Ever since Bangalore-based designer Deepika Govind stepped into the world of fashion almost two decades ago, her quest has been to make our age-old handlooms not just wearable but also fashionable. "I have tried to make India's textile heritage relevant to today's youth."
Many would agree that the beautiful handwoven Khadi silk sari is often not comfortable enough to wear. In fact, most Indian handwoven fabrics are not appropriate for garments, putting them at a huge disadvantage when it comes to marketing them in global fashion circuits. This is exactly what Govind has tried to address with the use of innovative weaving techniques. She has popularised techniques such as silk-modal weaving. A natural fibre obtained from the bark of a tree, modal when blended with any fibre, makes the garment softer and gives a better drape. From western outfits to stoles and saris, Govind has been trying to make our age-old handloom story aspirational.
In 2007, the designer decided to take a step forward by treating her handwoven fabrics with essential oils such as tea-tree and pine that have immense therapeutic values. She created a line of aroma saris, garments and accessories. The aroma is the result of a treatment done at both the yarn and fabrics stage. She also resorted to anti-bacterial treatments for her fabrics, making them allergy-free. "I have always believed that aesthetics and innovation should walk together, especially in the art of fashion. There seems no point in creating garments or textiles that are not visually appealing or flattering to the wearer. Likewise, I think comfort is a prime (often neglected) factor in fashion today. Style with comfort is vital to the wearer," says Govind.
Today, almost the entire collection of Govind is treated with essential oils. While tea-tree and pine are her favourites, she also uses lemongrass, lavender and sandalwood in her fabrics. She has also taken her brand, Neel Sutra, to Delhi (in Khan Market and The Oberoi, Gurgaon), and aspires to foray into the global luxury market.
In fact, Neel Sutra shares retail space with Gucci at The Oberoi, Gurgaon, and David Mathews, General Manager at The Oberoi, Gurgaon, claims that it is a huge hit not only among the hotel guests but also the local residents. "The non-synthetic, natural organic fibre and handwoven proposition, along with the wellness aspect have created incredible excitement."
While Govind is surely one of the pioneers of wellness in fashion, the trend is catching up with other designers and entrepreneurs, too. Mumbai's Reshma Merchant and Priyanka Kaul Lakdawala have launched, what they call, 'healing garments' under the brand name 'House of Milk'. "The idea was to create an environment that was fashionable but which would heal the body and mind, too," says Merchant, Co-founder, House of Milk.
Merchant and Lakdawala have been travelling across the country for over two years, not just coordinating with weavers to produce the right kind of fabric, but also doing the rounds of forest departments to seek their help in getting the right kind of herbs for their fabrics.
Merchant claims that she treats her fabrics directly with the herbs, which is her USP. "We break down our fabric, remove any kind of chemical, and treat it with a distillation process. Thereafter, our fabrics are worked on with about 50 natural ingredients. We take natural gum and we gum our fabrics with our herbs. The fabrics retain their properties," she explains.
One of their best sellers are their aloe vera garments. Aloe vera has natural moisturising properties, and Merchant claims that her garments protect her skin. The duo claim that their healing garments have received an overwhelming response. They are not only setting up a studio in Mumbai but are also headed to Paris to participate in the SS17 show of the Paris Fashion Week.The wellness proposition has made its way into the bed and bath segment, too. Bed and bath manufacturer Indo Count (an over Rs 2,000-crore entity), which manufactures for leading international brands - such as Macy's, J.C. Penny and Walmart - has recently launched its own brand of bed linen, Boutique Living, in India. The company plans to offer high-end bed solutions to the Indian consumers. The CEO of the company, Aseem Dalal, talks about Rejuve (a sub-brand of Boutique Living) that comes with the promise of a younger, healthier and glowing skin. This does sound like the promise made by a skincare brand, but Rejuve, according to Dalal, is treated with essential oils such as jojoba and aloe vera and vitamin E. "Not only do these oils help in softening and moisturising the skin, they also have anti-ageing properties, hence the promise of a younger and glowing skin," says Dalal.
It also has Fahrenheit Sheets (another sub-brand of Boutique Living) range of products, meant to control temperature fluctuations. "So, during summer if you cover our temperature control sheets, you will feel cooler," explains Dalal, who says that concepts such as these are common in the matured markets. "Through Boutique Living, our attempt would be to create a market for high-end bed products in India," he adds.
The company is also launching collections, such as Mother's Touch, which have anti-microbial properties and protect from allergies.
Be it Neel Sutra, House Of Milk or Boutique Living, the idea clearly is to make luxury affordable. While the pricing of both Neel Sutra and House Of Milk garments are between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000, Boutique Living products are priced between Rs 3,500 and Rs 8,000.
"The luxury is in the fact that you would be able to wear something that is healing your body. Jasmine, for instance, heals conjectivitis, high fever, etc. We also use herbs that are anti-depressants. I want more and more people to wear my healing garments and feel good," adds Lakdawala, Co-founder, House of Milk, who says that her next product would be a vegan collection.
Boutique Living, says Dalal, doesn't plan to create standalone stores at least for sometime. "We will be present in leading multi-brand bed and bath stores and lifestyle stores in major cities. We want more and more consumers to experience our brand."
Wellness products have a global market and are bound to work in a category like fashion, too, says Dalveer Singh, Head, Dialogue Factory, the experiential marketing arm of Group M. "Natural, unadulterated and healthy are key attributes that consumers of luxury product and services are biased towards," he says.
However, Divya Thakur, Co-founder and Creative Director of Design Temple, a luxury branding consultancy, has a word of caution. She says wellness in fashion is indeed a great innovation story but the challenge lies in sustaining the momentum. "The brands have to continuously innovate to sustain. They need to have a long-term vision and shouldn't sound as if their focus on wellness is a mere marketing gimmick."
This is definitely good advice to the fashion brand owners who are looking at foraying into the wellness space. Not only do they need to think out of the box continuously, their innovations also have to be genuine. For, only then can they survive the test of time and win over the quintessential luxury consumer.