What is Truly Slow Fashion? Talking Sustainability, Textiles and Legacy with Vidhi Agarwal of ‘Meiraas’

In all of my exposure to Indian sustainable fashion labels, I’ve often come across an amusing amount tokenism and greenwashing. A tendency akin to students wanting to pass an examination by doing the bare minimum, most ‘slow’ and ‘sustainable’ brands turn out not to be as hunky-dory and ethical as they market themselves to be. The indigenous, slow techniques are present; but dig deeper and you find kaam-chalao (half-hearted) craftsmanship done quickly or sparsely on mill-made powerloom fabrics. The artisan is involved, but in the cheapest (sometimes, unfair) wage the brand can possibly manage. As a designer myself, I understand how this stems from a place of fear. Brands are so afraid to make things truly slow or handcrafted because of the production cost involved. They fear not being ‘mass’ enough or large scale enough, and that they wouldn’t find a customer who pays for truly sustainable clothing. Very few brands stand out amid the sustainable clutter, brands that go the extra mile for their eco-footprint. It’s not just the end product, but even the process and the lives of the people involved that matters when you do sustainable fashion.

Meiraas, by Vidhi Agarwal, is a slow fashion brand goes off the beaten path in its elegant strategies and refreshing approach to sustainability. A regular follower of this breathtaking slow design label, I knew that if there is one person who I’d love to take the time to interview, it had to be the mind behind a label as tastefully ethical as this one. They do Chikankari like very few others I’ve come across in a long time; with a serious sense of courage and conviction in their revival of techniques and motifs from design archives that go back up to a hundred years in the craft tradition. A fusion of timelessly traditionalist aesthetics and modern design, every garment tells a story and talks of muses, inspiration, art, heritage and culture. The lines between art and design are blurred, Meiraas appears to play the roles a business and a cultural emblem of Lucknowi textile heritage at once. Producing limited ranges, with breathtaking pieces that take months to create and are seldom repeated; this artisan empowering approach to revivalist slow fashion is surprising and commendable at once. What is it like to run a label that takes attention to detail to another level altogether? How’s it like to operate on a system of old world, meticulous, slow fashion patronage in a dizzyingly digital age like 2019?  Read on for an interview to peek inside the mind of a slow fashion designer, and scroll till the end for a video embed that showcases their ‘Falaknuma Chikankari’ motifs, revived and conceptualised breathtakingly.

1) The first thing one notices about Meiraas is how it creates truly immaculate pieces. Every detail is carefully considered, artisanal, slow and sustainable. What planted the seed to start a brand of this nature, involving such painstaking efforts? What would you say is your design philosophy?

To start with, thank you so much for such kind words. Our design philosophy is very straightforward – We Make Wearable Art Pieces. This seed was planted with travel. Being Indian History aficionados, our study of ancient sculptures and Indian art made us realise that Indian civilisation has long thrived on agriculture and textiles, which is the case even today. However, back then, these skills were nurtured into fine lifestyle choices due to promotion and patronage by royalty. This patronage strengthened skills in these mass employing fields, giving a chance of a better life to farmers and craftspeople. This is a design philosophy that inspired us more than anything else, it is where Meiraas saw the need to break away from the standard mass production model, instead focusing on the careful revival of crafted art pieces.

2) A lot of sustainable fashion brands still feel pressured to produce often and in sizeable quantities, catering to maximum customers at minimum production cost. Meiraas employs time-consuming and intensive craft practices, on the other hand, releasing limited, exclusive lines in small quantities over intervals of time. Some pieces may even be one of a kind, not to be repeated. How is it like to work in a production model so different from the mainstream? What is your biggest challenge with karigari-centric slow fashion?

This is the irony of our times. On one hand, it is deeply encouraging that so many entrepreneurs and patrons alike are realising the need to switch to sustainable fashion. But on the other hand, they are yet to come to terms with the general ethos of slow fashion. Slow and sustainable means less production, nuanced craft, more attention to detail, promotion/revival of fine craftsmanship. It means bringing this all together with cutting edge design for a modern, adaptable wardrobe that is relevant and usable. If we do not take time to understand how this all goes together, how are we promoting slow fashion? We used to feel the pressure of “catching up” and always having something ready when a patron enquires, but eventually we realised that we need to focus, instead, on educating our patrons about the significance of our slow manufacturing practices. We started sharing this aspect on our Instagram Stories and received an overwhelming feedback every time. We decided that instead of diving into a mad rat race, we’d rather have faith in our patrons by taking the time to explain why our pieces take so much time. We are glad to say that, as of today, Meiraas pieces have a booking line. Clients wait patiently as they have begun to understand the slow fashion processes that we shared with them.

3) What would you say constitutes truly sustainable fashion design? Are there any aspects to Meiraas’s unique practice of sustainability that you aspire to make even better in the near future?

To understand this, we need to understand sustainability in its truest sense. A practice that promotes and sustains a better lifestyle, better products, better skills, holistic development, is a truly sustainable economic practise. The currency of this “better” is Happiness in all these four aspects, not just Money. This is the key differentiating factor in a sustainable economy and a profit driven economy. Profit is a boon for an economy, but solely profits with zero attention to sustainable lifestyles is a bane. Fashion and textiles are certainly an important part of the backbone of the economy, as it is one the largest sectors of employment. Therefore, truly Sustainable Fashion Design is one that takes care of these four aspects for the people involved in its creation, over the long term:

1) A better lifestyle for craftspeople, which denotes an ability to enjoy a consistent work-life balance.

