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”.

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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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