Craftsmanship and sustainability go hand in hand in the context of rich crafts, traditions and cultural heritage of India. This case-study research focused on two Indian designers whose design work is based on traditional Indian textile arts. Open-ended questions provided valuable insights into their work that empowers the craftsman: Ritu Kumar's focus on colour, quality fabrics, intricate embroidery, and rich Indian aesthetic adapting to the skills of craftsmen; whereas, Rahul Mishra creates sustainable design stories and shared dreams using new technology juxtaposed with old traditional methodology. Both create a well-designed quality product that helps improve lives of the producer (artisan) community, write Anupama Pasricha and Mohit Bhardwaj.
Sustainable development is the "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Meeting these needs requires a fine balance of social, economic, and environmental priorities with a systems-thinking lens. The social aspect entails equity, participation, empowerment, social mobility, and cultural preservation. Economic issues involve economic viability and growth, services, efficient use of labour. Environmental aspects necessitate biodiversity, resource conservation, ecosystem integrity, and clean water and air. Researcher and design activist Kate Fletcher defines sustainability as integrating human well-being with natural integrity.
Sustainability needs to manifest in every dimension of human life and actions, whether every day basic living or indulgence in luxury. This research focuses on sustainable luxury, with particular reference to craftsmanship as the authors see craftsmanship as an important element contributing to equity, participation, empowerment, and cultural preservation.
Luxury as a state of the mind
Luxury is the way we perceive things and what surrounds us, also what we experience. Luxury also has visible symbolic and economic power to bring change. If an object is not made available to the masses and only tailor-made for a few with a high price tag, one may call it a luxury product. Luxury is well known as indulgence or experience of pleasures or comforts in addition to the necessary routine and mundane things one needs. Again, by traditional yardsticks, luxury is seen as more durable and beyond the reach.
However, the benchmark of luxury can be relative to a person or place. The idea of sustainable luxury at this stage may sound odd, or even an oxymoron by putting luxury and sustainability together that apparently have less or zero compatibility. Sustainability and luxury may not be considered to go hand in hand as a concept, but deep down and historically, the quality and longevity that characterises luxury products makes it slow and sustainable.
The current business model of ready-to-wear apparel industry is based on planned demise of a product, but luxury thrives on the business of lasting worth. The sustainability in luxury or fashion is something that has a positive contribution or outcome for the people surrounded by it. People, nature, and the planet are to be respected in order to produce a sustainable design. Meticulous hand work and cultural craft that nurtures diversity are one of the ways that luxury is created. The cultural heritage provides a means to sustain, and empower people or the artisans and their communities. Issues around sustainability are one of the greatest challenges faced by modern society.
The growth model used for industrialisation and development is discordant with sustainability. It led to mass mechanised production. Also, after the industrial revolution and coming of computers any particular design could be multiplied much faster, but at the same time was the exact replica of one thousand or hundred thousand similar such pieces. We were carried away by the excitement and possibility of technological developments in that we overlooked the impact on our environment and people. The concept of slow and hand-made is forgotten.
Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher, suggested 76 reasonable questions to ask before adopting any technology. These questions cover ecological, social, practical, moral, ethical, vocational, metaphysical, political, and aesthetic aspects. Vocational and ecological aspects of these questions are specifically relevant to the scope of this chapter on sustainability and craftsmanship. Ellul asked, what are the effects of technology on the health of the planet and of the person? What is its impact on craft? Does it aid or replace human hands and human beings? Does it preserve or reduce cultural diversity? And so forth. We need a new level of thinking and actions to resolve the problems we have created by our own pursuit of development.
A new wave of thinking with the objective of sustainable development, reducing damage caused, slowing down fashion and enhancing the well-being of society has arisen from this. Fletcher explains, "Slow fashion is about choice, information, cultural diversity and identity. Critically, it is also about balance. It requires a combination of rapid imaginative change and symbolic (fashion) expression as well as durability and long-term engaging, quality products."
