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Fashion
February 14, 2019

How I Was A Sari Reinvented The Traditional Concept Of Upcycling This Garment

Text by Shubham Ladha

And how the brand is making efforts to empower women

The sari business in India is approximated to be worth $12 to $15 billion. 90 per cent of Indian families buy at least one sari per year, so the estimated saris purchased every years is between 250 to 400 billion. Not to forget the stock of existing saris kept by Indian families is above 3 billion. But there’s also been a steady decline in the frequency with which urban Indians wear them. Apart from some finding it too cumbersome to put on or too formal for daily-wear, there’s also the fact that many saris are damaged or don’t fit contemporary trends.

While Stefano Funari loved his high-profile corporate job, he was also seeking a higher meaning in life. He’d always wanted to become a social entrepreneur, and after his first stint in India in 2007, he returned in 2011 to pursue that dream. Seeing these numbers, he crunched a sustainable and ethical idea out of them and founded an opportunity in I Was A Sari, in the year 2013. A brand owned by Second Innings Handicrafts — created to run the brand as a business — it crafts products resourcefully using pre-owned saris from across the country. It’s ideology relies heavily on design circularity, in which products are designed durably, keeping in mind that they can be easily repaired to prevent the excess utilisation of resources and ease the burden of pollution that fashion carries. For Funari, it was also a chance to alleviate women from India’s marginalised communities, make them independent and self-sufficient by training them as artisans.

At the recent Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2019’s Circular Design Challenge, I Was A Sari participated along with seven other labels, and won a funding of ₹20 lakhs for their initiative. Funari speaks to us about its transparent supply chain and how for him, fashion is a way to help empower women.

How did the idea behind I Was A Sari take birth?

Stefano Funari (SF): My very first job her was working with underprivileged children from marginalised communities at a local NGO, but I soon realised that it wouldn’t be sustainable without empowering the women from these communities. Thus, I started to shift my interest there. Years ago, I was trying to get orders from the market, which involved training women for small activities. It was challenging and in the end, most of the attempts failed because the women didn’t have a clear understanding of what good quality products are, and that respecting the deadlines are important. The reality was that every time we were trying to create something and buying the material for it, our products were more expensive than those of any other competitor’s, with economy of scale.

I was looking for an idea that could really generate sustainable income opportunities for the long run. One day, by pure chance, I ended up in a warehouse filled with bundles of saris. Their beauty was overwhelming and immediately struck me that there was something there, which could be leveraged upon.

What were the challenges you faced while setting up the idea?

SF: The intuition for the project’s potential was strong, right from the beginning , but a concern of this model was repositioning the sari from an ethnic background to a more contemporary and fresh one, and that needed a very specific design aesthetic. Then, I didn’t have the skills to design a collection, so I roped in a friend, who was the head of design at the Politecnico di Milano. Together, we decided to start the project.

I also knew how difficult it was working with underprivileged women. I did not want to rely on donations or charity or even have the customers buy the products because we have just a story, but add value to the project and make it sustainable in the long run by creating products that are cool. Our story shouldn’t be the only feature differentiating us from other brands, but our products too.

I was very clear about the fact that our model isn’t the most efficient and effective model of production, but we were not going to compromise on that. A major issue for Indian women from marginalised communities is that they don’t have access to the job market. We needed to be where the they are. Compared to other brands, I often say that we are in fashion by chance because the reason why I Was A Sari and Second Innings exist is in order to empower underprivileged Indian women.

How did you form your supply chain? What’s its unique feature?

SF: The sourcing of saris is not going to be an issue because there are billions of them out there. To incorporate the artisans, we decided to partner with existing NGOs such as Community Out Reach Programme and Animedh Charitable Trust, who helped me incubate the project from the beginning. They’re in charge of selecting, training and managing the artisans.

We’ve also collected all the information about our artisans’, thereby helping the supply chain be absolutely transparent. It’s unique feature is that it isn’t owned by anyone apart from the artisans. And we hope that by the year 2020, the brand will be handed over to them. And that doesn’t mean that we expect our artisans to run the business by themselves. The brand will still need the professional management.

Second Innings is what we started in order to run I Was A Sari as a business, and it will hopefully go on to be a platform to promote circularity. The idea is to adopt and create similar business models, while employing similar materials, which can be upcycled under perhaps, “I Was A Kimono”, or “I Was A Denim” etc.

Can you guide us through your creative process, right from sourcing the sari to the final garment?

SF: Since we now source our saris in large numbers, we need suppliers across Mumbai, and even outside. The supply chain is centred around the Gujarati Bagri community, which has specialised in bartering second-hand clothes for kitchenware over centuries. They, through middle men, sell these saris to sariwallas, and then we buy the saris. We didn’t want to disrupt or bypass the existing value chain, so we go through this process.

While selecting the saris, we make an active effort to choose the ones that don’t convey an ethnic identity, but rather ones that are vibrant and modern. When they’re selected, it’s important to decide what’s the best way in which they can be used. The factors which decide that are the prints, the colours, the fabric composition and how well it’s maintained.

We don’t have any in-house designers, so up till now, nearly 20 designers have coordinated with us. We do have an understanding of our markets and clientele, but when it comes to designing the products, very often we get support from professional designers, who share the same taste, positioning and understand those markets. Then, the process is very straightforward. Once the products are defined in the catalogue, we start selling them. The products’ are technically documented and we train our artisans about them.

Your products are made from pre-used products, do they require a lot more maintenance from a consumer’s perspective?  How are you able to make them more durable for the future? Even upon using synthetic fabrics, would you still call your products sustainable?

SF: We try to stick to the idea of circular design strongly, and manufacture products that are made to last. To be able to sustainably repeat clothing without having to buy new goods, that’s important. Even though our material is pre-used, we test its strength strictly. Even though the material is synthetic as well — which people question us about in the face of sustainability — our point about upcycling is very clear. The moment one buys our products, it prevents the purchase of an entirely new product which perhaps, has been produced linearly, thereby saving virgin, raw material to be utilised.

The material being synthetic an unsustainable is not a problem because it’s already impacted the environment when it was produced. About closing the loop we’ve started with our products, we’ve actually closed the loop started by someone else.

How receptive have Indian consumers been to the idea of products crafted from upcycled saris? How have you tried to make them aware about its value and socio-economic and sustainable impact?

SF: The markets and consumers abroad are more aware about the ideas of sustainability and circularity. But in India, it’s not easy, since it’s a price sensitive market. Goods such as ours are sold for much lesser costs than the amount with which we remunerate our artisans. There’s also the stigma of being pre-used, especially the idea of who was the product being used by previously, but we’re trying to focus on these issues. We target specific, young and sensitive customers who are aware.

What are the dynamics with your partnership with Gucci Equilibrium?

SF: Kering, the company that owns Gucci and its CSR, Gucci Equilibrium cares for women empowerment and gender equality. It’s important to mention that through this dynamic, we don’t design anything for Gucci, and they don’t design for us either. While they have industry leftover materials, we discuss with them how we can leverage on that. What Gucci does outsource from India is its various embroidery techniques. This field of expertise is dominated by male artisans, so Gucci has integrated us into their local value chain and we are working with the best embroidery houses in the world. They also train our artisans and provide us with the leftover resources, and we’ve started to embellish our products through that. The goal of this exercise is to add new value to our offerings and establish a strong role for women in this growing value chain. That’s the synergy between us.

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