How the pandemic and its economic repercussions spurred designers and artisans to think on their feet and out of the box

“Have you heard of T-shirts made of khadi?” asks Mukesh Lutade. The director of Magan Khadi (Magan Sangrahalaya Samiti), a Wardha-based organisation, believes that khadi, the fabric associated with the country’s Freedom Movement, has morphed from its political straitjacket to don a casual, cool look due to the pandemic. He attributes this innovative twist of the handspun fabric to the current health crisis and its direct impact on the lives of artisans. Had it not been for the emergency that befell them, they would not have ideated on their feet and thus differently, he says.

The pandemic, interestingly, has become a trigger for artisan organisations to reinvent in ways they had never done before. “You cannot stop spinners and weavers from work even for a day, because it means no food for them,” says Mukesh.

When the shutters came down on their unit, they were stuck with unwoven yarn worth ₹1.25 crore. The organisation immediately brought out a Pay Now Buy Later scheme, and issued ‘buy now’ vouchers. It fetched them ₹3.5 lakh to tide over the crisis. They tied up with Kochi-based designer Ashima Bhan to convert their dead stock into a children’s collection in khadi to be out in January 2021. This maiden children’s line is a fallout of the ongoing crisis.

Though upcycling has been a byword for Hyderabad-based designer Aisha Rao, the disruption this time led her to use, for the first time, sock waste to create a faux velvet look on her lehengas. “The pandemic makes upcycling the need of the hour. We do appliqués and patchwork with leftover cloth and upcycle it,” says Aisha explaining that bias cut for lehengas leaves ample leftover material that she uses for patchwork.

Her collection of lehengas is playful, modern, sustainable, and made from, “the sock’s elastic band, to be precise.” She explains, “Sock waste comes in different colours and looks like kids’ rubber bands. The bands are cut into fine bits and placed together with embroidery, and it looks like velvet.” In her first experiment during the pandemic, she made 17 lehengas and some menswear “to see if our customers liked our ideology.” She adds, “We want to make waste cool.”

Concurring with her views is Mallika Reddy of another Hyderabad-based company, Cancelled Plans. She speaks about her street wear being completely made from “pre-cycled” products. “We collect industrial waste before it is trashed,” says Mallika, explaining that they have made jackets with condom waste and bags from pharmaceutical packaging material.

Her latest collection — Jayanti Reddy Ex Cancelled Plans — uses zardosi waste from designer Jayanthi Reddy’s sweatshirt unit. “The collection is a little bit party, a little bit stay-at-home,” says Mallika, leveraging the uncanny connect of her label’s name with the pandemic that has led to cancellation of plans across the globe. “When I founded the company in September 2019, it was about the idea of cancelling waste that goes into landfills and oceans and making a new plan with that,” explains Mallika.

Meanwhile, artiste Sudhir Rajbhar’s latest collection of recycled rubber bags, ‘Mandi’ is “a conversation about surviving the times.” Working with three artisans from their homes in a Mumbai slum and collaborating with designer Camille Bastien in Paris, he has used a recycled material he created from leather after the beef ban displaced leather artisans out of jobs. “These nomadic studios are the new mode of working for us designers; collaborating, thus, is the result of the pandemic,” he says.

Delhi-based fashion designer Sonam Dubal created jewellery from leftover fabrics. “One of the important tasks during the pandemic was to find markets for artisans. Necklaces and earrings with handmade fabric beads was an innovation of these times,” says Sonam.

Rallying force

High fashion, too, was racked by unprecedented disruption during lockdown. Artisans migrated en masse and studios were left with huge quantities of dead stock. A majority of designers responded by upcycling their inventory, engaging artisans who had lost jobs. Many added embellishments that require more handwork, for the sake of generating more employment.

“I am not a designer without my artisans. I wanted to do things that would generate a life for another,” says Sonam. The designer engaged the widows of Vrindavan to create his latest Christmas collection ‘Gift That Gives’. The 25 women stitched vintage Ikat panels with merino wool for an international market, for the first time.

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“The Coronavirus period has taught me three things: collaboration, communication and compassion,” says Sonam, adding that he reached out to his team of workers with a stipulated amount of monetary assistance during the lockdown. He also took to hard marketing through social media to get orders.

“I asked my clients to not look at the product as personal but as something that will help another in these times,” says Sonam, explaining that many in his industry rallied in this manner.

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Rahul Mishra’s first collection during the pandemic called Butterfly People, showcased at the Paris Haute Couture Week (online) in July, was created with the aim of employing all his craftsmen.

He concludes, “We are a big family — tailors, embroiderers, designers… We have been fortunate to be able to stand by them through this storm and are committed to continue doing so.”

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