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The most bizarre request Meghna Nayak received from a client was to upcycle the sari she had worn the day she got divorced.
Women of all ages come to her studio in Kolkata with bags full of saris—some old, stained and frayed, some relatively new but ugly—and she turns them into bespoke garments such as skirts, trench coats and even kimonos.
“People come to me with their wedding saris, their mother’s or grandmother’s, all the time, but this was new,” says Nayak, 32, over the phone from Kolkata. “Someone had actually messaged me that she had a divorce sari. She said it had been about a year since she got divorced and she was reshaping her life,” recalls Nayak. The sari was repurposed into a “glamorous trench coat”.
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Refashioning old saris is not a new concept but Nayak’s idea was to take the upcycling “beyond kurtas and kanthas (stitched patchwork cotton sheets for the newborn) and infuse the saris with the kind of expert cutting that was playful”.
For, with every new generation, saris tend to stay confined largely to the cupboard.
“My mission is to get your saris out of the wardrobe and reimagine them as beautiful, flattering clothing that becomes part of your daily life,” says Nayak. With that thought, she started the fashion brand LataSita in 2012.
Nayak hadn’t planned on making a career out of upcycling saris. She studied journalism at University College Falmouth, and worked in the UK for some years after graduating in 2008. She returned to Kolkata in 2011 and joined The Telegraph, where she started writing on environmental issues but was soon disillusioned. “I have always wanted to do environmental journalism but the prospects and the brand of environment journalism being followed in India didn’t appeal to me,” says Nayak.
She found her calling in the fashion industry. As a teenager, Nayak used to cut and stitch her own clothes. Over the years, though, she has learnt a lot about patterns and stitches. “I could do my bit by entering the (fashion) industry myself,” she says.
There are two basic principles behind her brand, she says: One, make a statement against fast fashion and sweatshop production, and two, redefine saris.
Nayak has a prêt collection and a customized line. With the help of a four-member team in her Kolkata studio, she sells across the country and even overseas. From bow ties to dresses, she makes about 30-35 pieces a month. Sometimes, there are bulk orders for 300-400 pieces. People contact her on the website or on Facebook, and then “I take it on a case-by-case basis”.
Sustainable fashion, says Nayak, has become more elitist. “It has to be more expensive than mass-produced garments but it also has to be more accessible,” she says. “So I have kept my margins really low. If you want to make money, you have to get into fast fashion and mass production.”
LataSita’s prices range from Rs2,000-5,000, occasionally going up to Rs15,000 for more elaborate lehngas.
“I try to use the whole sari wherever possible,” says Nayak. Once, she made two pairs of pants for a customer and a dress for her daughter from the same sari. Another time, she recalls a woman coming with her late mother’s sari. “The sari was stained in places,” says Nayak. “Normally, we avoid those parts but, in this case, for sentimental reasons, I used the stained parts to make the inner lining of the skirt I made from the sari.”
The scraps are donated to the Delhi-based non-governmental organization Goonj, where they are recycled into sanitary napkins.