India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
August 22, 2019

7 Designers Answer Pressing Questions On Sustainability In Fashion

Compiled by Akanksha Pandey and Rushmika Banerjee

From the show format to the question about unsold garments Team Verve asks designers from Day 2 of the Lakmé Fashion Week line-up to share their thoughts on the vision and values of running a sustainable label in the current fashion landscape.

As the industry settles in for Sustainable Fashion Day of Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2019, we reached out to seven changemakers – David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore, Mia Morikawa and Himanshu Shani of 11.11 / eleven eleven, Stefano Funari of I Was A Sari, Karishma Shahani Khan of Ka-Sha, Kinnari Thakker of Rooted Objects, Alka Sharma of Aavaran and Urvashi Kaur – and asked them pressing questions about the future of sustainability in the fashion industry.

Is the fashion week format sustainable?

Mia Morikawa and Himanshu Shani: For most emerging brands participating in trades shows or a fashion show means a substantial financial investment in creation of a collection, in the team travelling; there are also associated costs with participating in the shows. Redefining the show format to make it more sustainable would require involvement from the producers of the show with the designers – instead of just securing sponsorship for the event to happen – research grants could be developed for designers to explore new techniques and ideas which could then be showcased at the shows. This would create a fertile environment for young creatives to be more innovative rather than approaching the exercise conservatively. Fashion shows are also exciting because there is such a pool of talent coming to one spot in a short period of time – sustainability is also about leveraging resources, talent and sharing – more collaboration could be encouraged between designers to trigger learning and growth. The outcomes could be harnessed by the shows as content to spotlight during the shows. The business side of fashion is also quite tricky for emerging designers.

Pairing young creatives with seasoned individuals from the industry like a mentorship program could also be a way to make the journey more sustainable. Things such as how to bring a collection to market, how to bring the collection to the international market and clinics on branding and image making. Encouraging knowledge sharing during the process of participating could reduce growing pains for emerging designers and increase chances for Indian designers to break through to the international market by drawing on a collective pool of resources rather than a community of competition.

David Abraham: It’s all very well to cancel a fashion week in Scandinavia, but all the production is not done in Scandinavia, they produce nothing there – we do. They don’t manufacture much clothes there because the cost of labour is too high. Their businesses survive because of the cheap cost of labour in the third world or the developing countries– Bangladesh, India, Vietnam. I’m not totally convinced with the (Swedish Council cancelling the Stockholm fashion week). Yes, you may have a tiny impact, but the issues are far larger and the conversation has to be more involved. As you know, Sweden is the home of H&M, which is the largest manufacturer of fast fashion in the world. So just add one plus one and you’ll see. It’s all produced in our country – we are bearing the fallout of all this. So I, as a person who lives in this part of the world, am very suspicious.

Stefano Funari: I was thinking about this and what came to my mind as a metaphor was Formula 1. I don’t understand F1 but I can draw parallels between fashion and the F1 race. In certain ways, the performances in F1 become unsafe and dangerous for the environment and went in the direction that was not valued in the automotive industry. Hence, they had to regulate it strongly. When you go to see a race, you can even say that it was better before because it had the noise and excitement. But for someone, and for multiple reasons, it needed some sort of control. I believe that fashion has reached that point. Where for some people it is first love, but someone needs to slow down the system because it is moving too fast. I am not talking from personal experience because as a small brand we are not at par. But this is what we see happening around us by being connected to other places in the industry. And whoever is working in the industry is paying the price for the madness and, even the industry itself, is paying for it. The decision by the Swedish Council is brave and forward-looking. As everything around us is changing – retail, production processes and consumer behaviour. The shows around the world, however, keep going in a direction which is traditional – from the time when resources and flying people around was not a problem. Hence, it needs some regulation for the good of everybody.

Karishma Shahani Khan: There could be rules and regulations that can be followed alongside a checklist to maintain the emissions and after-effects of shows of this scale. If we could reconsider reusing materials or waste in better ways for future events we could combat a lot more than simply eradicating the platform all together. I feel sustainability is an extremely loosely used word. I prefer believing that it’s important for all of us to be conscious as human beings and bring that into our work.

How do you ensure durability of design?

David Abraham: Your investment has to be in the quality of the cloth first, and the manufacturing process of the cloth – how they manufacture, what materials it uses, is it bio-degradable, is it the best possible yarn, does the dye affect the environment – there are so many technical things. Then you can make sure that the quality of cloth can withstand several years of wearing and washing. The stitching also has to withstand that. And then, of course, from the design perspective, your design must be something that survives short-term fashion trends, because those are also very dangerous.

