Now thrown around like a buzzword, sustainable clothing has always been part of the Indian style landscape. At its core is the use of biodegradable and organic fabrics, natural or chemical-free dyes, and handcrafted processes. There have also been forays into recycling and upcycling textile and material waste.

But the common thread plaguing the sustainable aesthetic is the perception of it being anti-fit, unstructured and dull. In a 2013 Guardian article, Rachel Kibbe, founder of HELPSY, an online boutique for ethical fashion, emphasized that consumers buy clothes on the basis of design and style, which is why “fashion and sustainable fashion must meet and mingle". “They can no longer be two separate categories and movements," wrote Kibbe.

Closer home, a Vogue India piece from January pointed out that sustainable clothing continues to look all the same, with “a fair amount restricted to a neutral or earthy colour palette (white, beige, indigo, black, salmon pink)", having “loose or boxy cuts" and following “a distinctly minimal aesthetic".

But there are designers who are committed to pulling sustainable clothing out of these stereotypes. Puducherry-based Naushad Ali, for instance, creates tailored coats—quilted, trench and wrap-around—along with shift dresses and smart separates. His colour palette is dominated by rich, bold colours such as green, brown and dark orange. Impeccably tailored and structured, it’s hard to tell that these are made from tensely handwoven, natural fibres, rendered chic by their unusually high thread count. “Handwoven fabrics, because of their tactility, don’t always easily allow for body-conscious fits...but a shift in trend is happening because the brands realized they were starting to look the same," says Ali.

Jacket from Ura Maku
Jacket from Ura Maku

A recent entrant is Manjushree Saikia’s label Ura Maku. One of the five designers who debuted at the Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2019’s Gen Next Programme in Mumbai in August, Saikia promotes Assamese textiles such as mulberry, eri and muga silk. She doesn’t present them as saris and scarves but as sharply tailored dresses and power suits. The designs have their limitations at the moment, because unlike regular cotton and silk, her fabrics have a coarse texture, making them hard to be cut for pattern-making in line with Western silhouettes and forms. Saikia relies on strategically placed folds and seams. Her trademark corozo nut buttons add another layer of detail.

Saikia offers interesting insight into why sustainable clothing has become synonymous with billowy silhouettes. “The niche market of customers that Indian sustainable brands usually target are women in their middle ages, since they have spending power and understand the value of the textiles. These customers usually prefer clothes in relaxed silhouettes, but I wanted to break away from this stereotype without compromising on Assamese craftsmanship," she says.

Jacket and jeans from Korra Jeans
Jacket and jeans from Korra Jeans

Shyam Sukhramani, founder of Delhi-based Korra Jeans, makes custom jeans using selvedge denim. This is denim woven on narrow-width shuttle looms with the fabric’s edges sealed off, to ensure it doesn’t unravel. But, says Sukhramani, it didn’t drape too well. Over the last five years, however, he has learnt how to manipulate the textile to provide the kind of structure that jeans are usually associated with. “The fabric’s side seam must be cut exactly so that there’s no tension in the garment," says Sukhramani.

Shirt from Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan
Shirt from Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan

How else can slow fashion be made to look chic? For Rouka’s Sreejith Jeevan, the answer is unexpected woven patterns, patchwork or surface ornamentation. “Sometimes it is about weaving in patterns or motifs, be it houndstooth or nature-inspired motifs," he says, of his simple but textured organic cotton shirts. Imagine simple embroidery of birds, leaves, even cars. Cute, but not kitschy.

An early adopter is Bodice’s Ruchika Sachdeva, whose stark, knife-pleated accents have defined her shirts and trousers since 2011. The 2017/18 International Woolmark Prize winner specializes in crafting accordion-like patterns that sometimes spread out like wings. With fabrics such as silk, cotton, wool and linen, she claims her clothes are “measured". “We try to measure very precisely how much cloth will be used in our designs so that there’s no wastage. More than adding accents, we try to heavily edit our designs so that we can gauge what kind of ecological impact our clothes will have. There’s also a lot of elements that are upcycled," she says.

An underlying factor in sustainable clothing is to design clothes that last. The cool designs, patterns and colours are made to be versatile; they can be paired with any other article of clothing or accessory, and for any occasion. Slow doesn’t necessarily have to be sober or boring.

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