By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
There are lots of reasons we love Shriyani ethical fashion – the gorgeous colours it embraces, the stunning hand stitching created by fairly paid artisans, and above all, how Shriyani puts women at the centre stage. Not only are women behind the creation of the brand, but the label also co-hosted the Rise on the Runway event in London to use fashion to help draw attention to two horrific issues that still face women today: acid attacks and human trafficking.
Statistics show a clear increase in the number of acid attacks in the South Asian country in recent years. At least 106 such attacks were reported in 2012, according to the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI). And that figure rose to 122 in 2013 and 349 in 2014. Activists say that figure climbed to over 500 in 2015. However, many activists dispute these figures, arguing that many cases remain unreported, and claim over 1,000 acid attacks take place in India every year.
There are many unreported cases of acid attacks where victims die, especially in rural areas. Sometimes people try to hide information if the attacker was the husband or a family member of the victim. The majority of acid attack victims are women, reveals a report commissioned by the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) and published last year. The victims are attacked over domestic or land disputes, a rejected marriage proposal or spurned sexual advances, according to the report.
Human trafficking is an even more widespread – and tragic – problem.
India is a source, destination, and transit country for women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and prostitution. Internal forced labour may constitute India’s largest trafficking problem; men, women, and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and embroidery factories. Although no comprehensive study of forced and bonded labour has been carried out, some NGOs estimate this problem affects tens of millions of Indians. Those from India’s most disadvantaged social economic classes are particularly vulnerable to forced or bonded labour – which is common in the fashion industry – and sex trafficking (see a full country report on the matter here).
Shriyani works with NGOs that help those who have escaped this form of modern human slavery and helps them earn a living through fairly paid work that empowers them not only financially, but creatively. The brand also put survivors from India and the UK walked the runway during their most recent private event – which hosted key philanthropists, business owners and media – to help draw attention to the fact that these women are just like any others, and walk hidden, amongst us.
I had the chance to interview the founder of the brand, Sonal Sachdev Patel, to learn more about why she focused her ethical fashion on bringing attention to these heinous crimes against women, and the sustainability behind her label.
What inspired you to create an ethical luxury brand that helps women?
It came from a very personal standpoint. In my day job I am heavily involved in my family’s charitable foundation and everything we do is around empowering women and supporting vulnerable communities. So often women don’t have a voice and they are exploited in different ways. I realised I didn’t want to be exploiting people through my purchasing decisions (men or women, or children!) through my purchasing decisions. This feeling, combined with the desire to wear beautifully designed and created clothes and accessories led me to create the ethical luxury brand Shriyani. Ethical accessories need to be as desirable as their high fashion counterparts – only then will they become mainstream.
How do you choose your NGO partners?
We partner with different NGOs and artisans on the ground. The clutches were a collaboration with Trésor, where their founder, Richa Varun, sits with the artisans in their own homes. She’s a dynamic entrepreneur that doesn’t cut corners and you can see this in the finished product. At Shriyani, we only work with grassroots organisations where there is a close and direct connection to women in need – only then can this be a fair and true partnership. I chose our first partner organisation in Gujarat – that’s where I’m from, and still feel a strong connection.
In what way is your brand different from other ethical fashion labels?
Our artisans are involved in all stages of production, from the design to the creation of the packaging. Our products are also a platform for the artisans to share their stories; for example “The Lotus” symbolises purity in the backdrop of murky waters; a lotus flower emerges from muddy waters unspoilt and unsullied. This story was based on a trafficked survivor that had been brutally treated, but who was rescued and managed to rebuild her own life. Despite having faced deep adversity, we have seen women grow and flourish. We celebrated this triumph and beauty through design.
What was the public’s response to the collections and the cause so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The more (our clients) learn about ethical fashion, the more they’re informing their choices. They can identify with the woman making their bag and see who she is. They understand the process from design to creation, and that makes it more special. One client told us that she felt good every time she wore her Shriyani bag, because she was able to share the story of the artisan who made it.
Why did you decide to use Shriyani as a philanthropic vehicle, rather than simply starting a charity?
I believe businesses have a crucial role to play in creating social change. Every business can play their part in standing up and taking charge of their own supply chain and their own way of doing business in a fair way. Therefore I wanted to support vulnerable communities of women by giving them a voice through the art of fashion.
For more information, please visit www.shriyani.com