Can Clothes Emote? A Conversation with IKKIVI about Building a Sanctuary for Indian Slow Fashion
IKKIVI is a unique and beautifully curated online destination for sustainable fashion design from India, and, in the words of its founder and curator Nivi Murthy, “a portal to take a deeper breathe, to be mindful of the little things, to engage in meaningful conversations, and to shop slowly”.
Since its launch in 2015, IKKIVI strives to be “a sanctuary of slow fashion away from the fast-paced world of fading trends and cut corners”. A strong ethos and subtle poetic sensibilities find their expression in the aesthetic vision of creative director Rhea Gupte who describes her thought process behind IKKIVI’s latest “Ethical Threads/An Indian Winter” campaign as such:
“Can clothes emote? This is something, I have contemplated all my life. For somebody who started her journey in fashion attracted to its frivolity, then to its creativity and then to its art and ethics, this question has haunted me. Through this campaign, I tried to portray clothes with emotions; as isolated creatures, as vulnerable souls, as wanderers and narrators, as lovers and as friends. As pieces of value to be kept and not thrown.”
It is through this search for meaning, for beauty and for deep relationships that the magic of IKKIVI unfolds. In the following interview, Rhea and Nivi invite us to explore the beauty of artisanal craftsmanship in India, and introduce us to a new vanguard of Indian sustainable fashion design and thinking.
Nivi, what inspired you to start an online store for emerging Indian designers?
Nivi: It was the passion for our culture that drove me to start the platform. The connection with this beautiful and diverse country and an understanding of the immense talent we have in India, made me want to share it with the world and give emerging Indian designers the opportunity to compete in a global environment.
Where does the name IKKIVI come from and does it have a meaning?
A friend and I who started IKKIVI put our names together and we thought it sounded unique, so we went with it and stuck to it! :)
Could you tell me a bit about your backgrounds?
Nivi: I grew up in Bangalore, India and completed school and college in India. A keen interest in fashion led me to study Fashion Merchandising in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After school and an internship at Steve Madden, I understood the problem of overstock and wanted to do something about it. So I started a fashion data analytics platform partnering with a tech company to allow designers to test their products directly with their customers prior to manufacturing so as to make more efficient production decisions. An exciting and intense year and a half later in the fashion tech capital, I wanted to move back home to India. I started to research heavily on emerging fashion designers in India that eventually led to a friend and I starting IKKIVI. Our focus at the time was to create a global platform for emerging Indian designers. Now, we not only support emerging talent but we also focus on ensuring our designers are working towards being more and more sustainable and ethical in their practices.
Rhea: I grew up constantly daydreaming as a kid, making up imaginary worlds fuelled through my love for anime and reading about fantastical lands through Enid Blyton’s books. I knew early on that I wanted to ‘create’ through my work and animation was my first love back in school. As I grew up, I was introduced to more creative fields and poetry, fashion, art, photography struck a chord with me. I had always wanted to do many things in life due to my interest in many disciplines and honestly the inability to choose one. :) I, therefore, ended up dipping my fingers in many professions and started freelancing as a digital artist, photographer, art director, stylist, writer and consultant. I was and still am very growth focused and feel developing and sharpening my skills in various fields really gives me a complimentary skill-set and keeps my imaginative mind busy.
How did you and Nivi connect and what made you decide to collaborate with her on IKKIVI?
Rhea: I got to know about IKKIVI and Nivi through an email at a time when I was becoming conscious about the fashion industry and being mindful of my ways as a consumer. We met over coffee and immediately hit it off as our way of thinking and ethos aligned so well.
Before starting a long-term contract we met a couple of times again and Nivi’s authenticity, drive for educating people about slow fashion and simply the kind of person she is — really purposeful in her outlook and passionate about building a good ethical company where people would enjoy to work — made it an easy decision to join IKKIVI as creative director. I feel passionate about building this brand and making Indian design accessible and appreciated all over the world.
Could you tell me how your Ethical Threads photo series came about?
