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Ethical fashion: Creative upcycling goes from ramp to reality
ADITYA MANI JHA  29th Aug 2015

The Swedish retailer Henne and Mauritz (H&M) is well known for its "fast fashion" business model, wherein it counts on its customers making cheap but frequent purchases to keep up with trends. For a long time now, environmental advocates have criticised the retail giants for this marketing strategy. They feel that it promotes wasteful behaviour, driving up the volume of discarded clothes. As a way of countering these allegations, H&M has announced an annual prize of €1 million for the best new recycling technique.

There's a little bit of background to this development: it is the latest in a series of recycling endeavours in the world of international fashion as it seeks to repair its "wasteful" image. The discarded clothes problem of the West has had repercussions in developing countries like India as well. The existing industry recycling methods end up severely reducing the quality of cotton. These methods are also useless when it comes to mixed materials clothes, most of which end up adding to a massive landfill (so if you have a dress that's 90% cotton and 10% nylon, it cannot be recycled). The aim is to kill two birds with one stone: beyond the PR currency, a new niche for low-cost, recycled fashionable clothes is sought.

In the Americas, recycled fashion really took off after Barack Obama came to power, one among several sustainable, environment-friendly causes that finally saw investor money pouring in. Around the same time, American designer Titania Inglis is well known for sourcing used wool stock from New York-based factories and incorporating it in her scarves and stoles. Since 2008, Matt & Nat, the Canadian accessory line, has been committed to using linings made from 100% recycled bottles in its vegan leather wallets and handbags.

The delightfully named Carrie Parry launched her eponymous label in 2011. Later that same year, she won the Ethical Fashion Forum's Innovation USA Award for her range of women's casual wear that uses patches from discarded clothes: a single item from the range often included material from half-a-dozen previously worn clothes. The role of designers like Parry cannot be overstated here: maverick individuals like them are far more likely to introduce disruptive business models than anonymous corporations fixated with the bottom line.

Some big brands took this idea to a new level: like the label Looptworks, which came up with Project Luv Seat in 2014. Looptworks specialises in "salvage opportunities": it uses junk ad discarded materials and transforms them into high fashion ("(...) the only thing we scrap is the typical way of doing business.") For Project Luv Seat, they created a unique line of luxury bags from 43 acres of Southwest Airlines seats.

Similarly in India, the Amazon India Fashion Week in March this year saw designers channelising the Japanese concept of "upcycling" or "creative reuse", essentially the same methodology employed by Looptworks. The designer duo Abraham and Thakore unveiled a new collection called Old New, wherein old saris and other layered fabrics were hand-stitched together to make brand new works. The sequins in Abraham and Thakore's collection were made from discarded hospital X-rays and films, to give you an idea of the ingenuity on display. Abraham and Thakore believe that recycling isn't just a way to conserve the environment; it is a strong aesthetic movement in its own right.

In the same show, the young Kolkata-based designer Paromita Banerjee presented Boro Part II, the follow-up to her collection from 2014. "Boro" is a Japanese word that means "too good to waste" and Banerjee's collection lived up to its name. Boro II was an application of the Bengali kantha technique, a traditional method of stitching multiple layers of fabric using a simple stitch running around the edges. Kantha itself was a domestic method of recycling: old saris would be stitched together to make cushions (there are analogues of this utilitarian approach elsewhere in India: like the Bihari tradition of Sujani patchwork embroidery). Banerjee picked the most popular pieces of her 2014 collection and stitched together prints from them to create new works which would still be instantly recognisable to customers.

Banerjee's example is instructive and signals the way forward for future recycling endeavours: even the million-euro kind, perhaps. Sometimes, better answers are to be found in the past than the future.

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