Clothes with a conscience

For many of us, childhood memories are made of hours spent sifting through our mother’s (and grandmother’s) cupboards; which to our eyes seemed like veritable labyrinths of saris and fabrics in myriad styles, hues and textures. We’ve grown up with jamdanis, ikats, Chanderis and Benarasis, and regular visits to the tailor who would obligingly whip up a suitable blouse in the latest fashion to accompany each one. In India, for most of us these things are part of our vocabulary, but in their authenticity, they have the ability to strike a chord even among those for whom they are not. But in spite of being part of our cultural fabric, it has often taken the eye of an outsider, impressed by the techniques they encounter while passing through the country — think of Fabindia or Rehwa Society — to remind us of their timeless beauty.

Australian label KITX partners with Loom to Luxury and Nest.

A growing crop of designers and organisations overseas — Seek Collective, Block Shop, Maiyet, Behno, KITX and Nest, to name a few — have been creating an environment of cross-continental exchange. Rather than sourcing materials and finished garments from nameless, faceless vendors, they collaborate with artisans to create socially-responsible businesses. We speak to some of these labels that are navigating this process in a mindful and sustainable way.

All in the family
The Los Angeles-based Block Shop Textiles, co-founded by sisters Hopie and Lily Stockman, started out as an art project in 2010, when, “Lily moved to Jaipur for a painting apprenticeship while her husband was there on a Fulbright Scholarship. She started researching natural dyes and traditional block printing, and a textile historian friend introduced her to Vijendra Chhipa (Viju) and his family; fifth-generation printers living outside the city,” explains Hopie. Fascinated by their use of natural dyes, Lily worked on a series of large format block prints. Later, Hopie visited Bagru, Rajasthan to see it all for herself, and in 2013 Block Shop was born. Starting with scarves, they now sell a range of cushions, baby quilts and have also begun producing dhurries.

“Block Shop does not exist without Bagru”. Co-founders Hopie and Lily Stockman visit the town twice a year to oversee the production

“Our patterns are rooted in the places we love, so our inspiration ranges from the marble mosaics of Rajasthani architecture to the warm palette of the Mojave Desert here in California,” shares Lily, emphasising that their label “does not exist without Bagru, or our entire team of carvers, printers, dye-mixers, dhobiwallahs and their families. I cannot imagine our company as anything other than a family business: Hopie and I are devoted to the Chhipas and our collective vision for Block Shop and, in turn, the future of Bagru.” Adds Hopie, “We spend more time with Viju’s kids, Yash (13) and Chehika (9), than our own relatives. We span two continents and these relationships are what make our work meaningful.” Their community manager Sonia Jain helps to manage orders, liaise with artisans, ensure fair wages and develop the community health initiatives that are integral to the company. From providing glasses, cataract surgeries and even clean water solutions for the cooperative, they have also been running a support group for women and children every month for almost a year.

“We aren’t a big company coming in and ordering 10,000 garments from a factory; we are two sisters working with a small cooperative, so everything is built on trust, open communication, and mutual gain,” affirms Lily. “We visit India twice a year (for a few weeks at a time) to collaborate on new designs with our team. Outside of those two months, communication is a challenge when we’re trying to oversee production from LA. Things like colour discrepancies from one dye lot to the next are almost impossible to translate via iPhone photos.” For them, the beauty lies in “how the hand is involved in every step of the process.” And so, they have realised that their greatest obstacle “isn’t in the actual production, but on the other end: educating our customers about the inherent imperfections of hand-block printing.”

Straight from the source
“On my first trip to India, I came for an artist residency in Gujarat with a one-way ticket, a six-month visa and plans to travel around researching different techniques. I landed in Jaipur within the first week and was completely overwhelmed, but by the end of that trip I returned to sample some block-printing experiments.” For Carol Miltimore, founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based Seek Collective, India was never far from her mind when she was taking textile courses in Paris, or studying fashion design at Parsons in New York City. After working with large brands as a designer for a decade, she decided that while “the apparel industry is historically exploitative, I wanted to see how we could make it one that empowers.”

Starting with block-printing, Miltimore has expanded her network to include a family-run mill in Mysuru (earlier known as Mysore) from where she sources silk crepe — “In South India I work with natural dyes and it’s been a growing process for both of us as I was their first client to do silk yardage dying” — and a group of women weavers in Madhya Pradesh. She sells a range of clothing and scarves on her online shop and stocks at boutiques overseas. “The various stages are rather spread out through India as I’ve always wanted to seek out the best people and sources,” she explains. With each new process and team of artisans, she emphasises the importance of understanding the constraints involved to achieve the best results possible. “When I’m custom designing a weave we sit down and go over the colours and patterns together. Any time there’s been any issues, we’ve worked through them, often with the master weavers making suggestions for solutions.”

