclusive: Skilled Samaritan And Off-Grain Have Their Eyes On The Prize

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

Days away from competing against three other designers in Lakmé Fashion Week’s Circular Design Challenge, Gauri Agrawal and Varsha Solanki make strong cases for why their brands deserve to win.

It’s 2020. You don’t need a magazine to extol the merits of sustainable fashion to realise that fast fashion will be the death of the planet. That being said, the sheer volume of slow fashion brands available in the market today might overwhelm those looking to switch to a conscious wardrobe. And although your motives might seem environmentally ‘woke’ on the surface, you would do well to remember that the devil is in the details. Often, labels that claim to be sustainable might use organic fabric but the buttons on them would be made of plastic; others might use natural dye but employ electricity-heavy processes that could increase its carbon footprint.

So how exactly does one shop without remorse? A few designers are working towards making their practice completely waste-free by adopting the circular design model in which resources are continuously cycled in various forms, following a ‘reuse and recycle’ loop. Last season, Lakmé Fashion Week joined forces with R.Elan and the United Nations to birth India’s first sustainability award in fashion — the Circular Design Challenge — where eight designers presented creations that were an impressive study in zero-waste techniques. Seeing over 900 registrations from more than 30 cities, the award was lauded by the fashion industry, and so it was only fitting that the award come back for a second outing. This season, five designers — Mallika Reddy of Cancelled Plans, Esha Agarwal Fernandes of Chambray & Co., Susmith Chempodil and Zuzana Gombosova of Malai, Varsha Rani Solanki of Off-Grain and Gauri Gopal Agrawal of Skilled Samaritan — will compete for a cash prize of 20 lakhs with the winner being declared on day 2 of fashion week, also celebrated as Sustainability Day.

In exclusive interviews with Gauri Agrawal (Skilled Samaritan) and Varsha Solanki (Off-Grain) — who work with food packaging waste and shoddy wool from the off-cast capital of the world respectively — we learn about design (and designers) with a heart and make a case for two lesser-known brands that should be in your shopping cart.

Gauri Agrawal of Skilled Samaritan

Can you explain the circular process of Skilled Samaritan?
We create products like charpoys, storage boxes and trays out of rope using techniques like macramé which is a crochet style of weaving. The rope that we use is made from industrial food packaging — wrappers of biscuits and chocolates like Dairy Milk or say, Mentos. There are two kinds of ropes: one is textile-based and sourced from manufacturing units of old sarees and bedsheets. We are currently working on creating an indigenous machine using jugaad and an old charkha technique which will allow us to twine these long strips of ropes into usable ones, which we can then use to weave our products.

The second one is procured from industrial food packaging made in flexible packaging units for chocolate wrappers, chips and biscuits. The packaging sheets are all a uniform size but a Dairy Milk wrapper is smaller than a Lays packet so the material is cut to the size of the wrapper that is required. When you cut and trim the packaging to fit the product, the leftover strips are usually very large. We discovered that there is already an underground economy of ragpickers that are taking these long strips and selling them as scrap in the market. This pre-consumer, post-production scrap is actually quite amazing because food packaging allows us to tap into the full colour spectrum; we can make a purple charpoy out of a Cadbury wrapped and a yellow jewellery box out of a Lays packet.

I noticed that one of your collections in 2014 was inspired by and dedicated to your master craftsmen. Where have subsequent inspirations come from?
Our aim is to empower and create income opportunities for women who have amazing skill sets but are bogged down by socio-cultural and religious norms. That is why we focus on home decor — these women have great ideas and dreams on how to beautify homes. Italian fashion house Marni also plays a huge role in my home decor inspo; they designed a 100-chair collection for 2012’s Salone del Mobile in Milan and hired a group of former Colombian prison inmates to create furniture out of salvaged material. I thought it was really cool that they could elevate the status of a community that is looked down upon using waste.

Why is a traditional item like the charpoy such a large focus of your lifestyle brand?
I was born in a small town and then migrated to a big city. The charpoy played a huge role in my life — one was always in my line of vision or on the periphery when I was growing up. It has a huge nostalgic element for me and is also one of the most functional pieces of furniture that exists in India. A simple piece of furniture that could last a decade compared to contemporary contraptions that last you a year, if you’re lucky. The point of Skilled Samaritan is to create products that have longevity and remain within the circular models and out of the environment.

Why is Sirohi such an important geographical location for the brand?
I’m an investment banker turned social entrepreneur. I began my journey of social entrepreneurship with the village Sirohi where we used solar power to light 365 houses. Sirohi now has a very special place in my heart because I feel like I helped put this tiny village on the map, and in turn, it turned out to be the birthplace of my current philosophies.

Can you give us an idea of what you created for the Circular Design Challenge?
We’ve used existing macramé and crochet to create funky and colourful bags. The bags are designed in such a way that you can actually see the waste material and wrappers that have been used to create your bag and proudly flaunt it as a conscious individual. Our tagline is Waste to Wow so we’re also creating wings for the models that will represent the power we’d like to give our women workforce to soar.

If you win the Circular Design Challenge, how will you use the prize money to further the cause of your brand?
We’re currently working with 100 women who are bound by certain social-cultural norms. If we do win, I will use the funds to create a skill lab. It will be a common facility centre for four to five villages that will house almost 300 to 500 working women. We will also sign on designers who can work with these women and create products that are contemporary and functional. As per my math, the lab would produce almost four thousand units a month which can convert up to 2,40,000 kgs of plastic and textile waste into functional products.

