Today, adopting a “cause” is perhaps the fastest way to make a statement – even a fashion statement. With all the “designer” causes that are gracing the runway these days, it sure seems to be the ‘in thing’ to do. They’ve seen success; they’ve made their money. Now fashion designers want to use their fame and creative genius to do some social good.
At the top of the heap of those who want to make a difference, of course, are talented women designers, who have aligned themselves with issues as diverse as female foeticide and education to saving the fast-disappearing breed of film poster artists.
Fashionistas of the West may have set the trend such as the efforts of the Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and leading designer Vera Wang who used their name to the Fashion and Friends for Japan initiative, in support of the earthquake and tsunami victims.
Take Mumbai-based designer Archana Kochhar, who works with the NGOs, Beti, a social movement against female foeticide, and Nanhi Kali, dedicated to ensuring primary education for underprivileged girl children.
Says Kochhar, “Today even though we call ourselves a progressive country we have places where a girl child is killed soon after birth. And there are girls who are excluded from education because they are married off as soon as they reach puberty. I have a daughter and I know how precious she is to us. In my own way I am trying to make people aware of this curse in our society.”
And what’s this way that Kochhar has adopted? She ensures that all her shows become platforms where people are sentitised on issues pertaining to the girl child and civil society organisations are allowed to distribute their pamphlets at the venue. Moreover, she donates a part of the sale proceeds to them and even encourages her regular customers to donate money at the venue itself.
Not far behind in showing her philanthropic side to the world is young Sabah Khan. The Mumbai couturier may be all of 22 years, but her work has already caught the eye of none other than His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.
Khan came into the limelight when she presented her debut collection, titled ‘No Class’, at last year’s Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. Her inspiration: The inhabitants of Dharavi’s slums. Ever since she was a student the NIFD in Mumbai, she had wanted to do something to highlight the plight of those forced to live in slums. And so she did with her designs. For that collection, the prints on her garments were pictures of children from slums across Mumbai.
Of course, her commitment to the cause did not end with that first show. Khan has been a part of various projects of the RACH Charity Foundation, that develops and supports community-based initiatives for the social and economic development of mainly slum locations in India. She says, “Fashion has to be fun but also have a meaning. For me, it is my kind of thoughts and my attitude to work for the overall development of these slums. As long as through my shows I can carry a universal message of helping deprived children, I will feel good about being a designer.”
There’s another young designer who is fervently seeking this feel-good factor from her work. It’s Delhi-based Nida Mahmood, who has decided to speak up for the fast-disappearing breed of artists, who hand-paint Hindi film posters. “Poster artists went out of work 10 years ago and my endeavour is to bring their art back into circulation,” she says.
So, along with artist Raul Chandra, Mahmood has set up a trust, the New India Bioscope Company, with five poster artists from Delhi and two from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Just like Khan has pictures of slum children on her clothes, Mahmood has Bollywood posters painted on to her designer-wear. And, according to Mahmood, 75 per cent of what she gets from the sale of her poster-art products goes towards the welfare of these artists.
Preserving or reviving a traditional craft or art has been a favourite cause of Indian designers. There are designers like the Ahmedabad-based Purvi Doshi, whose particular interest lies in hand-woven fabrics and handcrafted works – like Mashru of Gujarat, Luckhnawi of Uttar Pradesh, Ikkat of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, woven kota of Madhya Pradesh, khand of Pune (Maharashtra) and leheriya of Rajasthan.
Stating her fashion mission, Doshi says, “Through my label, which represents ethnic Indian art ensembles, I would love to revive dying art forms, and hold programmes to benefit the grassroots workers of the fashion industry – our craftspersons.”
While it’s understandable that a lone designer here and there can’t make much of a difference to the desperate and dismal lives of traditional craftspersons and dying art forms, it’s a start nonetheless. As veteran textile designer Neeru Kumar, who had opened the recently-concluded Wills LifeStyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) in Delhi, had stated in the media after her show: “Since 1984 I have been working with them [craftspersons]. But let me be very clear – I’m not trying to be a saint; I’m not trying to save a dying tradition, because that’s something that I cannot do alone. It needs the patronage of the entire community.” Kumar has been working with the Kantha embroidery workers from Bengal for more than a decade now. She has also been championing the Indian weaves at international level, which indirectly is helping the small weavers.
Of course, the one woman whose name one cannot ignore while talking of the revival of Indian weaves is Delhi-based design diva Ritu Kumar. Known for ethnic creations, Ritu has been lending a helping hand to several grassroots artisans. She has helped revive traditional Indian crafts like block prints, chikankari, zardozi and kalamkari. And at the recent WIFW she presented a Kanjeevaram weaves collection, in order to help contemporarise this weave and bring its weavers to into the spotlight.
South Indian designers too are trying to make a difference. Deepika Govind has been working with different weavers to experiment with fabric and also dyes. Says she, “Such specialised weavers need committed support from the design community to survive.”
Environment too has emerged on the runway. Designers like Mumbai-based Anita Dongre have gone green with their creations. Dongre’s signature brand, Grassroot, uses only green textiles and she is associated with Shop For Change, an NGO working to promote the concept of fair trade in India. “The NGO offers better deals to farmers so that they can earn more money,” says Dongre. This helps her in buying bulk cotton from certified organic cotton vendors at a fair price.
There are several other designers, both male and female – Sanchita Ajjampur, Anupama Dayal, Kallol Dutta, Soumitra Mondal, Wendell Rodricks, Imcha Imen, Digvijay Singh to name a few, who are all trying to do something for the greater social good. Besides designing great clothes, they are helping an industry, known largely for its name, fame and glam, to reach out to the real world and make a difference to marginalised lives.