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With Ethicus, Vijayalakshmi Nachiar is not only trying to revive traditional textiles and art, but also creating a brand based on sustainable fashion.
At a when the entire country was moving towards mill production, technology intensive manufacturing, and genetically modified cotton, a husband-wife duo in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu moved towards producing eco-friendly cotton with native seeds.
Ethicus started in 2009 by Mani Chinnaswamy and Vijayalakshmi Nachiar basically means ‘Ethics and Us’. It is a brand that promotes ethical clothing, sustainable fashion and works towards reviving the rich local hand-weaving traditions of the area through product development and design intervention. A telephonic conversation with Co-Founder Vijayalakshmi herself, gave me some insights into what Ethicus actually is.
Vijayalakshmi told me that her husband and she are both inheritors of a rich cotton-growing and trading culture. She comes from a family of cotton traders whereas her husband Mani’s family has been living off cotton for three generations through the cotton ginning industry. Despite being from a cotton related background, they decided not to succumb to the prevailing wisdom about mill production and GM cotton; instead, they went organic.
“Our families had been living off cotton for three generations, and it is one of the major polluting industries in our country. So we thought, why not do our business differently?”
Not only do they promote textiles produced on handlooms, they also own the Appachi Cotton Mill in Pollachi, the company behind the brand ‘Ethicus’. Here they produce eco-logic cotton with native seeds and not the genetically-modified crop.
While describing why handloom clothes are expensive, Vijayalakshmi says, “As far as the handloom industry is considered, everything is handmade so it is a slow process. It is not an assembly line kind of process. Handloom means labour and good work, and labour costs only increase day after day so there is no way that we could ever compete with the mill made assembly-line product. It is a very special and slow product that is the speciality of handloom. So if handloom has to survive, the weaver and other people involved should be able to earn a wage that is enough to feed their family. If the earning is not even able to sustain their livelihood then it’s useless.”
We often tend to think that handloom clothes are pretty expensive and are restricted to a certain class of people. What we easily neglect is the amount of effort that goes into making handloom clothes.
We easily succumb to fast fashion without realising that most fast fashion brands use environmentally high cost materials like nylon and polyester. Also, a lot of fast fashion companies get their clothes stitched in from low cost countries like Bangladesh while paying workers extremely low wages. On the other hand, the indigenous handloom industry works on the idea of fair pay for labour.
Ehicus not only produces clothes but the clothes produced have a story behind them. The spring/summer collection of this year is named ‘Crossroads’.
Vijayalakshmi explains, “So a couple of years back my husband and I did an ornithology course in Bombay and when we looked around at our place we found that we live in a bird paradise, a place for beautiful endemic birds. So I thought why not take the inspiration of colour from the birds. The latest collection is inspired by the colours of the ‘Birds of the Anamalais & Coimbatore’ and the lines, angles & blocks of the iconic ‘Madras Checks‘ the timeless fashion fabric from South India and that’s how we came up with crossroads.”
Of course, the journey has not been a cakewalk. Talking about the many challenges faced, Vijayalakshmi says, “Branding is one of the biggest challenges. When Ethicus was launched there was no branded handloom saree in the market. So we thought if handloom has to survive we need to take a non-branded product and get it a branded approach.”
It is a fact that most handloom sarees in the market are sold by their type for instance as ‘Ikat’ or ‘Chanderi silk’ etc but there are very few known by their brand name.
Apart from branding, Vijayalakshmi also mentioned the challenge of working with artisans who may have a different pace and in fact, in an industrialised state like Tamil Nadu, there are also issues of labour shortages when it comes to traditional skills like these.
She explains, “The biggest challenge the entire country is facing is that farmers don’t want their children to be farmers, weavers don’t want their kids to be weavers. So this is something that we need to fight together and promote handloom. I think the whole country is battling with this challenge and it should be looked at from the farmer’s or weaver’s point of view.
People are moving towards buying cheaper quality mill clothes in bulk rather than buying intricate handloom clothes. This has the farmers and weavers move to alternate options for their upcoming generations. Now their kids are working in IT companies and people are drifting away from textile. This is something that we need to look at for making the textile industry survive.”
Talking about what makes Ethicus different, Vijayalakshmi says, “Ethicus is 10 years old now. With Ethicus, we deal with the raw material as well as the final product. It is not just a random product, but an identity for everyone who is working down the value chain. So we felt that is how we need to take it forward.”
At Ethicus, she says, everyone identifies with the product. The designs are an amalgamation of contemporary and traditional. The weavers are equally involved in the design process to help develop various techniques of weaving. They also work towards bridging the relationship between the designer and the weavers.
While the journey has had its share of challenges, Vijayalakshmi has held her ground and draws inspiration from her her mother and mother-in-law who she says, have taught her to move forward in life and be strong despite the failures.
“My mother and mother-in-law have taught me to hold my ground and have strong determination. They also made me understand that there is no shortcut to success.”
On that grounded note, we wind up the conversation, a learning experience for me in what it takes to produce sustainable fashion – something that we often consume with barely a thought.
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