In the context of India, a country rich in artisan and craft work, it can help create jobs among craftsmen and artisans even in remote parts. A report by Dasra, a philanthropy foundation working with philanthropists and social entrepreneurs to create large-scale social change, stated, "Crafts are a powerful tool to create a catalytic impact on the lives of women, marginalised communities and social outcomes of entire family who are engaged in crafts work."
Craftsmanship, sustainability and luxury go hand in hand. The only way all these could be synchronised, or rather streamlined, is by understanding the mere fact that the rich Indian heritage still lives in the hands of its craftspersons. The initiatives provide employment to women and the young generation who largely migrate to bigger cities in search of jobs. As the skill level for jobs they find in larger cities is not enough, they end up doing lower-level chores. If they stick to the same age-old handwork crafts, they might have better skills because of ancestral heritage. The only issue is that they do not have a window to sell their talent. On the other hand, if designers create opportunities, it will help revive these crafts. When designers create opportunities for these skilled artisans, it helps revive these arts and preserve the culture.
Few Indian designers who understand fashion as timeless have incorporated traditional dying arts in their design journeys to revive the art form. These designers are providing social sustainability by providing employment, and minimising damage to the environment by creating ageless styles and slowing the fashion. Most of these designers use natural fibres such as silk and wool that are biodegradable. The limited supply of luxury natural biodegradable fibres makes them exclusive. The inherent natural beauty of these fibres creates a perfect raw material for sustainable products. According to Jean- Noel Kapferer, luxury and sustainability share the mutual interest in aesthetics and exclusivity.
A case-study method was adopted to gain an in-depth understanding of the selected designers' vision of sustainability and craftsmanship. Two diverse Indian designers who have done significant work with artisans and continued to sustain the relationship with the artisan community were selected for this research, using purposeful convenience sampling.
Veteran designer Ritu Kumar and emerging award-winning designer Rahul Mishra were selected; their names were drawn based on their sustaining work and commitment to preserving culture and art, exclusivity of design work, and quality of workmanship that drives slow fashion.
Data was gathered by conducting phone and email interviews along with other sources of information that include a literature review of academic resources and popular culture media. Open-ended interview questions were the discussion starter. However, the authors gave the designers the freedom to express their viewpoints on important concepts related to sustainability. The information was gathered through listed questions and the designers' responses. The diversity of questions reflects the difference in the approach of the designers to reach the same end-goal of sustainable product and development.
Kumar focused on art revival and cultural preservation; Mishra on slow fashion. Both designers accomplish art revival and conserve culture, and in the process of time-consuming quality hand work, they slow down fashion. Results and analysis are reported keeping the designers' voices through their answers. Discussion and conclusions were drawn by analysing and interpreting the information using the lens of sustainability-related theoretical perspectives.
Results and analyses
The authors had verbal and email conversations with Kumar and Mishra; two significant designers who are accomplished in their work engaging craftsmen and preserving cultural heritage. Kumar equals luxury to a cherished product with long-lasting quality of appearance and workmanship. Mishra equates it to exclusivity that results from collaboration, trust, faith, and surprise with craft community as he quests to enhance the quality of life for craftsmen.
Kumar is one the most popular and sought after veteran designers and a respected name. Not known perhaps by many is the fact that she is the one designer who introduced the 'boutique' culture in India. With her unique sense of style, the designer has incorporated ancient crafts and craftsmanship giving them a new direction. Her work fits the description of "sustainable luxury," as it involves local craftsmanship and preserves the cultural heritage of India.
Kumar's designs have seamlessly formed a bridge between the rich Indian heritage and modern India. The designer's understanding of traditional crafts, ancient designs, and immense contribution has earned her the Padma Shri award in 2013. Kumar communicates a strong advocacy for craftsmen and has recently also launched an initiative titled 'Beautiful Hands Make Beautiful Work', which recognises the work of craftspersons. Kumar's Revivalist collection is yet another effort to bring traditional handicrafts to mainstream luxury fashion. Kumar works with craftbased social ventures such as Kala Raksha and Mura Collective. Her accomplishments and continued services in the fashion, textile and craftsmanship are worth lifetime praise.