Tell us why you decided to call your brand Skilled Samaritan and what sets it apart from the horde of sustainable brands in the market.
I went to South America for three months while I was pursuing my masters at university. When I came back, I did an internship for two years. When I was applying for jobs and got employed, I was told that reason I actually got selected was because of my experience in South America, not the MBA degree I had worked so hard for. Sometimes, people are blessed with great talent but have to take jobs they don’t particularly like to make ends meet. All of us have the inherent desire to do good and give back to society, which is where the name comes from — using an existing skill set to do good for the women of India as well as the planet.

Was there a particular incident that prompted you to work in the sustainability industry?
A very close family member was diagnosed with cancer and the doctor was unable to point out the cause. A lot of people are falling prey to diseases due to unhealthy lifestyles and plastic decomposing into the soil. Almost 90 per cent of the water we drink has plastic particles in it. I just want to make a concerted effort to reduce the toxicity we, as a species, are creating for the planet.


Varsha Solanki of Off-Grain

Why did you choose to work out of Panipat?
Panipat is my maternal hometown. As a navy kid, I have lived in many cities. But Panipat is a feeling of coming back home. It has that warmth of meeting your grandparents. More importantly, the city is the world’s largest hub for recycling. The raw materials for Off-Grain are sourced from Panipat and knitted in the rural parts of Haryana. I would like to believe that I am giving a new lease of life to the off-cuts being created in the off-cast capital.

How did you first learn of Shoddy and decide to use it in your work?
First of all, I would like to specify that the Shoddy we’re referring to here isn’t about the sub-par quality of work but rather the name given to inferior woollen yarn which is made by shredding scraps of woollen rags into fibres, grinding them and mixing them with small amounts of new wool. The object is to manufacture cheap cloth, also known as rag-wool, which could be made into products and clothes.

I have seen the shoddy military blanket in my house since I was a kid. A few months ago, I visited Jindal Textile Mills to observe the process of recycling. I saw the same blanket over there. I was curious to find out whether the same blanket was supplied to the Indian Navy. Turns out it was. That’s what piqued my interest initially.

Why did you choose to focus on Panja Dhurries?
A dhurrie is a thin flat-woven rug or carpet which is indigenous to South Asia and is used for bedding or packaging, besides its function as a floor-cover. I knew that shoddy yarn was already being commercially used to produce these dhurries but I wanted to infuse my own unique craftsmanship into it. When my mother got married, my grandmother passed on a handwoven panja dhurrie to her and I’ve always been enticed with that bequeathing. Panja weaving is a dying craft in Haryana since it’s a long-drawn process and I wanted to hold on to my history, so I convinced eight women from a village near Panipat who are skilled in panja-weaving to work with us.

Did the India Fellow Program you were a part of form the idea for Off-grain?
I was working on a conceptual project on sustainability and product development in the Nilgiris. It gave me time and space to think about sustainability from a different perspective other than fashion. Being close to nature and wildlife made me more conscious of my fashion choices. In fact, I’m really proud to be able to claim that as a passionate sneakerhead, I didn’t purchase a single pair in 2019. The whole experience motivated me to start Off-Grain.

Can you give us an idea of what you have created for the Circular Design Challenge?
Designing waste is the philosophy of Off-Grain. The collection I have created for the Circular Design Challenge is an amalgamation of recycled yarn and shoddy blankets. It brings back memories of wearing hand-knitted sweaters. You will be able to witness how the upcycled shoddy blanket transforms beautifully into fashionable and sustainable clothes. Overall, the collection takes you back to the past where clothes were handcrafted with love.

If you win the Circular Design Challenge, how will you use the prize money to further the cause of your brand?
The money will help sustain Off-Grain for 12-18 months. I will put it back into research and development and set up a stable source of income for the local women. I would also like to allocate a marketing budget to increase the reachability and awareness of my brand, and therefore sustainable fashion, globally.

Tell us why you decided to call your brand Off-Grain and what sets it apart from the horde of sustainable brands in the market.
The name actually goes back to my design school days. A fabric, in which the crosswise yarns are not running exactly at right angles to warp or length-wise yarns, is referred to as off-grain. Garment pieces cut off-grain will not fit correctly and hang poorly when worn. So if the fabric was off-grain, we were supposed to iron it, stretch it, FIX it to make it on-grain.

Working with fast fashion brands allowed me to observe the complexity of textile waste and Off-Grain seeks to FIX that problem. What sets us apart is the circular approach of our process. The products are made from recycled knitted and handwoven yarn. Our handcrafted products use zero electricity and there’s hardly any operating cost as we work with knitting needles and crochet hooks and the artisans work from their homes.

Is there a particular incident that made you want to be sustainable?
I have to admit that I have shopped so much in the past that I have a wardrobe that could last me five years without having to purchase anything new. 2019 was a nomadic year for me; I moved six places over a span of six months. That’s when I realised the shortcomings of owning too many clothes and sought to alter my lifestyle. My grandmother was another, possibly bigger, inspiration behind this change. I used to see her rotate a couple of customised sets which were both classy and timeless. My preference went from being trend-focused to being quality-focused.

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