With its roots going deep in ethical and sustainable practices, farm-to-fashion label Ethicus creates stylish designer cotton saris for today’s women. Brinda Gill profiles the brand.
A profile of Ethicus, a farm-to-fashion label that creates stylish designer cotton saris for today's women
“We all wear clothes, but how many of us are aware of what happens behind the label?” asks Vijayalakshmi Nachiar, Co-founder and Creative Director, Ethicus, one of India’s first sustainable fashion brands. “More than 50 per cent of the pesticides produced in India are used only in the production of cotton. Growing cotton is a huge pollutant for the environment.” It was this fact that led her and her husband Mani Chinnaswamy, who was sourcing Ecologic Cotton from contract farmers in Kabini, Karnataka, to establish Ethicus, a sustainable and ethical fashion brand based in Pollachi, Coimbatore district, Tamil Nadu. Ecologic Cotton is branded cotton from Appachi Eco-Logic Cotton Private Limited. It is grown using sustainable and organic farming principles to be eco-friendly.
As Mani, a third generation cotton ginner involved with the growing of long staple cotton, was collaborating with farmers to grow Ecologic Cotton, the couple thought of launching an initiative that would be sustainable and local. “The cotton that we were growing was traditionally used in handloom all across the
country. Handloom weaving is all over Pollachi. The famous Coimbatore cotton saris are made in villages all around Pollachi. We wanted to do something fashionable out of our heritage. We wanted it to be something sustainable, local and of the best quality. And that is how the whole idea about establishing a brand that would span the chain from farm to fashion arose.”
The journey of growing Ecologic Cotton with contract smallholder farmers in Kabini Reservoir area started in 2005, when Mani and Vijayalakshmi decided to work with farmers to grow Ecologic Cotton there as an initiative of Appachi Eco-Logic Cotton Private Limited, founded in 1946 in Pollachi.
“In 2008, when our first lot of Ecologic Cotton came into the market, the world was in recession. It was a very bad time for textiles. We realised that to make what we are doing sustainable, we have to add value and keep making our own products.”
The result was the establishment of Ethicus, the in-house brand of Appachi to produce handwoven saris, stoles, dupattas and yardage with Ecologic Cotton, in 2009. The word ‘Ethicus’ derives from the words ‘ethics’ and ‘us’, thus conveying that the brand stands for ethical fashion and its underlying commitment was to sustain farmers. “The philosophy of Ethicus is to sustain centuries-old weaving techniques and use them to make contemporary style saris and other apparel, while sustaining farmers and instilling in the weavers a sense of pride in their heritage and remarkable skill.”
The Appachi project promotes sustainable cotton farming by training farmers to use eco-friendly fertilisers and seeds. “While the cotton fibre of Ecologic Cotton and non-Ecologic Cotton is the same, the former is grown using organic inputs. There is a rich tradition of sustainable farming in our country, so we go back to those old cultures and that is how we farm. Thus, instead of chemicals, natural manure such as cow dung, cow urine, plants and herbs is used. We use trap cropping, that is, growing a plant that attracts agricultural pests— usually insects—away from the cotton crops.”
FARM TO FASHION
The cotton sourced from farmers is brought to Pollachi where it is ginned, spun and value-added at the Ethicus Handloom Studio. Ethicus creates textures and motifs to create new designs that give the centuries-old weaving tradition a modern look and feel. The apparel is sold at exhibitions in India and abroad, at stores in different cities, and online.
Saris are the main product of Ethicus and they are broadly of two styles, namely Boardroom Saris and Heritage Saris, both in a contemporary style keeping in mind today’s fashion ethos. The studio presents at least two collections every year, one for spring/summer and the other for autumn/ winter, and also takes orders for customised saris. “The designs are an amalgamation of the contemporary and the traditional. The weavers are equally involved in the design process to help ideate various techniques of weaving, thus bridging the relationship between the designer and the weavers. Every design follows a theme and tells a story.”
In the past, the studio has designed saris of different themes over the years such as Mumbai Meri Jaan as a tribute to the iconic city, where Vijayalakshmi spent five years doing her textile studies. This collection has saris inspired by the pigeons at the Gateway of India, the ubiquitous black and yellow Fiat taxis, the gloriously illuminated Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Bollywood (a signature sari of 6,400 colours and tones that captures the colours of the Indian film industry!), the Mumbai rains and skyline. Other themes have been MatchMaker, Gond – A Textural Saga, and Ballad of Blossom.
“The latest collection titled Crossroads draws its inspiration from the lines, angles and blocks of the famous madras checks, the timeless fashion fabric from South India. The colours of this collection are inspired by the birds in Coimbatore and Anaimalai where Ethicus is based.” The collection features colourful saris inspired by the Malabar trogon, rose-ringed parakeet, Indian pitta, red spurfowl and other birds.
To ensure that the role and contribution of all the individuals involved in the creation of the apparel is acknowledged, all Ethicus products carry tags with the photograph of the weaver and artisan who created it along with his/her photograph and the number of days taken to make it. Other tags inform about the ‘Ecologic project’ and recognise the effort of the cotton farmers. A tag also indicates the design story and the names of the designers or student interns who have worked on the project.
SARIS ARE THE MAIN PRODUCT OF ETHICUS AND THEY ARE BROADLY OF TWO STYLES, NAMELY BOARDROOM SARIS AND HERITAGE SARIS.
“At Ethicus, we focus on creating saris for today’s woman. So while our raw material is local, processed locally, and woven by traditional techniques, the look and feel of the saris is very fashionable. This means that the texture of the sari is very contemporary as are the colour combinations and motifs,” says Vijayalakshmi.
She explains that she had women customers saying that they prefer not to wear cotton saris as they do not drape fluidly, and are difficult to maintain as they require starching and ironing to look good, and thus they prefer wearing chiffon and georgette ones. Further, women would say that cotton saris are typically not worn for weddings, parties or as formal office wear.
Thinking about this response, Vijayalakshmi and her team designed textured weaves that resulted in very fine cotton saris that would drape like chiffon and georgette and thus not require the maintenance of cotton saris. Adding to this facet are their contemporary designs and colour combinations that result in the studio producing very smart saris keeping in mind the requirements and preferences of today’s women. And being of cotton, these saris are very comfortable for the Indian weather.
The result was that the ‘smart saris’ were appreciated by customers, especially working women from doctors to politicians, who found that these could be worn for formal occasions as well as weddings and to the office and for television shows! Clients also requested for customised saris, including cotton saris woven with zari yarns that looked dressy. So, in addition to the fact that the cotton for Ethicus’ saris is ethically and locally grown and processed, the saris themselves have an appeal for the fashion statement they make.
MADE BY HAND
Since 2017, Ethicus has started an initiative called ‘Made by Hand’ wherein the team collaborates with master artisans across the country and sends them saris (woven at Pollachi) for further value addition that in turn makes each sari one of a kind. Today, they are working with four clusters including Ajrakh and Bandhani artisans in Kutch, Chikankari artisans in Lucknow, and kalamkari artisans in Srikalahasti.
Ethicus believes in involving the interests of all those—the farmer, ginner, spinner, designer, weaver, retailer, and customer—who form the chain from farm to fashion. “We want to offer apparel with the best yarn, best colour and best design for the Indian market. When you travel abroad, you see wonderful products with a Made in India tag. We wanted our products to be the best and be predominantly for the Indian market.” With the handloom industry being the biggest employment provider after agriculture for the rural population, the initiatives of Ethicus are truly contributing to sustain the roots of the rural economy while offering urban and international clients apparel with a pure heart.