Mishra is a renowned young designer who engages the artisan and craft community to empower them through offering participative employment. His first collection in 2006 used traditional weavers from Kerala. Since then, Mishra has purposefully collaborated with artisans, training them and bringing change to their lives. His brand philosophy is to use the talent of artisans to create cutting edge innovative designs. This philosophy champions that participatory design slows fashion and provides a new perspective. Its rarity and unique characteristic make it a luxury.
In 2013, Mishra won the Indian leg of Woolmark Prize, and in 2014 was the winner of the International Woolmark Prize. His designs were created using chanderi weaving artisans from Kolkata. He introduced them to incorporating superfine merino wool into their craft. His designs are versatile, have a global appeal, and cross both cultural and seasonal boundaries. These two designers are spreading a clear message in making luxury as sustainable design. According to their business model, sustainability can-and must-give rise to a new, highly ambitious business model, and become a lever of competitiveness for brands. In a way, these designs or products bridge luxury, ethics and sustainability.
The customer who buys them as luxury products will understand the distinctiveness and handcrafted quality, nd would not mind paying for them. Consumer behaviour has a lot to do with the trend in the market. Following a simple demand and supply principle, the customer's notion about the product is suggestive of it being a sustainable fashion creates a positive perception. This perception is primarily personal, but later becomes a group behaviour.
Earlier studies have shown that recycling, reusing or using biodegradable materials may save the earth. This is true in the case of larger numbers, where the involved productions are many. In the case of luxury, this theory is another way where consumer behaviour is about perception, aspirations and also an individual's purchasing power. An expensive dress, a luxury bag or a super expensive watch is bought after much aspiration. This makes it principally cause less harm to the planet. Again, in such a case quality wins over quantity. So the numbers are less in order to produce. Eventually, how even these small numbers are produced also matters.
Discussion and conclusions
Ritu Kumar and Rahul Mishra both bring different, but successful design aesthetic to the table: Kumar's work focuses on colour, quality fabrics, intricate embroidery, and rich Indian aesthetic adapting to the skills of craftsmen; Mishra's creates sustainable design stories and shared dreams using new technology juxtaposed with old traditional methodology. Both create well-designed quality products that help improve the lives of producer (artisan) community. High-quality long-lasting products contribute to slow consumption. Slow consumption supports slow fashion paradigm. It is the slow fashion model that will assist the textiles and apparel industry.
Historically, clothing was created by multiple skilful hands adding value and meaning. The process of creating clothes was extensive and time-intensive, a model that Mishra embraces. Kumar and Mishra, both use the same medium but with different work models and emphasis. Mishra's ideologies emanate from Gandhian philosophy, and he uses multiple hands and participatory paradigm slowing the fashion purposefully; and Kumar's showcases hard work of the artisans in creation of beautiful, timeless designs.
Kumar engages in a significant amount of research to ensure that the apparel product is designed and created to meet both consumer need and skill level of artisans. She further works with special projects to revive dying arts and preserve the culture, and provide sustainable living for artisans. Mishra creates a new process, and works with artisans to design and create products that also meet the consumer need and contribute to skill adaptation for sustained living for artisans. Kumar adapts to the skills of the artisans, whereas Mishra helps artisan adapt their skills. Both designers create successful sustainable luxury and slow fashion that sustains the earth, people, and the community. Participants in a study conducted by Pookulangara and Shepard agreed that slow fashion has quality, is expensive, and would have classic styling that never goes out of fashion. This resonates with both the designers in this research.
Some key themes or takeaways that emerged from the case of these two designers:
*Fashion has the power to bring positive change. Fashion nonverbally communicates to masses and leads societies towards that uprising. When fashion manifests positive change, it immediately sends subliminal messages to asses. Today's high-speed technologies provide fast dissemination tools to spread the visual and textual communication.
*Create a culturally relevant product that is trans-seasonal and is cherished for a long time. Its longevity, exclusiveness, and quality make it a sustainable luxury. A culturally germane product is zeitgeist and holds value. Such products can be designed with a luxury price tag because of the use of exclusive materials and skilled quality craftsmanship. They do not need to follow the typical season, but rather worn throughout the year, and for several years.
