With sustainability emerging as a keyword in fashion, designers look to an age-old Indian idea for inspiration.
Today, the importance of sustainability highlights the need to conserve raw materials and reuse waste. And so, increasingly, global attention has turned to Indian practices of jugaad, seeking inspiration from the country’s ingenious reuse of materials and spirit of innovation. The meeting between luxury and jugaad may seem surprising, as luxury is associated with exclusivity and wealth. Conversely, jugaad is a Hindi word to describe anarchic reuse. Born from want of resources, jugaad results in ingenious solutions to everyday problems. Wikipedia conflates jugaad with the word ‘hack’, meaning any form of creative intervention that subverts mass-produced products through re-adaptation. At the heart of jugaad is a critique of capitalism itself: a call for creativity, self-expression, and the hand-made. Jugaad can be summed up as an attitude to life. Hence the confluence of jugaad with luxury is powerful, especially since we live in what renowned fashion critic Suzy Menkes calls a ‘post-luxury’ world. Here, experiences and meaning overtake luxury’s usual associations with conspicuous displays of wealth and status.
In Indian fashion, jugaad provokes new attitudes towards reuse. An early example was NID faculty member and designer Anuj Sharma’s first collection, Sunday Market, for AW/07, made from second-hand shirts. “Design is currently taught and understood as a way to achieve desires, but I have always understood it as a way to use what we have, and manage within those limitations and achieve almost everything in that framework,” he says. Even today, jugaad informs Sharma’s use of anything from rubber bands to paper clips in his designs. He anchors flat fabrics with these add-ons and then fastens them in multiple ways to produce several items of clothing from a single piece of cloth.
In Bollywood-ruled Mumbai, accessories designer Shilpa Chavan’s 2011 Fleurs du Mal collection for her label Little Shilpa took inspiration from 19th-century French poet Baudelaire’s The Ragpickers, adding another dimension to our understanding of jugaad. Ragpickers existed at the margins, converting what society discarded into something of value. Baudelaire saw the ragpicker as metaphorical for French society during the cultural and social upheaval. The ragpicker’s poetic relevance to India and the world today is profound, given that after the energy industry, fashion production and consumption come a close second when it comes to creating waste.
Little Shilpa Fleurs du Mal 2011 collection
Although designers like Chavan and Sharma make only small interventions in a vast fashion system, the changes they bring are disproportionately important for their visionary use of up-cycled materials. By giving waste a role in aspirational fashion and luxury, these designers change perceptions. In 2014, Delhi-based Amit Aggarwal, known for his experimental, sculptural gowns, launched a diffusion line under the cleverly punctuated label AM:IT. Since then, each season, he has reimagined industrial waste, redeeming it from the iniquity of the factory floor and elevating waste materials to high fashion with a ludic, provocative undertone. Take, for example, his challenging use of waste sheets left over from the production of stick-on bindis for his AW/15 collection. Bindis are a traditional symbol of Indian womanhood, and the voided space left from their production combined with the sculptural challenging silhouettes seemed to comment on the shifting realities of urban India today. “I think as a culture we are born with the idea of jugaad,” says Aggarwal. “I'm a scavenger; I don’t like when things are handed to me on a plate.”
AM:IT by Amit Aggarwal's AW15 collection
Rather than hammer home a heavy-handed sustainability message, Aggarwal speaks though the arresting beauty of his unusual design signature. “I love to hunt for things and I derive an enormous pleasure from finding beauty in things that no one else values. I like working hard to get something; it’s an Indian middle-class mentality perhaps,” he adds. In this, he follows a tradition of which Martin Margiela is considered a pioneer. Margiela deconstructed clothing, exposing raw seams and shoulder pads, and used up-cycled materials from plastic shopping bags to furniture. Margiela was one of the fashion’s greatest deconstructionists, what the French call “la mode destroy”. But this disruptive force was for positive ends. In questioning fashion’s purpose and by up-cycling unexpected materials, Margiela shone new light on the fashion system and how consumers relate to it. The influence of Margiela on fashion internationally is enormous.
Abraham and Thakore's AW15 collection
The use of waste is especially powerful when it comments poetically on its social and cultural context. Abraham and Thakore’s AW/15 collection used discarded hospital X-rays cut into oversize ‘sequins’, layered onto sari borders and shimmering coats. The X-rays could be seen as a metaphor for A&T’s consistent questioning of fashion. Their X-ray vision of Indian fashion refuses trends, adheres to a craft-led slow production cycle, and plays with received notions of glamour, beauty, and ornamentation.
As new generations of designers in India emerge, many are taking forward the inherent creativity and resonance with sustainability inherent in jugaad. Karishma Shahani’s label Ka-Sha often collages together fabric waste from production into new garments. Aneeth Arora’s label Pero, known for its signature hand-woven bohemian style, frequently up-cycles waste fabric into beguiling details such as flowers and cloth tassels on scarves. Many designers harness techniques akin to traditional practices of reuse such as the Kantha stitch, and layer together used textiles. In a different vein, jewellery designers such as Krithaa practice jugaad with techniques similar to metal beaters and iron welders who repurpose machinery parts. The unorthodox reuse of materials that lies at the heart of jugaad informs Krithaa’s approach, where bolts become earrings and internal watch mechanisms find new life as stylish cufflinks.
Ka-Sha by Karishma Shahani
If frugality lies at the heart of jugaad innovation, the emergence of jugaad in designer fashion provokes a set of questions regarding the relationships between identity, aesthetics, and the morality of consumption in a world where urgent solutions are required to address issues of climate change. The imperfect fragments left from industrial production, when reused as part of the aesthetics of luxury and fashion, become important devices in narrating the relationship between people, places, histories, and futures. They make us question and think, but they do so through beauty and wit. They remind us that we cannot take things for granted and that waste is only a cultural category that demands new and innovative ways of seeing.
(Lead image: Designer Aneeth Arora's collection)
Images courtesy: Facebook and Getty Images
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