Rhea: I started my Ethical Threads series two years ago as a personal project. I had been researching the fashion industry and reading about the disastrous consequences of fast fashion specifically on the environment and people. I realised how little awareness there was about these topics and it became important to me to share my knowledge and research and also that of the people who have been working in the slow fashion industry. Thus, Ethical Threads was born, a photo-series to portray slow fashion in a dreamy and emotive way along with interviews with designers who make the featured clothes. I thought about floating dresses shot across natural landscapes as I felt anything that is in the sky seems to have a purity to it and makes it seem almost alive. I want people to feel an emotional connect with my work and to also educate themselves about the subject by being drawn into the imagery.
Who is part of the IKKIVI team today?
Nivi: As the current sole founder, late last year I really focused my attention on building a great team who would be multi-talented and skilled to be able to handle the demands of an e-commerce company and yet be aware and invested in the cause of ethical fashion.
Right now, we are a passionate team of four women based out of four different places. We are all very dedicated to the cause and working remotely is a lot of fun. I work out of an office in Bangalore and handle the merchandising, administrative, research, operational, business aspects; curating designers and products is what I love the most. I hired Rhea, last year to take care of all the creative aspects for IKKIVI, to really shape a unique aesthetic for us not only in terms of visuals but also our language and what topics we should focus on in our communication. She is based out of Goa. We have an amazing social media manager based out of Imphal who works on our social media content, graphic design and helps us out with strategies for the same. And we have a content head from Nairobi who is simply wonderful and so passionate at such a young age. We are slowly looking to grow and continue building a strong and dedicated team. Apart from this we also have a bit of tech and other help from time to time as per need basis.
Nivi, you moved back to India because you saw a potential in the fashion talent that you have in India. Could you tell me some more about the kind of brands that you showcase on IKKIVI?
Nivi: The brands that we curate are modern in their styling but have an Indian aesthetic which is deeper at the essence of the brand — either it’s the fabrics that they choose to use or the techniques or the colours or the theme behind the collection. A majority of our brands are young, they are driven to be more sustainable and ethical and believe what they do has an impact. Most have small units and produce limited quantities that make their styles unique and meaningful. Each product and collection has a story to tell and that is something we love narrating.
How do you connect with your designers and what are your guidelines for choosing your brands?
Nivi: The internet has allowed us to reach a lot of designers around the country. We use social media, word-of-mouth and offline exhibitions to find a lot of our designers. Now, after three years, we have started receiving interest from designers and they end up contacting us. Initially, as an emerging platform, it was more difficult to find these unique talents across India, but now it is quicker as we are slowly establishing ourselves.
The first conversation with the designer is the most crucial. I conduct these calls and have a long conversation with them about their brand, themselves and sustainability in the fashion industry. This gives us insight into the intentions of the brand and the passion that lies with the designer and what they have created. We then go through checks of fabric used, where it was sourced, how it was sourced, about their unit, how big a team, images of their production unit, how are they sustainable in their practices, where they see themselves in terms of sustainability and steps they are taking to be more ethical and sustainable. After this, we do a final quality check of the products.
India is a country known for its rich artisanal craftsmanship and heritage. What kind of traditional crafts do you find in different regions?
India is a country with 29 states, each with a different language, cultural practices, costume and traditional techniques. So it is important to understand the diversity in India and how one part of the country is completely different from the other. There are several different crafts and techniques which have emerged from every state. Some of the popular examples are Bihar for Madhubani paintings, Rajasthan for tie-dye, Gujarat for Bandhani and so on. Apart from these, there are several familial traditional crafts as well as practices which have been passed on from generations. This document by the Indian government that lists and maps traditional Indian handicrafts might give you an idea of the sheer number of art forms and handicrafts which come from the different states in India.
Could you give me an insight into the role of artisanal craftsmanship in Indian society and its current state?
When discussing the role of anything in Indian society, it is important to understand that India has a wide disparity in social and economic status across its population. Hence, artisanal craftsmanship affects people in different ways depending on which background they come from. While certain artisans are facing an extinction of their craft due to monetary reasons, others are thriving on large demand for theirs. On the other hand, in the metropolitan cities of India, there is a population of people who treasure craftsmanship while another part which may even be unaware of this richness in their day to day life.
