Fashion connoisseurs and sartorial novices alike have been talking about how the pandemic persuaded the Indian fashion market and its consumers to embrace an ethical-minded approach. While there are many labels that claim to uphold standards of sustainability, the brands that have thoroughly built such a culture in their businesses and heralded a green change through their products are few and far between. Gurugram-based Arti Gehlot’s sartorial and accessories label Kirgiti is one such brand that has made great strides in achieving their sustainability goals.
When Gehlot (29)—a fashion design graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kangra, Himachal Pradesh —decided to become an entrepreneur, her main focus was to “work with small artisan groups to promote India’s craft forms”. However, as she commenced her journey as an entrepreneur in 2018, she decided to prioritise a sustainable approach given the urgent need to address and examine how the fashion industry contributes to the environmental crisis. Gehlot shares, “This is why I incorporated sustainable practices along with Indian hand-crafted techniques to create products. For example, we use Dabu [the traditional mud-resist technique of block printing with origins in Rajasthan] making use of only natural colours. We also craft our bags using cork [she explains that it is a “natural and environment-friendly material that biodegrades without leaving toxic residues” unlike leather or other unsustainable materials. Also, harvesting cork does not include cutting the tree.].”
A conscious effort
Recounting her entrepreneurial journey, Gehlot says that she started by showcasing only 10 designs at a Dastkar exhibition in 2018. Paying heed to our curiosity about her decision to do so, she explains, “It was to test the market. Also, to be honest, I had limited cash [to start the business], and zero experience as I come from a working-class family. The main concern was to sustain in a competitive market.”
Currently, Gehlot works with both craft clusters and smaller artisan groups across India. A few crafts that her label has incorporated in their products include Dabu block print from Jodhpur, Ada hand embroidery from the outskirts of Delhi, Jaipur’s Bandhej, Ajrakh [a wooden hand-block printing technique] from Kutch, Crochet from Rohtak, Haryana.
We ask Gehlot if the brand name ‘Kirgiti’ has any special significance. Divulging that it is to honour the passion and positivity she witnessed in an artisan named Kirgiti—Gehlot interacted with Kirgiti during a field visit while in college wherein she had to visit a craft cluster and document its process—the designer says, “Kirgiti was one of the artisans who lost her sight due to working as a weaver amid low-light conditions for years. I tried reaching the local medical authorities but unfortunately, her age limited the possibility of surgery. I met her a few times after, and we bonded really well. During the course of our interactions, she never shared any regrets or had any complaints, but always loved talking about her work. Kirgiti inspired me to work in the crafts sector, and hence I named the brand after her.”
Tiding over challenges
The linchpins to being a sustainable fashion brand include use of natural materials and processes, being fair trade, fair pay, and zero waste, among so much more. Gehlot discusses the steps that her brand takes in implementing these factors, “We pay our artisans on the work they do, which is fixed by evaluating the time spent on any design at the time of sampling. This also gives them more freedom to work on other projects. It also helps them understand pricing that they can then quote to other buyers. Another thing is, we never work on credit with our artisans; we produce only what we can pay for up front or in advance.”
Discussing the provision of flexible work options for female employees, she says, “Most of our artisans are women, and they work from home only as per their time convenience.” Kirgiti also focuses on skill development of their craftspersons to improve their proficiency, “We conduct workshops with artisans to enhance their skills.”
How about transparency and traceability to build consumer trust? Gehlot addresses this point, adding, “We make sure we document the work as much as possible; customers can see the making process through videos or photos of any product they buy.” Learning that hers is a zero-waste brand—adopting and adhering to zero-waste measures is something many sustainable brands struggle with—we ask her how challenging it is to tackle waste created post production. “Yes, sometimes it is challenging,” shares Gehlot, explaining, “as we have to work and design around the scrap from main production. It requires more brainstorming in design, more labour cost, more time. The final outcome is a small product, which customers are not ready to pay a lot for,” she says.
Businesses, especially in the sartorial space, thrive on brand name and a steady clientele. Not to mention that sustainable brands, though ‘trendy’ and in focus currently, are often sidelined given their higher price points compared to unethical fast-fashion labels. How difficult was it then to jump on the ‘conscious’ bandwagon in such an evolving space? Gehlot concludes, “Even if a customer had the buying capacity, they would prefer a more known brand. It took some time to build customer trust, showcasing to them that hand-crafted products can also have quality and durability. We never kept our prices too high and that helped us in building our client base. Our goal is to educate the consumer that sustainable products can also be affordable.”