Ethical Fashion, Mental Health and a Radically Compassionate Label: with Reena Rose Dass

The fashion industry can be a toxic one to work in, what commonly comes to mind is the lives fast fashion garment workers in sweatshops; but the culture of exploitation often prevails as one goes higher up the chain. Fashion’s mental health problem touches the lives of students, interns, assistants, designers, those in high powered positions even. A radical upheaval that sweeps the industry has been due far too long, but tiny and significant changes among a wave of rising small businesses offer hope for a better direction for fashion’s approach to money-making.
Sustainability is never just about the tangible elements of a garment – fibre, biodegradability or weave. It encompasses the lives of the people who made them, one can never talk sustainable fashion without it being synonymous to ethical fashion. The toxic experience of an overworked, overhyped, unethical and underpaid fashion industry job culture is something I’ve experienced myself; and it influenced my move to focus on sustainable fashion as a blogger and self-employed designer in a big way. The desire to step away from an often thankless grind, to ignore the fear mongering of “you can’t be anything if you don’t work under somebody who makes your life hell,” in order to do something from the heart is a common thread that ties both Reena, of eponymous sustainable design label Reena Rose Dass, and I together.
Today, we converse with Reena about the story of how her ethical fashion label came about, much like a phoenix rises from ashes. Read on for an inspiring anecdote, from Reena, on a journey of self-discovery, the courage to stick by your values in a capitalist culture and following your dreams to make the world a better place.

Reena Rose Dass, The Story of an Indian Ethical Fashion Label

I knew that one day, maybe in my 40s or 50s, I would have my own fashion brand, wherein I’d design clothes to my aesthetic – colourful, relaxed and very retro. I’d believed this was far into the future because only then would I have the money to take risks. But everything went upside down after graduation, an upheaval of sorts after working in the ‘industry’ for experience.

My first job as an assistant costume designer taught me so many things about the fashion industry, and the people in it. Back then, working 15 hours a day didn’t feel toxic at all. Haven’t our elders always said, one has to work really hard to be successful? I internalized the grind culture, and eventually carried on to my next job as an assistant stylist. Everything went downhill from there. I wasn’t just ‘working hard’ anymore, I was slogging my ass. There was absolutely no creative ideation, just imitating looks from Pinterest and a lot of inane shopping. For someone who likes fashion, I’ve always hated shopping. The clothes I wear were usually purchased by my mother, gifted to me, made on my own or sometimes designed by me and stitched by a tailor. My style has always been old fashioned. This made shopping for stylists, keeping in mind the latest trends, a difficult task. I would be yelled at for being slow.
One night, I was at a textile dyer’s home. It was 1am, and this was in a place that was a 2 hours away from my own residence. I was getting a dress dyed for a celebrity, and I was pissed at my boss for making me work so late without paying overtime. This would come across as unsurprising for those who work in fashion, especially freshers, for it’s considered ‘normal’ by too many in this industry. I vented my frustration to the dyer, who was also working equally hard to get the job done.

That was the moment I realized that this job was turning me into something I’m not. I’m a spiritual person. I take care of my mind, my body and my words; this job had disturbed my peace, mentally and physically. In less than a month, I quit my job. I couldn’t be them. I decided to start a brand that will be considerate towards the people working in it. A brand that does not and will not need someone for more than 9 hours a day. A brand that allows one to think freely and express freely. But it wasn’t time yet. 

I was drawn to travel, so I approached a backpacker hostel that I worked with back in college. I spent 6 months interacting with travellers from all over the world. This is where I learnt what sustainable living, and a sustainable life, actually meant. I was inspired, and I knew exactly how I wanted to go forth with my brand.

Initially, for the first collection, I decided to upcycle old sarees. But after conducting a survey, 75% of the people refused to wear garments made up of used sarees.  Disheartened, I went forth with making garments out of new as well as defective sarees that lie around as dead stock in retail shops. Every saree I use is unique, which makes every garment unique and singular. I want people to stand out and feel special wearing my clothes. No matter how identical some pieces look. There will most definitely be something different, either a button or a motif. I want everyone to embrace their unique selves when they’re wearing Reena Rose Dass. My sub-brand “Nokkam,” which means “purpose” in tamil focuses on handmade clothing and accessories. It will be launched when the time is right.

I have a small team of people working for me, local tailors with small family businesses. I work closely with them and their family to make sure no one is ill-treated at work and nothing is wasted in the manufacturing process. I don’t accept urgent orders because it creates unnecessary pressure on my team and it’s just not pleasant. Now that I can freely think and express, my creative juices flow with ease. I already know what I’m going to do for my second collection, and so much more! Fashion is enjoyable now.

– In the words of Reena Rose Dass

The first collection from this label, The Silk Road, is prêt collection inspired by the historic trade network. It features gorgeously modern separates that are refashioned from sarees; interestingly including new sarees and retailer foraged dead stock with a spirit of upcycling. The garments reflect an amalgamation of Indian and Oriental aesthetics, for both India and China were key participants along this ancient trade route; trading precious textiles, gold, antiques and spices. I acquired the ‘Arsi’ Silk Slip Top, the ‘Aksu’ Wrap Top and the ‘Miran’ jacket, all clothing made from sarees with interesting border placements. Here’s how I styled them to create festive Indian fashion looks, both traditional and contemporary with everything from denim jeans to unconventional saree draping:

The Arsi Slip Top, with a tissue linen saree draped to have low hanging cowls on a side.
The Miran Hanfu Jacket with a handloom cotton mul saree styled festive. Draped in a scarf style, the palla going around the neck.
The Miran Hanfu Jacket and the Arsi Slip Top paired together over bootcut denims for a contemporary Indian (or, as some may call it, Indo-Western) wedding outfit.
The Aksu Wrap Top, paired with a Maheshwari cotton-silk tissue saree. The pallu is tightly pleated over the shoulder, with low hanging side cowls.

 

To view more of Reena’s work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram. It does feel wonderful to support a brand that’s all heart, and that’s out there making ripples with its stand on consciousness. The price tags on Reena’s garment mention the names of everybody that was involved in its construction, such a heartwarming detail!

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