Apparel

Ethical Fashion

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.

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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.”

ESTABLISHI­NG ETHICUS

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.”

ECOLOGIC FARMING

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.

PRODUCT RANGE

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.

CONTEMPORA­RY DESIGN

“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.

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