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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 23, Dated 11 June 2011

Fashion without victims

Couture now has a conscience. When will fashionable Indians develop one, asks Nishita Jha

Itís now possible to take the violence out of fashion

Looks don’t kill It’s now possible to take the violence out of fashion

FASHION NEVER cost as much, as it did if you were a silk worm. The adornment of a single woman in six yards of shimmering silk meant 50,000 silk worms were boiled alive in their cocoons, their homes dipped in chemicals and its fibre processed to spin the coveted yarn. Until one day in the 1990s, when Indian President R Venkataraman’s wife, first lady Janaki Venkataraman visted a silk factory — “Is there no way to make silk without killing so many silk worms?” she asked, her brow furrowing in concern. Within earshot stood Kusumah Rajaiah, an officer with the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society. The lady’s words touched a nerve. Dropping the armour of apathy he wore every day when casually tossing silkworms to their death in vats of steaming water, he shifted his focus to developing a ‘non-violent and painless’ way to extract silk from the cocoons. Finally in 2000, Rajaiah made his first batch of commercially viable, non-violent silk. In 2006, he was rewarded with a patent for his work, and Ahimsa Silk was born.

Like most green warriors, Rajaiah found that Indians were still to find their conscience when it came to the environment. In spite of the additional expense of producing Ahimsa Silk (making nonviolent silk is highly labour intensive and time consuming. The process extracts only 16 percent of the silk available from the cocoon and thus it can cost almost double the price of regular silk), Rajaiah found that once he put his concept and samples online, he was flooded with bulk orders from customers abroad. Those whom he believed to be most in tune with the concept of Ahimsa, his own countrymen, remained impervious. His ultimate validation came at last year’s Golden Globe awards, when nominated director James Cameron’s wife showed up on the red carpet in a stunning blue Ahimsa Silk gown. Finally, the Indian dailies were claiming him as their own.


For those already accustomed to the spotlight, like Delhi-based designer Anita Dongre, thinking green was a slow but steady process that began percolating to every sphere of her life. What started with a penchant for organic food, soon grew into a fashion line — Grassroots, and Dongre is now in the planning stages of constructing an entire green building as her office in Vashi, Mumbai. While the USP of Grassroots is the beautiful organic cotton and vegetable dyes used in the dresses, the aesthetic itself is a far cry from the overdone Fabindia ethnic-chic. “Indian women buy clothes that look beautiful. They don’t give a damn about harmful dyes and chemically-treated cotton. So I create designs keeping in mind the fact that most people who buy my clothes think ‘organic’ just means a ‘softer kind’ of cotton,” she says.

‘Most people are unaware that the detergents used in dyeing kill aquatic life and deplete the ozone layer,’ says Anita Dongre

Most people are unaware of the fact that the process of chemical dyeing involves detergents that are harmful to aquatic life and cause ozone depletion. Printing gums and preservatives can cause dermatitis, liver and kidney damage in human beings. Several chemicals used in dyeing, such as polyphosphates trisodium have been banned in Europe but continue to be widely used in India. Thanks to NGOs like Natural Dyes and Shop for Change, Dongre is committed to using organic fabric for all her lines, but admits that green fashion can be quite a pricey affair. “Organic yarn is 10-15 times more expensive than regular cotton. If I use vegetable dyes as well, the line becomes 3-4 times more expensive than the clothes I usually make. I once did a whole line of vegetable dyed kurtas, but they were so pricey that I ended up keeping them for myself,” she laughs. Awareness is still slowly trickling in through retail store doors. Dongre’s collaboration with Shop for Change is sold in 70 stores through the country. Each garment came with an explanatory note and a store clerk who explained the concept of organic cotton and fair trade. After starting with an initial order of 20,000 metres of organic cotton, Dongre’s demand for organic increased to more than 80,000 m per line.

While the lack of environmentally-conscious customers is frustrating, Dongre, like Rajaiah, has found solace in the fact that her green creations do better outside the country. Until we finally awaken to the fact that living green is about more than having a few odd plants in the balcony, India will continue to be the place where fashion comes to dye.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

The Big Green Rupee. Making it. Spending it
Green Business
The Carbon Bazaar
Green Energy
Green Fashion
Solar Energy
Lost in transmission
Green Housing
Green Holidays
Green Weddings
Green Cars
Green Phones
Green Plan B
The Economist: Pavan Sukhdev
The Minister: Jairam Ramesh
The Voter: Green Politics
The Activist: Ritwick Dutta

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 23, Dated 11 June 2011



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