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Those who think the fashion industry’s love affair with humane, earth-conscious practices is just a trend might be missing the bigger picture.
“Once you start caring, it’s hard to stop,” says Shivani Patel, founder, CEO, and head designer for Arture, a premium lifestyle accessories brand that uses 100% natural cork fabrics in its ethical, sustainable approach to fashion.
The production processes behind ethical clothing might not always create headlines, but the more companies that pay attention to how their products are made—and with what materials—the more standardized these practices will become. Until change happens on a grand scale, companies like Arture set the bar for incremental adjustments.
Patel, who studied accessory design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in her native city of Chennai (formerly Madras), grew up with a father who worked in the leather-goods export industry. As Patel came of age, she experienced a “massive shift in the way [she] looked at consumption.”
The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 garment workers, had a profound effect on Patel. “It was such a huge eye-opener,” she says. “It was scary to see how the industry operates, and it helped reinforce the fact that I’m on the right path.”
Unions in Dhaka call what happened at Rana Plaza “mass industrial homicide,” according to a report from The Guardian. This report notes that the cracks in the building were so deep that, on the day of the collapse, garment workers begged “not to be sent inside,” but managers refused to halt production.
In 2014, one year after the tragedy, Forbes published an article that detailed which companies had contributed to a reparation fund for the grieving families, and which had not. While retailers such as Walmart and the UK supermarket Asda donated to the cause, many, including J.C. Penney, skirted the responsibility.
The reality of what happened at Rana Plaza exists in a larger context, one where fast fashion cycles deliver new designs weekly, as opposed to seasonally. In her seminal book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline notes that fast fashion retailers are banking on consumers buying more than what they can possibly wear. At the same time, the industry vows that what happened at Rana Plaza won’t ever happen again.
Of course, Rana Plaza was not the first incident of its kind. In the US, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 145 garment workers in lower Manhattan due to shoddy building conditions. The incident appears in American history textbooks as one of the Industrial Revolution’s greatest atrocities.
Recalling the Rana Plaza tragedy, Maria Khanam, a 16-year-old from Bangladesh who lives in Brooklyn, remembers seeing “girls younger than [her]” emerging from rubble on a TV news report while her dad cried. “I had learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a week before in school,” she says. The incident opened Khanam’s eyes to the safety standards that fashion labels have for their workers. Since then, she has boycotted companies with inhumane manufacturing practices.
Khanam is precisely the kind of consumer that Arture caters for. “There is a tremendous rise in awareness and consciousness in every aspect of life these days,” Patel says, speaking about the motivation behind her brand. “People care more about what they eat, their health and wellness. This mindfulness is reflected in fashion as well. People are asking more questions, forcing existing brands to start caring more, which leads to the birth of more conscious brands.”
Though Patel had already begun her journey with ethical manufacturing before the Rana Plaza tragedy, the incident encouraged her to pay more attention to labor welfare, not just at her own workshop, but at her suppliers’ workshops also.
Patel launched Arture in 2015 after a friend brought to her attention that there were very few high-quality or fashionable non-leather products on the market. Seeing this as a design challenge, Patel started looking for leather alternatives, but the pickings were slim. “Most non-leather alternates are either synthetics, which are not sustainable, or they’re products made with natural materials, which aren’t very fashionable in terms of design,” she says.
Then Patel discovered cork, and everything changed. She incorporated cork into her designs and “made a mark,” while simultaneously exacting what she calls “ethical production practices.”
Her most recent discovery, launching SS18, uses two materials native to the Himalayan region in India: hemp and nettle. “The fabrics we use originate from Uttarakhand, India,” Patel says. “We are not the manufacturers of the fabric, but we take a lot of care to understand our manufacturers and who they work with. Aside from all the environmental benefits, these fabrics help support the livelihood of farmers and artisans.” Though Arture doesn’t work directly with farmers, the company that Patel sources her materials from does. In other words, Arture’s manufacturing model offers a sustainable alternative to sweatshops and dangerous factory conditions.
But is this accessory line fashion forward? Arture’s designs are minimalist and clean. Neutral palettes and bright pops of color distinguish the accessories line where the craftsmanship determines the aesthetic. “Treat your accessories—and clothing—with love,” explains Patel, who underscores the breadth of the relationship you can have with the items you possess. “Sustainability is not just about buying something that’s eco-friendly. It’s also about what comes after you buy stuff. Caring for every item you own extends its life, helps you shop less, and ends up creating less waste.”
Patel also incorporates a minimalist aesthetic into her dressing habits, and encourages wanderlusters on holiday to do the same. “When it comes to your clothing and accessories, always pack pieces that can be paired in multiple ways. That way, with just a few pieces of clothing you could potentially have 10 different outfits. That helps save space and enables you to travel light,” she says. Her go-to items include staple garments like a LBD and white T-shirt that help your accessories “be the hero.”
Arture’s accessories line will appeal to those who don’t like their fashion fast, but prefer it to be thoughtfully curated, and built with heart.