Can style and recycling meet?


Can style and recycling meet?

Recycling isn’t an idea you expect to be hoisted at a fashion week which essentially harps on the newness of a wardrobe. So it was a visual treat to see “recycling” inspire the Autumn/Winter 2015 collections of at least three designers at the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW) last month in

New Delhi: veteran duo David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore (A&T); the young and talented Paromita Banerjee of Kolkata; and the modernist Amit Aggarwal and his business partner Amit Hansraj, who launched a prêt brand called AM.IT.

Others like Aneeth Arora of péro and Shani Himanshu and Mia Morikawa of 11:11 by CellDSGN, who have been working with the Japanese concept of “upcycling”—the use of waste materials to create new, experimental products—showed their commitment to the idea in their collections.

This is a trendy pursuit in economies where people feel overwhelmed by newness and excess and struggle with the promise of plenty. In the West, where the manufacture of industrial products has contributed to extensive environmental pollution, recycling is a politically correct term. In India, however, recycling is a recycled practice.

Using old textiles, bedcovers, fabric swatches, with the craft technique of Bengali Kantha that holds together layers of fabrics with a running saddle stitch, or using items across families till their last bit of worth is plucked out, is part of the great Indian survival kit. It is a way of life best explained as a combination of jugaad (improvisation), philosophy, home-grown artisanal skills, and a collective commitment to managing with little. We traditionally reuse threads, buttons or other discarded materials in imaginative, folksy ways. This applies to large segments of the middle class even now, albeit in more creative and socially acceptable ways. The rich pass down family heirlooms, and at the other extreme of the spectrum, the poor survive on hand-me-downs.

Where does the Indian fashion industry stand in this culture, trying to peddle an idea that nestles in our conscience, but has been forgotten because of fashion’s fickleness and constant hunt for the new?

A&T used old X-ray films from hospital waste to create moulds for sequins“I see it as a responsibility of designers to start a conversation. That’s what we set out to do. We show one collection a year but like to start some conversation from our design space,” says Abraham, talking about the ecological damage wrought by the fashion industry worldwide. The A&T collection, aptly titled Old New, and dominated by black and white, used the Kantha embroidery of West Bengal and Odisha. There were slim, tapered kurtassalwars, slim pants, and some flared pants, a variety of tall Nehru jackets, dresses, and tops with “reworked proportions”, creating, as always, a pragmatic and modern collection. There were a few men’s garments too.

The sequins were then used to embellish garments Abraham stresses that recycling should not be seen as a cheap short cut; it is, in fact, a labour-intensive and creative process. Old New used discarded materials, from end bits of fabric rolls (thaans) sourced from Delhi’s Gandhi Nagar Market, to a variety of non-biodegradable factory junk bought from scrap dealers, including specially sourced old X-ray films sold as hospital junk. “We bought them by the kilo, got die moulds made for cutting sequins from these discarded X-rays—these were used for ornamentation. Also, caps of coke cans were used on some borders,” explains Abraham.

Paromita Banerjee’s collection Boro Part II (a continuation of her previous collections Boro and Boro Part I) extended her commitment to the Japanese term boro, which means too good to waste. Like Abraham, she makes a case for Indians to stop seeing recycling as jugaad. Banerjee used a mix of newly developed fabrics along with patches of fabric from her previous collections, especially the Ajrakh prints that she says her customers happily recognize in garments from the former season. “I always think about how I could take recycling to the next level. Since each of these garments is created with a mix of different discarded materials in fabric, colour or texture, the composition of each piece is different. It is like creating my kind of couture in my tiny way,” says Banerjee, explaining that revisiting the core idea as Boro Part II itself signifies continuity, not cessation. Using weaves from four clusters, including Bagh-printed textiles in Khadi, besides mulmul and silk, Banerjee showed reversible capes, tunics that could be paired with slim pants, churidars, dupattas or salwars, interpretations of the Mughal bandhgala, and introduced beautiful handwoven saris.

Many such interpretations of recycling are, in fact, a fine case for upcycling. For instance, the AM.IT line by Amit Aggarwal used the bindi (dot) as its starting point to create clothes that fused traditional weaves like Ikat and printing techniques with industrial waste. There were fitted tights, dresses, asymmetrical tops and tunics, fringed skirts, jackets and separates that could be innovatively styled. Most were paired with boots made from moulded and artistically painted silicone. Not all of these modernistic garments may be striking as examples of extraordinary fashion, but they brought a sense of immediacy and relevance to Indian fashion.

For most designers, recycling or upcyling is a way to alert fashion customers to the concepts behind the clothes they buy rather than being guided solely by colour, trends, occasion, price, or aping what they see on stars and celebrities—the usual considerations in fashion retail. “Whenever we design a collection, we remember what is ‘required’ and treat upcycling and recycling as part of our brand,” says Himanshu. “Our tags are made of recycled materials, we remake garments that we have made earlier, and reuse or bring back classic styles in heritage materials,” he adds, explaining that this was the rationale for their Autumn/Winter 2015 collection’s take on the Kimono Coats as an over-garment. Bags from their accessory line Reclaim, ranging from sling bags to beach bags, use organic cotton as warp and plastic as weft.

There are other instances but it may be a while before the Indian fashion industry can make this original vintage philosophy of make-do and mend, of dressing in recycled garments, a commercially competitive antidote to couture. A sustainable solution or a trendy philosophy by itself cannot define an aesthetic or be its guiding light. It still must look “fashionable”. For that, designers may need to elevate recycled fashion to the level of art.