Refashioning the sari, repurposing lives: How Stefano Funari brought together gender empowerment and success

Namrata Zakaria
·5 min read

'Top Notch' is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion's elite and erudite club.

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I first heard of Stefano Funari in 2017. Mumbai Mirror, a city newspaper I worked for then, was putting together its biennial awards called 'Mumbai Heroes'. Ten short-listed 'heroes' from the city would be profiled, men and women whose individual efforts had helped make Mumbai a better place. Ironically, an Italian friend suggested I meet his compatriot Funari, who made stylish accessories out of discarded saris by employing underprivileged women. Upcycling was a new idea even four years ago. But learning about the social impact of Funari's enterprise I Was A Sari, I was floored.

Of course, he made it to the Mirror list of heroes. In fact, the newspaper was the first among several media outlets, including Vogue, Elle and Femina, to share his story. "We started I Was A Sari in 2013 but the project became something more structured in 2016. When we last spoke, we were at the beginning of our history," Funari, 53, tells me over the phone.

Funari moved to Mumbai as part of a Swiss multinational. He quickly left that gig in pursuit of something more meaningful. He then returned to Mumbai with the idea of pursuing social entrepreneurship €" he had no idea what he wanted to do, he only knew he wanted to live and work in India.

On a flea-market trawl at Chor Bazaar, he chanced upon a second-hand sari shop. Then he contacted some friends at Milan's leading design university, the Politecnico di Milano, and got their designers to make chic lifestyle products from the saris. The result were earrings and necklaces, yoga mats, and cloth bags €" contemporary objects you'd find in chic European boutiques, where he also sold them.

"You cannot come to India and start working the next day, there is a huge cultural gap. My first desire was groundwork, so I started working with street and slum children. I still work with them. But there is nothing you can do that is sustainable and scalable, unless you support the community behind them. If you don't support the women and mothers behind them, there will be no progress. I had to create income opportunities for women," he says.

He founded a company called Second Innings Handicrafts (a second chance for the sari and the woman repurposing it), that would be the parent company of I Was A Sari. In 2013, a young Italian designer came to Mumbai and trained 22 women from Dharavi and Wadala to turn the saris into accessories.

"I was looking for an opportunity to create a sustainable business with recurring income for people coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Of course, the environmental angle was there too, but we primarily wanted to create jobs for those who are marginalised in the marketplace. I wanted to show that you can run a successful enterprise by relying on and employing the underprivileged. I didn't want to help them with donations, but something with a long-term goal."

In 2018, I Was A Sari entered a partnership with Italian luxury label Gucci. "They were looking for a social enterprise that was focused on empowerment, gender, and involved sustainability. We checked all their boxes," Funari says with a smile. Gucci assists I Was A Sari in training artisans and creating commercial opportunities for them. "We don't produce for them and they don't sell our products, but we have Alessandro Michele's (fashion Einstein and Gucci's creative head) team, dedicating time to co-create our products. We can tap into their talent pool, otherwise out of reach for anyone else," Funari explains, commending Gucci's Changemakers project where the Italian behemoth pays its employees to do volunteer work.

In 2019, I Was A Sari won the Circular Design Challenge, an award of Rs 20 lakh, by Lakmé Fashion Week. Thanks to Gucci again, Funari also launched his 'Now I Can' program of embroideries and embellishments where his artisans got trained by the finest in Mumbai and its embroidery companies. "Every export house had a different way of training resources. If we wanted to scale this, we needed to formalise our training program. We developed a library of video content in comprehensive embroidery training. This is accessible on Udemy with an ID and a password. This helps in training women in a male-dominated field and creating income opportunities for them."

Funari's efforts in gender-based empowerment are commendable. He employs 200 people, with 175 artisans and 25 administrative staff. "This isn't a charity, it's a job they get paid for. What I do give them is full flexibility. They can work for a few hours or a full day, which is six hours, with us. They have bank accounts and insurance. They begin as contributors to their family income, but often they are the only breadwinners, especially because of COVID-19 when their husbands lost their jobs. Many women have left us too, when they got married or were forced to return to their villages during the lockdown. When they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are not given much choice," he avers. "But when they look for traditional jobs they struggle without flexibility. They can't go to their villages for six weeks for a festival."

In the four years since I last met Funari, his I Was A Sari has grown from a turnover of one crore to four crores in the last financial year. His enterprise is evidence that women employees can drive a successful business if their social, emotional and community needs are met.

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