'Top Notch' is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion's elite and erudite club.
When one speaks of sustainability in Indian fashion, the first name that comes to mind is that of 11.11/eleven eleven. The label is 12 years old and practices the most in-depth and authentic practices in both environmental and economic sustainability in the country's fashion world. It's amazing that they are a small and niche label, considering their efforts (not to mention utterly stylish clothes). But they have slowly built a small cult of loyal and discerning fans.
11.11/eleven eleven comprises Himanshu Shani, the founder, and Mia Morikawa, his partner and collaborator who joined in 2009. "The company has been like a living organism," Morikawa says with a smile, "It grows depending on how many vital points it is able to establish and the community is able to connect to and cultivate."
The DNA of the label is in tracing the journey of the garment: the product, the services and the foundation of the supply chain, all the way back to the land and the people at the site of manufacturing. "As a brand, we celebrate indigenous practices which are the heritage of our country," Shani says. The duo aims to put respect back in fashion" in respecting the relationship with the artisan, the environment, the local culture, as well as the cotton farmer.
Each outfit comes with a unique product code that allows the consumer to track the names of every pair of hands the garment has been through " the weaver, the tailor, the dyer, the printer, the embroiderer as well as the farmer. "Each garment passes through many different hands of craftsmen from different communities," Shani adds, "These are the 'bunkars' of West Bengal to 'vankars' of Gujarat, the khatris of the Kutch to the vannan of Tamil Nadu. All of them work together in the making of 11.11/eleven eleven products. This also means we require a unique code system that enables the customers to know the makers behind every product. Entire processes have been developed into an ERP system (enterprise resource planning), with NFC technology (near field communication), which is in a pilot run this year. We launch it fully next year. The idea is to trace the garment from seed to stitch level."
The partners believe that opaque systems make it easy to take the effort and existence of the people who bring the garment to life for granted. "The out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality is dangerous, and has led to the degradation of the environment and workers, right through outsourcing," Morikawa explains. "Offering transparency and a connection to the people [who make a garment] and the place where a garment is made is a way to generate appreciation, gratitude and compassion. How can you possibly appreciate a process or a person if they are invisible to you?" she reasons. This disconnection between the consumer and the processes has also encouraged the culture of over-consumption in the last few decades.
The label shone through the pandemic last year. Challenged by a national lockdown, 11.11/eleven eleven was able to generate work by allowing weavers to make artisanal but beautifully designed items from their village homes. For example, a patchwork quilt, which was sold via online sales, was a remarkable pivot to the business.
They also started offering yarn and fabric from their collections on the website. Their threads are carefully curated heirloom fibre made of native ingredients, in line with their narrative of heritage and handmade, culture and terroir, while giving power to indigenous communities.
"We have seen the democratisation of photography, video, design, blogging, vlogging, self-publishing and e-commerce. The pandemic brought on a wave of sourdough bakers making real, anti-industrial bread, for example. The homesteading lifestyle of having a kitchen garden and developing a direct connection to the land is on the rise," Morikawa avers. "The deep satisfaction of going through a process and owning that process as an addition to one's personal skill set is the remedy to mindless consumption " building self-awareness, understanding, core strength and confidence. Being able to knit, sew, build, grow veggies and cook...these connect us to our material culture and result in a true identity rather than one that is bought or put on like a mask."
The label has also pioneered the idea of hand-spun denim in India (Shani corrects me when I call it 'khadi denim'. He says the word khadi cannot be used unless it is certified by the government-run Khadi and Village Industries Commission). Hand-spun denim is a much lighter fabric, made only of rain-harvested and pesticide-free 'kala' cotton. The result is a short-staple yarn that absorbs the natural indigo colour beautifully. The jeans are hand-stitched, and the buttons are brass Indian coins. The weaver's name is embroidered in Hindi on one of the pockets, like a design detail.
"'Khadi' has a potential role in offering the answer to the negative impacts of fast fashion in India and abroad," Morikawa says. "India's rich culture of traditional, artisanal technologies are eco-friendly systems. These have not only great potential for growth in production and export, but can also lead to a widespread generation of employment opportunities in rural areas of the country. It can really be the catalyst for social and environmental change. Introducing micro-manufacturers from developing nations into the domestic and international value chains is one of the keys in the reduction of world poverty."
Shani and Morikawa's 11.11/eleven eleven wants to build a community of people who believe in a fairer, more humane and harmonious world. Each item of their clothing is like a hymn to the Earth and all life on it. They say their work involves reverence for the planet in the way a Japanese tea ceremony's sacred rituals invoke spiritualism. Except in their business, villages can feed themselves.