Ujjwal Dubey and his avant-garde fashion label Antar Agni have earned several epithets over the last few years: a designer whose menswear is experimental, asymmetric, layered and fluid; a fashion-meets-art label inspired by architecture, furniture and public spaces; and, in his own words, a label that sells clothes which are “Eastern-inspired updated classics with a global appeal”.
Dubey seeks inspiration from the Zen work of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who effortlessly blur the lines differentiating art, architecture and fashion. His slouchy and neatly tailored trousers and shirt-kurtas are icons of Indian fashion. His minimal sherwanis draw from trans-seasonal lightweight jackets and are in fabrics such as lycra and cotton.
Yet, the sobriquet the winner of the global Woolmark Prize in 2017 cherishes the most is the one that defines his label as truly ‘conscious’. In 2019, even before Indians had purportedly discovered the word ‘sustainable’, Dubey had placed sustainable artisanal traditions at the core of his collection, Balance, showcased at Lakmé Fashion Week. Clever layering and muted palette aside, the designer worked with Eri, Tussar and Muga silk woven by khadi and handloom artisan clusters across the country, for a ready-to-wear collection backed by Raymond.
Hand-weaved fabrics was a concept exclusive to couture till then or to mass market. He broke those invisible, unspoken-of barriers for a ready-to-wear line, introducing them to a larger market that had lost touch with its heritage.
Nudging the sustainability factor a tad higher is Antar Agni’s 2020 project, ‘Restore Love’. Under the initiative, Dubey works at bringing back to life people’s old, damaged garments. The effort breaks away from the ‘What’s hot this season’ culture of contemporary fashion that rejects everything old and damaged. It also pays a nod to the hottest luxury fashion trend of 2020—Circular Fashion, or fashion that is designed, sourced, produced with the intention to be used and circulated responsibly as long as possible and then “returned to the biosphere”.
Brands such as Gucci and Prada are paying rich tribute to circular fashion by creating collections that are sustainable and timeless and changing their production methods as the world deals with the COVID devastation and a slowing economy. Brands are beginning to realise that consumers aren’t spending heavily on garments and clothes that are seasonal and will have to be discarded within six months.
Dubey answers a few quick questions about bringing back to life much-loved garments and the joy that sparks.
What is that one inspiration or thought which sparked ‘Restore Love’?
I have a jacket that has lasted a greater part of a decade. I have overdyed it a few times, sewn-in buttonholes, and reconstructed sections of it. I wear it every week and every time I do so, it takes on greater meaning and ensures a little less consumption. It would be such a great joy to create this for others to reimagine those much-loved pieces within their wardrobe.
The world has been obsessed with owning more and throwing the old away, a direct affront to our oldest Indian values of saving and passing on to the next generation. ‘Restore Love’ was born out of a demand that we course-correct. We, at Antar Agni, wanted to meet this demand made by nature by reviving old, damaged garments and bringing them back to life. Restore Love holds the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change—what better way to describe our bond with clothes.
What it reminded me of was my mother and my grandmother, who redesigned their saris and dupattas into interesting new garments, stitched by the neighbourhood tailor. Wasn't recycling always a part of the Indian fashion landscape?
Of course, recycling is essentially an Indian trait. We have all worn hand-me-downs as kids, and Indian households use garments till the time. They become dusters! So, recycling is a part of our DNA.
Reflect on the time you were a child and received hand-me-downs from an older sibling, think about making it yours, and then the joy of seeing a younger family member make it theirs. Irrespective of intentions, as Indians, this idea of demanding the least from the earth is tied to our foundations.
But somehow, as we grew up, we have lost touch with our eco-conscious roots.
When and how did this cultural loss occur?
The graph of consuming mass-produced ‘fast’ fashion has been an upward one since its inception. The prices tag may be cheap but the ultimate price the world pays, environmentally, is going to be a hefty one. We are being brainwashed into making these choices. As Indians, we are used to following the West and labelling our age-old practices as 'uncool'.
You have often spoken about circular fashion. How would you define a circular economy to someone who does not know it?
It is a cycle that generates no waste. Any waste produced by one segment is used as the raw material for another.
Generally, the belief is that if fashion is luxury, it cannot be recycled or upcycled…
With the world rejecting seasons and trends, we are moving towards an industry of timeless clothing. We need to ask what luxury is. We are still seeking an answer to that question but I believe that products which meet the requirements of ‘conscious’ luxury or fashion are rare. Luxury should not be defined by brands. It should be an idea that evolves through time. Anything that does not evolve with time does not last, and luxury needs to keep evolving.
Many Indians believe ‘bling is luxury’. Are these aspirational luxury consumers open to the thought of circular fashion and recycling?
The idea of luxury is ever-evolving and so are consumers. They are moving towards making conscious choices.
Can luxury and fashion ever be sustainable?
I believe we have come too far on the unsustainable route, particularly when it comes to our economic and political systems. No product produced can be purely sustainable. But we can make better choices and be more conscious of what we produce and consume.
Sustainability has become a fashionable word that is overused without delving into its meaning. I feel sustainability is not a choice and not a trait to brag about; it should be innate.
As a brand we would rather use the word ‘conscious’. We need to be conscious about everything: Our consumption patterns; the use of resources; our attitude towards the people we are involved with; and small little things around us at home or at work that define our DNA.Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.