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Sunday, September 27, 2020

An Indian designer label shows how denim can be made sustainably

Himanshu Shani and Mia Morikawa of the label 11.11 use kala cotton from Kutch and embellish it with Indian techniques like ajrakh, bandhani and kalamkari

Written by Ektaa Malik | September 6, 2020 5:30:18 am
Models in 11.11 creations

Last year, around this time, Shani Himanshu and Mia Morikawa, the people behind the label 11.11, had just wrapped up their show at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai and begun to take stock of the orders that followed. This year, however, they have spent the past few months figuring a way out of the limbo that the fashion world has been stuck in, courtesy the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are three aspects to fashion — design, manufacture and retail. By February end, we knew that something major was happening as international buyers hadn’t flown in (to India) to make their purchases for the various fashion weeks. We started working on things right then. Design and manufacturing can still be taken care of from home. Artisans usually work from their homes in rural areas — but the erratic supply of raw materials became an issue. Things slowed down further because of the lockdown and then retail moved to the online space overnight. This whole episode showed us that we need to think ahead about how we want fashion to work in the future,” says Himanshu, over the phone from Srinagar, where he is presently working on a project.

Soft-spoken and media-shy, Himanshu, who usually works out of his workshop in Delhi’s Okhla, is an anomaly in the fashion world. He’s rarely seen at parties and insists on pictures of his work than of himself during interviews. His label doesn’t put out shows every season, working instead on durable, enduring collections. Himanshu started 11.11 in 2009, and was joined by Morikawa in 2010. Today, more than a decade later, 11.11 has harvested a reputation of being a contemporary design label, focussed on sustainability. Their staple fabric is denim, but not the usual water-guzzling, environment-unfriendly variety. The denim 11.11 uses is handspun from kala cotton, native to Kutch, and it needs little-to -almost-no-water to grow. The coarse fabric is used to fix everyday staples of any trendy millennial’s wardrobe: tunics, shirts, kurtas, pants and dresses. A range of indigenous techniques — bandhni, ajrakh, kalamkari — are used as embellishments. The fabrics are dyed with natural vegetable dyes. “Adding the word organic to an apple doesn’t make it organic. Apple by itself is organic, the other choice is to grow it with pesticides. The idea of sustainability is to question what we are wearing, where is it coming from, who’s making it, how many hands has it been through? Mia, with her half-Hawaiian and half-Japanese background, put before us the whole seed-to-stitch philosophy, making us question everything we do,” says Himanshu.

At a time of fast fashion and high consumption, it took time for Himanshu and Morikawa to figure out how to marry aesthetics with sustainability. Design was paramount to the essence of 11.11 but slowly they came to realise it could not be done at the cost of isolating it from sustainable work ethics. “Design as an art is at the top of the pyramid for us. There are so many unique indigenous practices in India, yet why does the world look at India as a place where things can get done cheap?” asks Himanshu.

Born and brought up in Ahmedabad, the designer graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Design Technology, Gandhinagar (NIFT) in 1998, followed by a Master’s degree from Domus Academy, Milan. The four years spent at NIFT were life changing. “I always felt out of place in the world of traditional academics. A cousin’s admission in an architecture school opened a whole new vista for me. I couldn’t get through to architecture school, so I opted for NIFT. This was the pre-internet age and Gandhinagar NIFT is in a jungle. I would spend days in the library and learn from teachers who were architects, artists, etc. They also encouraged us to question things,” he says.

It was Himanshu’s stint with Diesel, with Andrea Rosso (son of Renzo Rosso, the owner of Diesel), that introduced him to the denim world. The collaboration lasted for almost half a decade and taught him about craftsmanship. “Working with Rosso gave me a sense of why ‘Made in Italy’ means what it does. It also gave me an insight into the entire process of creating denims. I realised India makes about 1 billion metres of denim annually — and there is nothing Indian about it. So, at 11.11, we decided to see if we could make it more sustainable and eco-friendly. We use kala cotton, which, because it’s a rainfed crop and is non-GMO, is automatically organic,” he says.

At the moment, Himanshu is working on an artisan’s collective, which will not only have artisans but merchandisers, marketing experts and retailers on board as well. He has bought land in Kutch and has about 350 people on board. “Most co-operatives work only with artisans. But marketing and retailing are important aspects, too. What I am looking at is not an NGO. It’s a business at the end of the day and there has to be profit in it. But, as a brand, we want the whole process to be transparent. Even if we are using a middleman, we want that financial break-up out there. Right from who wove the fabric to who stitched it, everything and everyone who made it possible for you to wear an 11.11 creation will be available on your smartphones. We are working on developing that technology,” he says.

Is this the way ahead for making sustainable fashion mainstream? “Sustainability requires a vision that has to be spread over the next 20 to 30 years. It is not something you talk about and achieve in the next three to four years. If you grow something organically, a farmer will take at least two-three years to harvest a full crop. Then comes dyeing and craftwork. We need to ensure that our infrastructure for sustainable fashion is in place, so that, over time, more and more designers look to it as a viable choice,” says Himanshu.

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