For the first anniversary of her multi-designer store Melange in 1994, Sangita Kathiwada organised a khadi fashion show at the iconic Royal Opera House in Mumbai. Designers like Hemant Trevedi and Ramesh Nair, among others, worked with the handwoven fabric, encapsulating Kathiwada’s personal and professional philosophy of conscious living, and respecting heritage. At a time when artisanal and organic weren’t popular buzzwords, and sustainability wasn’t a trending hashtag, Kathiwada’s stand-alone Altamount Road studio sought to change the design lexicon by introducing natural fabrics, minimalist shapes and mindful fashion.
Today, Melange is a south Mumbai landmark, and for its 25th anniversary in December, Kathiwada chose to eschew any pomp and pageantry for a quiet celebration at the store itself. She put together “Past Continuous”, an exhibit that attempted to capture the spirit, evolution and accomplishments of her store, and thereby give guests “a front-row view to the evolution of fashion in India”.
With labels like Abraham & Thakore, James Ferreira, Raw Mango, Pero by Aneeth Arora, Savio Jon, Narendra Kumar, Anuradha Vakil and others contributing their “Melange memory”, it was only natural that Kathiwada got nostalgic too. “I was a 33-year-old who was bubbling with creativity and looking for an outlet to share it. I had so much energy, I was painting, writing, dancing. And I had no clue back then that I would launch a fashion store. I just needed a beautiful space where I could nurture my own creativity and that of others,” says Kathiwada, who has studied graphic design, jewellery design, interior decor and photography.
A wine cellar turned into a radio-servicing centre, located in the basement of a 100-year-old heritage structure, might have been an unlikely venue, but Kathiwada managed to turn it into a design platform, which has launched the careers of designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Aki Narula, Priyadarshini Rao, Savio Jon and Rahul Mishra. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In pre-fashion week times, Kathiwada remembers how she sought design talent in institutions like the National Institute of Fashion Technology and SNDT Women’s University, often hopping on planes to Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi. “Textiles were always my first love. Upon researching and going around the country, I found some amazingly creative people, who were giving textiles a new form, shape and language. I preferred to wear only natural fabrics and was able to find like-minded people, and that’s how the juggernaut began to roll,” she says.
Choosing the sustainable path to success came naturally. “I was born into that way of thinking. I grew up in a joint family where we stitched our own clothes, made floral decorations and did embroidery. Those vibrant aesthetics shaped my creativity. My thought was only about natural clothing, environment-friendly fabrics, comfort clothing and styling,” says Kathiwada. And processes at Melange followed suit with bamboo hangars, recycling paper and doing away with plastic packaging. “I don’t see sustainability as a trend. It is the very way of life. It’s crucial for the future of our planet. So, all of us, who are working in the field of design, can use our public outreach to promote sustainability and bring conscious awareness to consumers,” she says.
Not in the least affected by the din of social media, Kathiwada’s quest for like-minded labels continues as she prepares to introduce designer Viji Reddy’s sustainable label Alamwar to Mumbai buyers this week. “We have stayed relevant because we are constantly innovating. We work with art, culture, photography and bring it all together and tie it up with fashion. At Melange, we believe in creating conversations and encouraging dialogue. So, ours is more like a gallery, less like other fashion stores, and there is always a level of excitement around new activities,” says Kathiwada.