Even though we may not be mindful of it, most of us will have grown up with parents and grandparents who owned a kanjeevaram sari or some lac bangles or something which ties us to the heritage of the place we come from. So even today, we do grow up in close proximity to these traditional techniques in some way or the other. The fashion industry in India is particularly trying to tap into these unique and rich art forms and use them in both contemporary and traditional ways. Some of them come with the mindset to empower artisans, but others, from India and abroad, look at exploiting these crafts for a profit. The Indian Government has been working to document these techniques across our country and to also look at ways to sustainably provide these craft clusters with a way of living and making a living with their craft.
Do you have a favourite traditional technique and what makes it so unique?
Rhea: It’s hard to pick a favourite but I have always been fond of Chikankari which is a traditional embroidery technique from Lucknow. I find beauty in how delicate and intricate it is.
Nivi: Kanjeevaram, intricately handwoven silk sarees. The art and the beauty of the technique are valued by so many families in India and worn grandly for weddings primarily in the south of India.
What does the Slow Fashion movement mean to you and how do your personal values shape your business?
Both: For us, the slow fashion movement is about educating and creating awareness. It is the lack of awareness and ignorance about the negative impact of fast fashion that has brought us to the current situation. Even being in the industry for a while and being a consumer, it is possible to not be aware of the labour laws, pollution caused. By educating, we will be able to reach a lot more people and allow them to make the right choices.
At IKKIVI, we believe in focusing on doing things meaningfully, efficiently and thoughtfully. We believe there is no quick solution to anything, everything has a process and a thought behind it that should be executed with mindfulness. These values definitely stream into the way we run IKKIVI. We value relationships and time, something we feel is very important in running a business.
We believe in slow, mindful growth and being balanced in the way we lead life. We are passionate about several things and there is only so much time. We want to make time for everything in a positive and informed way — work, personal projects, our relationships, spending time with loved ones, achieving personal goals and taking care of our health. Today, we feel so much is spoken about success and successful people in a very one-dimensional way. Nobody sees the downside of it. We want to build a business which echoes our personalities and thoughts. And it not just focused on numbers and deadlines.
We think about dressing up in the same way for ourselves and our customers. We want them to truly invest in a piece for life, find it special even the 100th time they wear it. That is how we approach slow fashion in our daily lives too and that is what we wish to instil in our business and be hopefully known for.
How would you say that emotionally durable design (a design that deepens the relationships between people and things) and sustainability are connected, and is this a concept that resonates with you?
Rhea: To me fashion has always been about emotional attachment. Anything with a story draws me into it more than a trend ever could. I have all my grandfather’s shirts still and a few purses from my grandmother. My relationship with these pieces keeps growing and every time I wear them, they become part of a new memory along with so many they already carry. To me, anything with an emotional connect will always have more longevity as it becomes more than a product but a memory in itself.
We want people to feel this when they buy IKKIVI too, hence we always share stories of our designers’ inspiration, ideas on the details they have put into the garment, and stress on the fact that this piece is created by hand with love and care. Creating that connection is important to us and something we are constantly striving for.
At the moment you are working on an IKKIVI online zine. Could you tell us some more about the themes that you are planning to write about?
Both: With our online zine, we plan to focus mainly on slow living and mindfulness as a theme and how it can be imbibed to all the different aspects of our lives. We want it to be a platform and a safe space for these conversations, thoughts and visuals which really delve into a mindset that we find pertinent in this so-called fast paced world we live in.
What are your future plans and dreams for IKKIVI?
Nivi: The future plan for IKKIVI is to be a one-stop destination for sustainable and ethical fashion by independent designers. We want to expand in terms of our product style offering and add menswear, basics, accessories, underwear, etc. We are working towards reaching customers globally as we believe our product offering is unique. We also wish to provide options across several price points so that well-made products are available and affordable to more people.
What do you think the future of fashion looks like?
Both: We feel, for all practical purposes and from our hearts, too, that the future of fashion needs to be conscious, mindful, and purposeful. We need to learn to create respectfully while co-existing with nature, animals and other people. It is time for everybody to think beyond profits, to start thinking about impact, responsibility and kindness.
What are your most precious places to recharge and enjoy life?
Nivi: The beach and the home I grew up in!
Rhea: Home and the beach! Haha!