2) Better Product – Durable, long lasting products that are usable over a long period of time, hence ecologically conscious for the planet.

3) Better Skills – Sustained opportunities for skill growth to enable healthy competition on the basis of craftsmanship rather than price point

4) Holistic Development – Development of everyone in the chain, not just one or two beneficiary persons; creating a distribution of development. THIS is Truly Sustainable Fashion Design. All aspects of Meiraas aim to reach this stage and we strive to continuously work towards this goal.

4) What is a change that you desire to see in the sustainable fashion movement in India, including both industry and consumers?

To take time, to take three deep breaths, think, and truly understand sustainability, rather than use it as a fancy hashtag without any idea about what it actually means. The patience to understand, comprehend and then apply, is the biggest change we wish to see among both industry and consumers.

5) The practice of ‘greenwashing’ is aplenty on social media, brands often pass off their wares as eco-friendly or craft-revival even when they may not truly be. What do you think should be done about this widespread marketing misinformation, as a brand that prides authenticity?

Greenwashing is extremely rampant, and not just with nondescript pages that mushroom on social media overnight. Its a prevalent practice among the big names in fashion as well. We see “plastic free” exhibitions, but let’s face it, it cannot logistically be truly plastic free. Almost everyone is selling “weaves” with “natural dyes.” The only way we have found to be effective so far is to share authentic information on your social media handle regularly. For example, Meiraas makes it a point to talk transparently about how we maintain authenticity. Initially, it was tough, for not many people have the patience to read when scrolling stories. The more we used Instagram Stories as a platform for conversation, we witnessed the change happen. Stories are engaging spaces that help tremendously. We also make IGTV Videos to this effect. While we can hold more brand/blogger talks certainly, it is critical that it reaches the end consumer. The important point is that this has to be a continuous effort, not just a sporadic occurence. Only then will it drive the point home. Brands have to look beyond sales, and that rarely happens. I strongly feel that if my narrative is set right, the sales will automatically follow.

6) How does Meiraas differentiate itself from the plethora of sustainable/slow/craft-centric luxury brands that are on the rise lately?

Now this is a feedback given to us by clients, and one that took us by surprise. While we talk about sustainability and slow fashion, we have always been appreciated for never being arrogant or condescending towards patrons who do not understand these terms. We have shown immense patience in addressing each query, and taken significant efforts to educate our clients on these concepts. You will be surprised to know that for many of our clients, initially, Meiraas was the first slow fashion buy. They they never knew what this term meant before that. We feel that this is a key differentiating factor in promoting slow fashion and artisan made goods. Your stance has to be inclusive to help the message reach minds.

Secondly, Meiraas has always taken risks when it comes to design. Whether it is our Awadh inspired Falaknuma Chikankari motifs, experimenting with Handcrafted Arts on Handwoven Fabrics, or launching Chikankari on unconventional base fabrics like Linen or Khadi, Meiraas has always pushed the design envelope to create Wearable Art. Most of these risks worked outextremely well. Some are yet to work. But what this has given us is the faith of our patrons have in us today, who believe that the amount of money they spend on an article of Meiraas will always prove to be worth it.

Meiraas is also one the very few brands that still takes bookings of pieces, like real couture. Our patrons are patient, ready to wait 3-6 months while their pieces get made, and this is the case not just for a handful but for almost all of them. This, we think, is our differentiated stance.

7) Is there a brand, designer or entity whose work gives you tremendous inspiration?

The work of Meiraas is predomiantly inspired by Architecture, History, Travel, Stories and Indian Museum displays. However, I I have been inspired by Bhanu Athaiya’s work since forever! When I design something, to this day, I wonder what Ms. Athaiya would say if she happens to see this piece. I never met her, or know her personally, so it is more of an Eklavya story here wherein I have learnt from a distance. I never copy her designs, I just imbibe her sensibility and reimagine what I wish to make from her lens. My designs are also heavily influenced by Meena Kumari’s dressing sensibility – classic, elegant & poetic. Apart from these, I also admire the timeless creations of Edith Head.

8) If you had all the funding you ever needed, what’s a dream project or creation that Meiraas would work on?

I honestly feel that too much funding makes the work less smart and more spendthrift in a wasteful sense, so I am very happy working practically cheque to cheque for now. It is making me take smart decisions (well, mostly) and ensuring that I make this venture truly sustainable in all respects. Most importantly, retaining the jobs of my support staff. But yes, one day, when I am well settled into establishing my basics, and generate some funds, I want to open a Concept Heritage Store in Lucknow for all Awadhi Crafts that will be a complete throwback to Awadh era. It will be a place where people can see craft happening live, learn via workshops, see some exceptional museum quality work, enjoy experiential shopping, take heritage walks, sit in an Awadh theme cafe and while away time – something that promotes local jobs, local craft and local tourism. I wish to contribute this to my birthplace as an educated and conscious citizen of Lucknow. I also wish to make a short film on Chikankari someday, but I still have a long way to go for that.

 

To view the work of Meiraas, visit their website or follow their Instagram for some breathtaking artisanal inspiration. I hope you enjoyed this read as much as I enjoyed conversing with this beautiful mind. Do share this article with someone that you know loves slow fashion, textile heritage and sustainable inspiration.

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