Nature Alley is giving khadi a chic makeover and we want more!

With its contemporary, minimalistic designs, Nature Alley is giving khadi a makeover it deserves.



This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva


If the word ‘khadi’ has you thinking Nehru sadris and kurtas in tones of sepia, then you are not alone.  Khadi is a fabric with a woeful past. Khadi is coarse cotton fabric, traditionally handspun on the charkha and handwoven on home-based looms. The fabric became a symbol of self-reliance, equality, and, economic and political betterment during the Independence era and was used by Gandhi as a tool to subvert the British practice of dumping cheap, mass produced garments in India. Through people spinning, weaving, and wearing their own khadi, Gandhi saw a way out of poverty and oppression and a path to swaraj. When people wove their own garments, they were assured of products that could last longer, requiring them to buy fewer of them.

Although the romance of khadi is evoked at Independence Day sales with terms like ‘freedom fabric’, the establishment of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) and the network of Khadi Gramudyogs, where the fabric is sold at heavily discounted prices, has not done much to boost its popularity or sustain purchase. At the other end of the spectrum are designers taking khadi to the ramp, launching the occasional khadi line, but with no sustained commitment to the backward and forward linkages in its production and consumption. The two have combined to cement khadi’s status as belonging either to India’s bucolic back alleys or to the glitz of the high street.

For the eco-conscious consumer, there is no better choice than khadi. Hand spun and woven manually, it consumes no fossil fuel. It also consumes significantly less water than is used in mills for the baling, ginning, washing, and processing of the cotton. Dyed with mostly natural pigments, it is also far less polluting and safer than conventional cotton textiles. Moreover, since it continues to be a community based industry, khadi weaving provides agricultural families an alternative occupation and a supplementary income source all year round. The most important value of khadi however is its ability to root garment production in the community, connect various links in the production chain to one another, and thereby bring the wearer closer to the weaver. This is something that the large, powerloom sector, with its disaggregated sourcing and production systems has failed to do.

From khadi bhandar to mass market

As I wait for Nature Alley founder Tara Aslam at the brand’s quaint little store, I browse through the racks of khadi garments and think how far khadi has come since the days of the kurta. Tara founded Nature Alley in 2012, using her long experience in garment retail to give wings to her longtime dream of wearing stylish, well-designed khadi clothing regularly. A die-hard Gandhian, she says, “Khadi is much more than a fabric. It has the power to improve the health and the economic well-being of the community. if properly supported.” Nature Alley works to guide khadi out of the niche it occupies as the fabric of the ‘socialists and the socialites’ and make it appealing to mainstream sensibilities using good designs that can be styled variously.  “For a generation far removed from the freedom struggle, no longer is wistful reminiscing about the fabric enough to give it a place in their wardrobes, which is the future we envision for khadi. We give customers well-designed clothes without the designer price tags”, she says, summing up Nature Alley’s efforts crisply.

Tara Aslam walks the ramp with her artisan and a model in a Nature Alley creation

Tara Aslam walks the ramp with her artisan and a model in a Nature Alley creation

The brand’s farm to fashion approach makes it socially and environmentally sustainable across the value chain.  In order to ensure that the fabric it works with is of the best and safest grade, Nature Alley works closely with Tula, an organization dedicated to developing a sustainable crop to garment cotton value chain using environmentally and socially just practices. Production is localized as much as possible, centred in Karnataka. The spun yarn is purchased from government spinning units in Badanwal after which it is woven into fabric at the Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote and dyed using natural, non-toxic mordants and dyes. The fabric is then designed and fashioned into a range of garments by Nature Alley and stitched using pedal machines by artisans in Melkote. To give garments the additional flourish, they are hand embroidered by women’s groups across the state.

A weaver at work at a frame loom

A weaver at work at a frame loom

And that’s not all. In what makes it truly sustainable, Nature Alley takes care to use every bit of fabric it receives. “We realized early on that these fabrics are precious and so we upcycle and reduce waste as much as possible”, informs Tara. Fabric scraps and cut-bits of all sizes are collected and segregated colourwise. The smaller ones are used to make pieces of jewellery like bangles and earrings.  Bigger bits are sewed by hand into kowdhi (patchwork) garments, durries, mats, and items of home decor. “It is as light a carbon footprint as any modern garment can have”, she says, displaying a unique kowdhi dress lined with a beautiful old kalamkari sari.

“We have come a long way since we began”, says Tara wistfully, echoing my first impressions. The brand’s collection is eclectic with Tara drawing design inspiration from across the world. “My focus is not on creating Indo-Western wear but on designs with a global appeal”, she explains. The Nature Alley collection was recently showcased at the Karnataka Fashion Week 2015 and includes high-waisted trousers, peplum and crop tops, jackets, summery dresses, layered tunics, classic kurtas and avant garde mundus in catchy colours. The men’s range has shirts, kurtas, and trousers. The brand also features a kids’ clothing range.

The khadi movement is a slow, painstaking one, not one that can feed the hunger for sameness and instant gratification that fast fashion has created. It can however, create pieces that are truly one of a kind, unique looking garments that stand out with the natural quirks of the handmade fabric – the smallest imperfection in the weave and the faintest shifts in shade. Says Tara, “The handloom garment production chain is one where many entities and tasks are masked, making it hard for consumers to understand the often high prices these products carry.  It is important to acknowledge that unlike the conventional fashion industry which is exploitative in nature, our aim is to adopt fairtrade practices so that everyone involved in producing the garments in the pre-loom and post-loom stages – farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers, designers, tailors, artisans, retailers etc. are able to make a living from being involved in it. Only then does it become viable, sustainable and scalable.”

With its contemporary, minimalistic designs, Nature Alley is changing the messaging around khadi. “Youth today are an aware, discerning lot, keen to learn what goes on in the garment industry. A lot that will not be drawn in by the emotional tales we’ve been weaving around khadi all these years. Our collections show that khadi need not be a fabric to be revered or fashioned into sombre cuts and sober colours. It can be worn by everyone, styled differently, it can be worn irreverently and it will still look great”, she laughs.

Its appearance at various fashion events signals that khadi has finally come into its own and need not remain a product on dole. Tara wants for khadi to have a seat at the table as a mass product, one that is seen and heard of in the public realm. “For this, it needs to be made available, in trendy designs and at affordable prices on the shelves of large retail stores and in malls. Consumers must at least be given the choice to buy it or not, based on its merits. Only then will khadi truly be the freedom fabric.”

 

All images courtesy Nature Alley except where mentioned.

The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 

The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com


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