*Nurture the crafts and provide them venues as they provide cultural diversity and preserve them. According to W Davis, maintaining cultural diversity is vital to conserving social, spiritual, and ecological knowledge. A designer can become the middleman to connect diverse creators to the consumer by providing channels to market the product.
*Commit to ethos and crafts of a region or country, and appreciate imperfection that is natural to handwork. The integrity of regional diversity can be robust if the character of the place is respected. Further, machine-made has created a norm of identical products rather than inimitable products that are created by the human hand.
*Slow down the process of production by collaborating and employing multiple hands and creating a story. Slowing down the entire system of creation as well as consumption has the potential to become a slow movement.
*Make a connection with the art and the artist through told and untold stories. Sharing such stories create transparency in the supply chain and provide an opportunity to connect with the soul of the consumer. Encourage users to get away from a model of consumption and focus on participatory engagement.
*Always use natural biodegradable slow fibres that are created using sustainable processes. Use of conscious materials will ensure meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
*Sustainability encompasses a four-pronged approach; all designers can contribute to sustainable luxury by focusing on the environment, employment, empowerment, and equity.
But then, any product which is a luxury product, does it cause harm to nature? Or one may compare similar products in that category as which product is better and causes less damage to nature? If this message of a product's effect on the environment, as well as people, gets straight to the consumer, the chances are that the product will be more successful. The luxury product has a better life and stays with the customer for a longer period. For a product during the manufacturing process and also during its life, if it causes least possible damage to the environment and creates sustainable employment and well-being, it is definitely the best sustainable luxury product.
The general public feels good about saving Mother Earth, causing no or less pollution. But how many of us follow it sincerely? On a different level, a similar theory could be propagated about luxury products as sustainable. On the one hand, if buying a luxury product is considered a privilege for oneself, purchasing sustainable products can also be considered privilege to society or environment. Creating opportunities for people with talent is also a great contribution to transforming a product as sustainable. The demand here is to make the product exclusive that involves various factors like materials, bizarre creativity.
Though few brands are making this concept their unique selling proposition, it is a new wave that is being followed by some of the luxury brands. The best aspect of advertising such a concept makes it highly aspiration. This aspiration ultimately puts pressure on others in the system to make it a lifestyle option. Finally, it may result in a phenomenon that can bring change in the society holistically, rather than just as an emotional upsurge.
The positive and negative impacts of this could be studied broadly. The positive aspect directs towards phenomena, which may bring about a positive change. On the other hand, the negative impact suggests a consumer behaviour that is stuck in a stigma by causing harm to the environment by not using eco-friendly products. Also, as a matter of fact with societal patterns changing the definition of luxury, sustainability itself is subject to evolution and change.
So, from an oxymoron hypothesis to a concept that seems like a perfect amalgamation making it rare and expensive, sustainability and luxury go hand in hand. Sustainable luxury can be equated with high-quality slow fashion that will inspire consumers to slow down consumption, engage in considerate purchases, and become involved users. Thoughtful purchases will endure and create a cycle of mindful purchases that are antithesis to disposable fashion. In the next ten years, luxury will be synonymous with sustainability as it will be good for both people and planet.
About the authors:-
Anupama Pasricha, Ph.D. is the Chair of the Department of Apparel, Merchandising and Design at St. Catherine University, USA. She is also the Executive Director of Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Practices (ESRAP) and serves on Sol Inspirations, an eco-fashion social enterprise. She has 20+ years of global teaching and research experience in traditional Indian textiles, apparel design, product development, socio-cultural aspects of dress, and sustainability. She advocates for ethical designers and brands. In partnership with Historical Society of Minnesota, USA, she is working on a sustainable women's collection made from Indian textile.
Mohit Bharadwaj is Asst. Professor of Design Programmes at GD Goenka School of Fashion & Design. He has rich industry experience of 11 years covering all the important aspects of fashion and product design. He contributes fashion and trend stories to prominent fashion magazines and journals. He is also involved in providing entrepreneurial support to most of the upcoming national and international designers.