Celebrated Indian designers Shantnu & Nikhil Mehra, who showcased their capsule collection at the United Nations COP28 Sustainable Fashion Summit 2023, along with iconic labels including Stella McCartney and Rima Kadi on December 6, believe that it’s time for fast fashion to take stock of the carbon footprint impact that they are leaving behind.
“Sustainability is a big, big responsibility of fast fashion. How they adapt to the new world is very crucial to climate change and our environment,” said designer Nikhil Mehra, one half of the sibling duo, in an interview with Gulf News after their show on the sidelines of COP28.
According to reports, the fashion industry is the second-largest industrial polluter, accounting for 10 per cent of global pollution and ranking higher than emissions from air travel. Fast fashion, a term used to describe cheap, mass-produced clothing with new lines being released constantly, isn’t helping.
“We need more COP28 Fashion Summits like the one we participated in for a lot more echo about the impact fashion has on the environment… Fashion has a moral and social responsibility when it comes to sustainability… Our show was a reminder that the world has to turn around and has to come to grips with a newer way of living,” said Nikhil Mehra.
But the two are pragmatic about how slow the change can be, even if ‘sustainability has become the buzzword in today’s times.” They believe that the concept of sustainability means different things to different brands.
“We are couturiers, so we have embarked on slow fashion, which is a big part of sustainability … And, you can’t expect the brands to suddenly start embracing sustainability into their design philosophy, but inch by inch, we are moving closer to that,” said Shantnu. They claim they are very mindful of the number of pieces they create and put out in the world.
Their couture label, launched in 2000, has already taken up sustainable measures. During Covid-19, the brothers kick-started a movement called the ‘Buyback campaign,’ an initiative that encourages their customers to exchange their old Shantnu & Nikhil outfits for store credit to drive home the philosophy of responsible consumerism.
“Our customers who bought their bridal pieces from us had the option of giving it back to us so that we could refurbish it and put it back on the racks as re-loved. We also give them credit to buy a new product. So we created a circular eco-system,” said Shantnu.
The two also believe that India hasn’t done too shabbily when it comes to promoting sustainability in fashion. Their culture promotes it inherently.
“Our society and culture come from the idea of sustainability where we have always talked about hand-me-downs. We talk about how we can still wear old shawls and continue to use dhurries [thin carpets] … For children, hand-me-down clothes are a norm indicating that we have always come from a secure, sustainable philosophy,” pointed out Shantnu. India also doesn’t have many fast-fashion giants that keep churning out clothes by the second.
“Brands like Fab India, Good Earth, Nicobar are Indian brands that use artisan craftsmanship and include their weaver’s narratives into their designs. Indian couturiers like ourselves have been sustainable because we are a part of the made-to-measure bridal market … We customize them and we are not throwing samples of clothes every 45 days … As a brand, we are focusing more on silhouettes and not about putting a lot of pressure on our resources,” said Shantnu. Even their buy-back programme was their attempt to pay it forward to the environment.
“We don’t want to let our designs go to waste … Our style has never been to go overboard and people buy from us because they can re-use their wedding clothes for a cocktail function too … Sustainability is a lifestyle movement,” said Shantnu. Both also believe that the onus has to lie with those who are hooked on fast fashion.
“Fast fashion has become very popular and so I hope the people will stand up and go: ‘what the [expletive] are we doing?’,” pointed out Nikhil. As designers, they also opted to be more responsible towards their environment.
“As a brand, we don’t want to over-produce … For instance, if we were to launch our label in this region, we will not mess with our brand ethos … We don’t park in spaces where we don’t belong. Let’s say we decide to design 12-yard saris, imagine the weight we will be putting on this earth just to sell a category and to a large number of people. As a designer, we are not OK with that … Finding the right balance is the key,” said Nikhil.
Asked if Bollywood stars - who have always worn their designs - can do their bit in promoting sustainable fashion in India, since they enjoy immense clout among their fans, these designers had a fair point.
“Most of the stars and their intent is on-point. But it’s their stylists who have to promote sustainability and not the actors per se. Their managers, their entourage, their stylists should look into it more closely because they are an important part of how the stars dress,” said Nikhil. They also believe that there will come a time in Bollywood where movies showcasing lead actresses repeating clothes or wearing their own pieces might become the norm.
“Don’t be surprised if actresses in a movie will take out their old saris and bring them onto the screen. Or if they go to their mum’s closet to take out pieces for their stylists … All of this might enhance the intention to promote sustainability … We are inching towards the right direction. But remember, fast fashion brands need to focus on damaging the planet less,” said Nikhil.