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Published: Volume 21, Issue 8, August, 2013
When Italy’s innovative designers guided the underprivileged Indian woman to employ her talents for creative productions, Jen Swanson discovered that the scope of saris goes beyond draping the body to embellishing tea trays

Recently, over 20 Indian women gathered on the top floor of a sweltering Dharavi tenement, stitching, snipping and shaping the country’s trademark fashion accessory – the sari – into high-end drapes suited for the global fashion capitals of New York, Paris and Milan. Overseeing the affair was a troupe of four designers from Politecnico di Milano, one of Italy’s most prestigious schools of design. As a writer in the city, I was invited to attend the final day of this five-day workshop, which was intended to marry the best of two countries; India’s endless palette of textiles with Italy’s reputation for innovation in style.

But this isn’t your ordinary sweatshop. Federica Vacca, the group’s professor and lead organiser, said the idea for ‘I was a Sari’ came last fall when a friend-of-a-friend handed her a bag of recycled saris and requested her ‘to do something with them’. That friend, Stefano Funari, had relocated to Mumbai a few years earlier where he started working with an NGO called Community Outreach Programme (C.O.R.P.). Amongst other projects, C.O.R.P runs vocational training programmes for disadvantaged women around the city, with a heavy emphasis on tailoring. Thus, the beginning of an idea – why not use fashion design as a tool, under the tutelage of Vacca and her team, to empower underprivileged women to develop their skills and find new markets? The Italians would create the designs. Funari, working in partnership with three other Mumbai-based NGOs that run similar vocational training programmes for women, was in charge of bringing the participants. Recycled saris, of course, would be the medium. Many of the saris have been purchased from Chor Bazaar and other markets around the city.

“We wanted to create a strong sense of value, based on the labour involved,” is how Funari recalled his thought process in the early days. The goal was to create attractive, high-end products that are current with the market. At some point, perhaps those products could be sold in India or abroad and create a steady income stream for the women.

One criterion was that whatever the Italian team developed would be considered ‘open source’, meaning that the university would make no claims if its women repurposed the said designs or opened their own collective. (Not only did the Italians agree, they even encouraged the women to do so.) Vacca and a handful of her best designers began to conceptualise the new product line made entirely of used saris, a clever anthology of bracelets, collars, scarves, necklaces, robes and home decor. Meanwhile, Funari spread the word throughout his growing network, easily assembling 22 trainees from C.O.R.P, Srujna, Sui&Dhaga and Reality Gives (all Mumbai-based NGOs that run tailoring programmes for women) eager to expand their skill set. And, ‘I was a Sari’ was born.

As the sewing machines whirred, Vacca took me through the first part of the collection, CrissCross, a melange of accessories inspired by the gestures Indian women use to wrap saris across their body. The first piece, a scarf, immediately became my favourite; two complementary slate blue fabrics, braided together, yet somehow still draped provocatively around the shoulders. Then there was a softly-knotted belt, tied at the waist, and a necklace that was tied into large square knots to rest upon the collar bone, with a smaller cuff to match. Originally, the team had decided the necklace should hang from a silver chain. But upon watching the way Indian women worked and moved, the group had decided that a ribbon tie, allowing flexibility of length, would be more appropriate.

In a different part of the room, a woman prepped a scrap of sari by blotting it with a cotton swab dipped in liquid gelatin. More often seen in a jello mould, I am told this common kitchen item forms something like lacquer when applied to fabric in liquid form. And on silk, it works a particular magic. After the sari dries, it is cut into palm-sized ‘flowers’, the defining feature of the second collection, I’m a Garden. “Flowers are a daily part of Indian life,” said the young designer who developed this project. Later, the ‘flowers’ will be ironed along the edges, effectively curling the ‘petals’ that will soon form an applique for the hats, cuffs, necklaces and collars of this collection; the latter being one of the hottest trends in Italy right now.

But fashion isn’t always found on the runway. A third collection, From Place To Place, showcased items found around the home. A 3/4 length night robe, made from two embroidered saris, padded with sari scraps was placed with a variety of pillows and cushions, embroidered tablemats and coasters. An embroidered teal-and-purple tablecloth, with specially padded areas to accommodate hot dishes was large enough for six people. But this patchwork piece also folded down to serve smaller groups of two, four or even single diners.

At the end of the day, ‘I was a Sari’ was about much more than design. “They were quick learners,” said Vacca of the Indian women, some of whom were using electric sewing machines for the first time. “The difference between artisans in India and Italy,” she said, “is that the Italians are very precise but don’t want to change their designs. While the women in India lacked the precision and attention-to-detail of their Italian counterparts, they were open-minded, hungry to learn and eager to hear about the experiences of other women in the group.”

“It’s really just the beginning,” Funari explained by calling the opportunities here ‘endless’. The next step, he emphasised, will be giving the women creative direction of the project, hopefully at some point training them to train other women so the project can grow. “There’s a long way to go but the idea is really showing potential,” he beamed.

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