Fashion and Style

How young Indian brands are leading the global conversation on conscious fashion

Can hashtag activism change our relationship with our wardrobes?

Akhtar bhai, Ishrad bhai and Sanju bhai consider the camera awkwardly. There’s a trace of self-consciousness on their faces as the three Mumbai tailors peer out of the Instagram timeline of Auréole, a young Indian fashion brand, holding a card that reads “I made your clothes”. There are other tailors and weavers there, from Mumbai, and Gondal and Morvi in Gujarat, interspersed with images of khadi dresses and muslin blouses. It’s a social media timeline that tells a story – of what they sell and how we buy – and it’s a story that increasingly matters.

“One of the first photographs we posted on social media was of a weaver,” said Aditi Mohoni, who co-founded Auréole with Kunal Virwani. The brand was born last year of a meeting with a community of weavers on a road trip from Ahmedabad to Kutch. Mohoni was, up until then, a divorce lawyer. Posting the weaver’s image, Mohoni says, wasn’t “as much a decision to make the supply chain visible as much as it’s just what the brand is – shaped entirely by its weavers, craftsmen and karigars”.

Auréole’s narrative, as also the narratives of some other Indian brands, is another piece in the social media conversation, under the hashtag #whomademyclothes, that demands greater traceability in the fashion supply chain. The idea – birthed by a volunteer collective called Fashion Revolution, in response to the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 garment workers – has morphed into a global movement.

For one week each year, celebrities, fashion editors and consumers wear a piece of clothing inside-out, revealing the tag, and post a photograph to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #Whomademyclothes. Brands respond with photos of the people behind the fashion – the darzis, pattern masters and cutters. And somewhere in the middle, it is hoped, meaningful conversations are born.

“Brands who can’t show you what goes on behind the scenes are likely hiding something,” said Sheena Dabholkar, creative director at Lover, an online lifestyle magazine. “I think it’s something the end consumer should demand from the brands they wear, especially now that consumers and brands can engage without the conventions of traditional advertising.”

It is not the most familiar narrative to consumers of fashion.

“The fashion industry has only ever sold one narrative to consumers – that of trends that may or may not start on the runway and trickle down to the masses, cheaply and in large quantities,” said Dabholkar.

It doesn’t help that the degrees of separation between consumer and maker are wider than they have ever been. As production of mass fashion is offshored, invisibility has been a bi-product. “It has created room for a lot of misuse on the human-end of things,” said Noorie Sadarangani, who founded the fashion brand Obataimu in Mumbai as a pushback against “the mass-produced-ready-to-wear-cheap-anonymous-labour route that dominates a lot of the global market”.

Say hello to Shanth Kumar. #wemadeyourclothes #fashionrevolution #inthesummerhouse @fashionrevolutionindia

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Social media has credited with further driving fast consumerism. Bombarded with chic images, appetites for fast fashion and inexpensive clothes have bloated. Of course, for brands, this means a chance to get instant sales through a click.

Ironically, it was the same impetus that compelled some retailers to become more aware of the fallout of being associated with throwaway cultures, undermining their commitment to responsible consumerism.

But can a hashtag cleanse an industry?

“For me, it’s less about who made my clothes and more about #aretheymakingafairwage from this, and what is the cost to the environment?” said Neysa Mendes, who runs Good Slice, a wellness-focused blog.

Shivangini Parihar, who started The Summer House, a sustainable lifestyle brand, with partner Rekha Datla, says they’ve seen results from being honest with their narratives. “When consumers get truly involved with a brand, they talk about it on their social media. Isn’t that the best thing? For responsible fashion to become a conversation between friends and not just brands and consumers.”

There are pattern masters and cutters holding up similar messages on the Instagram timeline of The Summer House. Between videos celebrating the clicks and clacks of weaving loom, and artfully styled images of fabric swatches, is a job posting for web designers and graphic artists with unusual bait: 27-year-old tailor, Keshav. “Come share space with him and his colleagues,” the post reads.

Suki Dusanj, country coordinator for Fashion Revolution India, agrees that social media is the most transparent way to have a conversation between the suppliers and consumers of fashion. And when influencers join in – Kalki Koechlin, Tisca Chopra and Monica Dogra were among many this year – momentum spikes. “In 2016 alone we had 70,000 people ask #WhoMadeMyClothes on Instagram and Twitter,” she said.

For Fashion Revolution, she adds, the real impact will be seen when they can influence behavioural change. “The textiles industry is riddled with issues. We have a landfill crisis: much of the cheap polyester, nylon and rayon clothing is not decomposing. So, part of our work is encouraging people to recycle and re-use as a badge of honour.”

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Pushing back against disposable fashion has been an ongoing goal for designer Mia Morikawa, as she has co-developed and grown 11.11, an Indian brand that follows environmentally conscious production processes.

“Oppressive manufacturing and mindless consumerism go together,” said Mirakawa. The hashtag #madeinmeditation is her brand’s antidote to that – digital reminders to consumers of their integrated approach to manufacturing through a sustainable supply chain. “We want our processes to be refined, our team to thrive, and our products to always remind us of the greater framework we are part of,” she said.

And so, it isn’t just the names of tailors we get acquainted with on social media, it is also glimpses into the “greater framework” – well-lit comfortable studios, equitable profit sharing and mutually respectful relationships.

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Obataimu’s store in Mumbai, for instance, is merged with the tailoring school. From behind a glass door, buyers can watch tailor-artists work in a series of rows. The space is clutter-free and each tailor creates a piece from start to finish. “There’s no factory line assembly here, reducing tailors to machinery,” said Sadarangani.

That physical proximity benefits working relationships. “They love that people from all around the world walk into their school and appreciate their craft,” said Sadarangani. “And we love the relationships that get built. How else would we notice that Suryakanth always leaves 30 minutes after everyone else, because he wants to look dapper for his family, most days in a pink shirt.” Suryakanth and his colleagues often star in Obataimu’s social feeds.

With a relatively small brand, establishing a connection between a garment and the hands that fashioned it is easy. But with large mass-market brands, where a supply chain is a more complex beast, the job is more difficult.

“Having Monsoon UK reply this year to #WhoMadeMyClothes was monumental to Fashion Revolution India because Monsoon makes a lot of their clothes in India, and we’d like to celebrate the staff in India,” said Dusanj. adding that globally, brands Adidas and Nike and H&M are publishing more about their social and environmental efforts. “Still, there is crucial information about the practices of the fashion industry that remains concealed, particularly when it comes to brands’ tangible impact on the lives of workers in the supply chain.”

Parihar provides more perspective: “At the end of the day people don’t buy clothing to be responsible. They buy clothes to look good and express themselves. But if the brand uses responsible production processes while matching their sartorial choices, they lean towards it.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.