India’s place in fashion is often looked upon negatively by the rest of the world. Stories of underpaid garment workers occupy the public consciousness more than anything else, and the biggest fashion brands have relied on them for years.
Nonetheless, some brands in the country have taken a bold step against the current, away from fast fashion and towards more sustainable forms of clothes manufacturing.
Truth be told, India’s reputation for cheap production is at odds with its history. The country has a rich history of beautiful garments such as the sari, the ghagra choli and dhoti, and since the economic liberation of the Indian economy in 1990 designers have emerged with products that have been successful on the world stage.
Despite this triumph, the fact remains that India, much like Pakistan, Vietnam and China, still has many factories with underpaid staff working in poor conditions. A 2019 report by the University of California, Berkeley showed that women and girls from the most marginalised communities toiled for as little as 15 cents (11 pence) an hour in homes across India.
Fashion founders like Simran Lal & Raul Rai are aiming to change this narrative. Their contemporary fashion and lifestyle brand Nicobar produces sustainable clothing products that are designed to last. The brand states that when creating the brand they felt the “fast fashion pendulum was swinging too far” and so they “yearned for products that are designed to last, not trend-driven, and inspired by natural design and materials.”
Many brands have been changing the narrative for a long time. Goa-based brand No Nasties has been up and running since 2011; today they provide what they describe as organic, fair-trade and vegan products to the market. The clothing is prepared with 100% organic cotton, in a fair trade factory following vegan principles. This, the brand says, helps the factory workers and animal population of the country.
It’s not just consumers who are encouraged to see a rise in sustainable fashion brands coming from the country, it’s also a welcome addition to India’s economy. The country’s GDP is still overwhelmingly dominated by its manufacturing output, which makes it all the more surprising that independent brands can thrive. Perhaps the country’s status as one of the fastest-growing e-commerce markets helps, too.
A growing e-commerce market means that more independent designers can get businesses up and running – take Toile for example, one of Mumbai’s first eco-friendly multi-designer boutiques, which burst onto the scene in 2018 with features in Vogue amongst other publications; their online store sells a range of ‘upcycled’ products.
Upcycling – the process of re-using unused products or waste materials – is becoming the ultimate show of an environmentally-conscious brand, with investors also taking note of the trend. Over in Norway, clothing brand Fjong has found success as a startup company which facilitates the lending of clothes between customers. To see India joining the upcycling trend truly marks the country’s entry into the sustainable fashion market.
In Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai, one brand is making an effort to fuse both India’s traditional clothing and the contemporary market. Alongside a range of sustainable saris, which invoke a sense of the country’s cultural legacy, Kaveri also creates accessories made out of scrap metal – upcycle in the truest sense.
It is particularly interesting to see the Sari, such a traditional form of clothing, brought to the forefront of modern fashion in its most conscious form, considering the style dates back to 2800–1800 BCE, where it was born from the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.
The embrace of a sustainable means of production for traditional clothing, along with a boom of independent, conscious designers, shows great promise for India’s fashion industry. In time, the country once seen as the home of low-paid work and fast-fashion could come to be seen as a staple of the conscious fashion movement.