WHY WASTE IS THE WAY FORWARD
Where and how did your journey with fashion and waste start?
I think I’ve always liked the idea of clothes and fashion in general, even when I was a kid. Coming back from Nottingham after graduation, my dad offered to start a denim brand from one of his trading stock lots lying in his factory and I took that up. We ran a mass market denim wear brand for about 4 years supplying to major multinational retailers like Walmart and ITC till about 2017, right around the time when demonetisation hit and the conversation around the fashion industry’s implications towards climate change & global warming started coming to the fore, especially in the Indian subcontinent. Although we were using seconds and discarded fabric lots even back then, we were still guilty of contributing to the problem at large. Post which I shut that arm down and focused on building an individual custom clothing company, with the last mile fabric remnants taken from big/small retailers and even individuals who used to sell on barrows. This is where the groundwork in my brain actually started taking shape towards imagining an overarching fashion company (and subsequently the whole industry) that runs entirely on everything considered as ‘waste.’ After a lot of research, trial and error, and failed investments – I finally launched Urban Darzi, as we know it, towards the end of 2020 with the ideology of creating a circular economy, where waste is looked upon as a valuable resource/raw material and used to create everyday lifestyle products, and where a closed loop system is created to have that initial set of waste coming back to the ecosystem till it is down to the last shreds and eventually recycled into newer material.
You mention that you use ‘jugaad’ as a philosophy to repurpose all that you find laying in dumps. Could you tell us a little about how and where this philosophy finds expression in your production process?
The idea of jugaad is one we, as Indians, know very well. It is seeped into our systems from early childhood by our mothers and society at large, on how to make use of everything and how to make everything work through jugaad. It’s in our vocabulary, in our understanding, and in our day-to-day functioning. So when we say we use ‘jugaad’ as a philosophy to repurpose all that we find laying in dumps, we aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary, we are simply applying that idea, to make use of everything, in our design process and often re-imagining design in a non-conformist way. For example, we used single-use plastic bags and food and consumer packaging waste, that we picked up from roadside dumps, and put in between the lining of a jacket — which does pose an argument of microplastics going into the water stream after washing — for which we put in our conscious design principles in place and make sure we are doing that on products that you can go on wearing without washing for months, such as a jacket – how often do you wash a jacket in winters? Another example, we worked with Khamir to upcycle single-use plastics found on the streets into raw material, from which we made small holdalls and totes.
It’s not just using plastics, though. We recently did a collaboration with Urban Monkey where we made a sac cover from age-old fabric folders (the ones fabric suppliers send to manufacturers/retailers for sampling and no one seems to care about). We are working on an object line where we use the same jugaad ideology, to make decor pieces from all kinds of waste material that we can find on the streets/dump yards/landfills.
Do some of the conscious values at Urban Darzi seep into your way of living? What does that look like in your everyday life?
Simple things, really. Generating as little waste as possible. Being conscious and mindful of your ways in life, not just from an environmental perspective, but as a human being overall. Being grounded. Being responsible for yourself, for the things around you and extending that thought process to as many people as possible.
A fundamental part of building a business is developing an aesthetic for your brand. How did you decide yours, and how did you know it was right with your ethos?
I’ve been a brand fanatic all my life. I love the idea of how a brand you look at, and interact with, can impact your life in more ways than what you actively see and feel. When closing in on the aesthetic for Urban Darzi, I didn’t really set anything in stone other than the fact that it had to be completely different from the clutter we had at that time. A mix of raw, honest offbeat and transparent approach to the idea of fashion and clothes in general, was the cornerstone of it all. And who doesn’t like good visual design when they see it, so the editorials, the photography, and the conversational aspect of the brand just blended in all naturally.
We often talk about waste from an environmental perspective. We’d like to know more about its artistic and visual aspects. What do you see and feel when you look at it? And what is your creative process like when designing from it?
To create from what the world seems to have discarded – is often where creative genius lies. That’s what I tell all the design team members. For me, it literally is a playground. And the best part, there is always a new variety/kind of waste to play with and figure out how to upcycle and make a new product from it. Like yesterday only I found a lot of iron mesh sheets at a construction site and I am already thinking about what and how to make something valuable and aesthetically cool out of it. Creative process? It’s just about making the best possible use of it in the most efficient and radical way possible.
A new product’s value is considered to be much higher. And waste has somehow largely had a negative connotation attached to it. The frequent perceptions around it are that it is a re-utilized byproduct or fad to work with. Can designs made from waste come to have a similar value to fresh pieces? What have your experiences been with this in your practice?
We’ve been conditioned to believe this. It’s only a small section of the crowd today that has opened up to the idea of upcycled products and substituting them for regular purchases in their everyday lives. Personally, I like to believe that products made from waste should actually have more value than a regular product, owing to the simple fact that the design process is much harder ( we can be at it all day to prove how) and takes much more creative thinking whereas the production is equally and painstakingly difficult in some cases. But it requires an overarching systemic change in the way people think and interact with products and their wants/needs in general; something that only collectively can be achieved with all stakeholders actively involved.
What are some of the ways in which we, as consumers, can use or connect with ‘waste’ – our personal waste and the waste that we generate, apart from recycling it?
I am no expert and am learning on the job everyday, but I believe it’s something as simple as being mindful of the waste you create. Seeing where and what you can put back to use, what you can avoid using. Seeing where and how you can collaborate with brands and give them the waste you collect for them to use it further in making new, circular products. Just simple, small things – repeated everyday, by everyone will eventually account for a larger, societal change.
Interviewer and Writer MALINI MATHUR
Layout and Graphic Design VEDHIKA HV
Images by THE URBAN DARZI TEAM
Editor RHEA GUPTE
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