Styled by Ekta Rajani, the lookbook for Malvika Vaswani's new jewellery collection features clothing dyed with food and floral waste and makeup with beetroot juice
The campaign is an extension of the sustainable ethos of Vaswani's new collection Shishō
Beetroot juice as make-up, cotton dyed with food and floral waste as clothing, and jewellery made with waste metal and glass—not the conventional elements for a fashion shoot. I was naturally intrigued when stylist Ekta Rajani told me about her new collaboration with jewellery designer Malvika Vaswani and the lookbook they produced. Rajani is a seasoned fashion stylist with 12 years in mainstream fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia, apart from a full decade of experience in commercial design. And 30-year-old Vaswani’s collections have been recognized in several emerging designer platforms, from Vogue India’s Fashion Fund to the Grazia Young Fashion Award. So I had reason to believe that their joint attempt at producing a sustainable shoot wouldn’t be yet another puzzling attempt at virtue signalling, like: “Look, we imported a few hundred kilos of fresh flowers from Thailand to create a flower waterfall for a video that tells you to use natural shampoo."
The images for Vaswani’s new jewellery collection, Shishō—“glass" in Sindhi—has a model clad in a length of cotton, which Rajani dyed herself. A limited number of photographs were made per look—“as low as five, as high as 15"—all shot in natural light. They are currently exploring the possibility of using soya dyes and recycled paper to print the lookbook.
Vaswani emerged from her industrial design degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011 with a focus on material experimentation and the re-contextualization of traditional craft. Her first four collections were nods to trendy design styles from around the world—Bauhaus, Andalusian architecture, Japanese woodwork. But after the early recognition, she took a break for all of 2017 to “reflect on her practice".
“I was quite clear that if I were to produce anything new, it had to answer some questions," says Vaswani, over the phone from Odisha, where she is travelling as a consultant with the Asian Heritage Foundation. Rajani, on her part, says this shoot is part of a personal mission that she is trying to wedge into the professional. Last year, she cut down her fashion consumption by 30%—she bought 10 pieces of clothing, including innerwear, in 2018—and is also trying to buy more local and more vintage.
Coming from both of them, the Shishō campaign is underlined by the philosophy of economy and reuse. The collection is handmade using recycled materials; with waste brass as the base embellished with factory-waste stained glass. The new material introduced is colour pigment to coat the metal.
Did the idea of the shoot come later or was sustainability beaten into the brass right from the start, I ask Vaswani. She says it had its beginnings in her nani’s (maternal grandmother) photographs of her childhood home in pre-Partition Sindh. The pared-down forms and shapes in the bracelets, rings, earrings and neckpieces are distilled from the repetitive patterns of Islamic architecture and Sindh’s characteristic Ajrakhi textiles: the diamond, the triangle, the circle. It is also very much about the “spirit of Sindh" and mystic Sufism. This is where Rajani took off, strategizing her materials and approach, as “a modest personal challenge to create aspirational visuals with less."
“The colour palette of the shoot was inspired by lal, the elementary red… ranging from a primary application to the terracotta bangles of the Indus Valley. I wanted the colours to give a sense of a return to earth," says Rajani, breaking into the opening lyric (Oh lal meri) of one of the most famous songs from the region, the 13th-century Sufi song, Dam-a-Dam Mast Qalandar.
As someone associated with fashion—one of the most polluting, wasteful industries—for decades, Rajani believes it is her duty to consider how design thinking, processes of manufacturing and levels of consumption are impacting the environment. “A small number of governments, companies, designers and independent influencers the world over are emphasizing upcycling, recycling, circular processes, natural materials, localization… while this seems daunting and some appear to be purely riding the wave, the awareness of change is in the air, isn’t it?" says Rajani. “It’s improbable to expect us to stop living our lives as we know it. It’s not hard, however, to try change some methods and habits. Who knows how it could work, going ahead?"
Vaswani’s jewellery retails through multi-designer stores such as Ogaan in Delhi and Atosa in Mumbai, apart from e-commerce and the occasional pop-up. Having so far worked with brass plated in 18-carat gold and rose gold, I ask if she’s anticipating horrified reactions to her pricing this time around, with waste metal and glass pieces priced as high as ₹7,500. “My kind of consumer, one would hope, will not question the pricing based on material costs," she says.
Rajani agrees that this project was possible for a young brand where she had free rein. And that it might not be realistically applicable for a commercial campaign. “There is a lot of money riding on communication campaigns. If the goal is to reach out and drive sales, often, the imagery tends to be relatable, familiar, leaving lesser room for experimentation. Most brands and even fashion editorials won’t be super adventurous today... but that is not to say it does not happen at all," she says.
These concepts are still being formed and require exploration, says Rajani. But she believes that when many more start working towards it, perhaps new systems will emerge that are less wasteful.