The quest for quality is not without its challenges. In Jaipur she works with a production manager, but finds that, “Getting on the same page in terms of the desired outcome has taken time for some of the people involved. Communication is key and showing up in person to go over or check on things can be essential. Technology has really also made it possible as WhatsApp allows me to keep in touch with all my suppliers when I’m not in India. It’s common that you will be told things can be done when they actually cannot or even the other way around. With time and experience you are able to know for yourself what is and isn’t possible.” In some cases, she has to plan collections, not around the fashion market, but the itinerant nature of monsoon, when “no hand-block printing can happen and it affects the process for the natural dyers.”

Best of all worlds
‘Having seen the crucial importance of entrepreneurship and job creation to stability and peace, one of the things that occurred to me was, if we could find a way of locating small businesses, growing them and making them more productive we could achieve positive developmental results, and also promote stability and dignity in places that need it most,’ explained Paul van Zyl, in an interview with a British daily. In 2011 van Zyl, a prominent human rights lawyer, entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky and Kristy Caylor, a fashion executive who had worked at Gap on Product Red, presented Maiyet’s first collection and their vision of a ‘new luxury’. Making their debut at the high-end New York department store Barney’s, they made it clear from the start that the brand stood for quality first. Van Zyl added, ‘We are obsessively focussed on product and design…. So the brief for the team is always ‘produce something that people would buy regardless of Maiyet’s mission.’ Luxury consumers need to be compelled (by the product)’.

Maiyet Pre-Fall 2017

Ari embroidery, reverse applique and handloom silk from India, batik from Indonesia, and hand-knitting in Peru and Bolivia — these are just some of the techniques that the brand has employed for its collections. ‘Human talent is equally distributed across the globe, the French and the Italians just monopolise branding. But there’s no reason why this inherent skill can’t be properly harnessed, if you give people the dignity of work, and you pay them properly, but you harness and you leverage that into a brand that stands on its own,’ said van Zyl.

Maiyet relies heavily on jacquard made in Varanasi and in an effort to provide better working conditions and a permanent home for their master weavers, embarked on an ambitious philanthropic project to build a facility for them. Designed by ‘starchitect’ David Adjaye and conceptualised in close partnership with nonprofit organisation Nest and local enterprise Loom to Luxury, the atelier is conceived as a community centre that will help artisans secure their livelihoods and provide access to fair markets. The initiative reinforces the label’s ethos of ‘sustainable luxury’, where ‘we are sourcing skills and co-developing products with them that fit into our seasonal vision,’ affirmed Caylor.

Doing well, doing good
While some designers have chanced upon them on visits to the country, there is a whole world of karigars to be found beyond the usual hotspots in Rajasthan and Gujarat. “In an increasingly homogenised and fast-paced industry, there is a growing movement of designers seeking to expand creative horizons and integrate rare and unique textures, materials and motifs into their contemporary collections. At the same time, there is a rising consumer interest in authenticity and craftsmanship, which comes from the human desire to personally connect and ascribe meaning to the items he or she owns, wears, and decorates the home with,” summarises Rebecca von Bergen, founder and executive director of Nest, that helps facilitate partnerships between brands and craftspeople around the world. With a network of over 300 artisan businesses across more than 50 countries, rather than seeing themselves as ‘brokers’, they work to provide a support system of “peers, philanthropists, brands, and professional volunteers who can provide the resources, education, and tools needed to increase economic growth opportunities.”

Aware of the dynamics of these collaborations, she finds that, “One of the biggest issues that brands and artisans encounter when navigating new sourcing relationships, is that there is a lack of understanding surrounding the confines and unique stipulations that accompany a given craft technique.” In India, Nest works with 30 artisan businesses practising everything from handloom silk weaving to organic dyeing, shibori, hand embroidery, and much more.

Ultimately, labels are driven by their customers, who are not unlike the founders themselves — people who like to travel, who are curious about the world and appreciate a simple object, made well. They represent a growing trend of conscious consumerism, a desire to pull back the curtain and learn how beautiful things are produced, and ensure that the people making them are treated fairly. Hopie maintains,“we love seeing customers challenge companies like ours with questions about how they run their business. Most of the criticism we get is part of an important and productive dialogue about how one chooses to do business in India; a dialogue we’re always open to having.” Miltimore insists that the road ahead for supporting artisans involves posing the question: “How can we as a society make their work respected and appreciated as much as an accountant’s job?”

This article originally appeared in Verve magazine, March 2017.