Mia Morikawa and Himanshu Shani: Refusal to follow trends can ensure that the look and feel stays relevant. Well-constructed classic designs will never go out of style and will last long. There is a special visceral quality that is conveyed within the traditional artisanal practices of India – hand spun, handwoven, naturally-dyed organic cotton fabric feels good and literally can support generating a sense of well-being. When people feel good and feel safe they can operate from a peaceful place. We have a company that makes garments, but what lies at the heart of what we do is trying to generate peace within ourselves. We would like to extend that state of being to our team and that’s what we would also like to share with our audience. It’s that underlying mindset that leads to making decisions rooted in sustainable development – regarding each individual product but also regarding the future trajectory of the brand.

Kinnari Thakker: The concept of circularity in fashion for the future is simply built on 3 core principles. It proposes that designers find solutions that support communities and not generate waste and pollution in their processes. It also proposes that materials and designs are desirable, beautiful and of a quality that allows them to be used for a long time, and not become obsolete. And the third principle is that restores what it has taken from the environment back in a way that nourishes it. .

What happens to unsold merchandise?

David Abraham: We always rotate the merchandise. We’d like to think that a lot of the stuff we do is valid season after season. At best, the merchandise moves. Sometimes, when the merchandise moves beyond a few seasons, but still stays, we may just discount the price, but we continue to sell it. We don’t end with one season. And also, what we tend to do is, from collection to collection, we repeat a lot of the styles, so that there is a continuity. I think you can develop a design that co-exists with the old, and you can have a design vocabulary that has these values.

Stefano Funari: Since we are newcomers, we still have not faced this issue. We are not there yet, but as I was thinking about this, we clearly will not burn anything. We have a zero-waste policy. Whatever is left  from our production – the chindis – is donated to a company that makes sanitary pads. If ever we end up with surplus, we will find a way but will never burn anything.

Urvashi Kaur: In our brand ethos we have integrated a philosophy of trans-seasonal collections. This allows us to seamlessly upcycle and reintroduce layers or separates with strategic design tweaks thereby increasing the shelf life and appeal of the particular piece. We also create only as per precise requirement and do not produce anything in excess. Over the years we have managed to very successfully reduce unsold items to a bare minimum and currently are not holding any excess stock.

What role can technology play in fashion sustainability?

David Abraham: Technology in manufacture and production systems can track the environmental footprint of every production, that’s one way. Two is data management. Data management is very integral to any sort of planning – the more data we have the better we will manufacture. If, for example, I had some sort of data management analysis system, then your risks come down.

Having said that, people play a big part in this as the whole economic system is really based on consumption. We live in an economic system which is inherently flawed if you speak from an idealistic point of view. There is, I think, an inherent flaw there –through media and social pressure, you induce people to keep buying more than we need – we don’t need so much stuff! We buy too many clothes, eat too much food, it is generally a system of waste. The value for what we own and possess also has diminished. The whole value system is flawed, and then technology is a result of that. I don’t think technology is the base of it but it’s what we do with technology.

Stefano Funari: If you ask me who is going to really change fashion, it is technology. We should start talking about fashion tech now. I don’t understand how we have lost years to make textile products that are 100% decomposable. There are no technologies today that are cost-effective enough to take a garment, decompose the different materials and recycle the different materials. I really believe that the real answer to the emergency that we are facing will come from technology. There are multiple trends and I am really happy to play our little part but the revolution will come from 2 ways – first is change in consumer behaviour and the second is technology. Reducing 90 percent waste while cutting a fabric is one of the many things that technology can do, but for some reason there is a big gap. Even tech companies didn’t see the need or opportunity early enough and now they are catching up. Clearly we are paying a price in the delay in terms of innovation , how to optimize fashion and how to make fashion more clean and sustainable.

Karishma Shahani Khan: One definite way forward to harness the power and benefits of technology is to reduce physical stock through focus on digital retail. Using technology to create prototypes in digital spaces ensures lesser waste of energy. Even in its simplest form it’s basic use of connecting people from different corners of the world to share stories brings front transparency of processes and voices to the unheard, which adds to the need to build products made by happy people.

Kinnari Thakker: Technology allows us to create plant-based materials to mimic the qualities of animal leather. It allows us to repurpose plastic waste that we have generated over years and create new fabrics. It allows us to educate, communicate and change user behaviour in a way that traditional media never did. Technology is the only way we can live a sustainable life with the kind of population growth we see today.

Alka Sharma: We can include bio-engineered fabrics that are biodegradable and are produced on a large scale. This practice of alternative textiles will help in allocating resources more efficiently and in conserving natural resources. Using hi-tech air dye process can reduce the water wastage in the dyeing process. The packaging material, which contributes substantially to pollution, can be made from biodegradable, recyclable and sustainable material. The fashion industry should shift from the “take-make-waste” linear system to a circular restorative one that designs out waste, keeps materials and products in use for as long as possible, and regenerates the environment.

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