An aesthete by default and a businesswoman by choice, Sangita Sinh Kathiwada had a vision. Two and a half decade later, her idea is still relevant.
Growing up in a royal family in Madhya Pradesh, Sangita Sinh Kathiwada had the access to best of things, especially fabrics. But instead of taking them for granted, Sangita imbibed values of nurturing and preserving from her grandmother, mother and aunts. Years later, that value system helped her set up Mélange—the multi-designer store—at a time when it was still an alien concept.
“I’m a person who has got ants in her pants, 24x7,” Sangita says with a hearty laughter. Sitting surrounded by fabrics, even as we speak, Sangita tells us how she felt there was a lack of quality clothes made with natural fabrics and decided to make it herself. “I had to do what I believed in. If I want to wear cotton clothes, then I very well make them and share them with other people. I can’t just talk. So, I decided to walk the talk,” Sangita says.
With her family standing by her idea, she knew she had to give people a refined aesthetic. It was a time when nylon and synthetics were easily accessible. She wanted to change that. Mélange was, thus, born.
Mélange, started in a 100-year-old wine cellar in Mumbai, not only offered a visual and sensory experience through its collections, it also discovered design talents from across the country. Most of her discoveries—Wendell Rodricks, Narendra Kumar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Sanjay Garg, Anavilla Mishra, Aneeth Arora—are biggest names of the Indian fashion fraternity.
But, it wasn’t an easy fête. Not just as a concept, but also because she decided to give sustainability its rightful spot. “It was extremely challenging. I was constantly questioned by media, even some designers, why was I so hell-bent on including 100 per cent natural fabric clothing,” Sangita recalls.
She is among first few entrepreneurs to put a blanket ban on the use of plastic bags. What’s the point of advocating sustainability when you are handing over organic cotton clothes in a plastic bag, she asks. She was challenged at every step. It only made her stronger.
Sangita did find like-minded people as she chose to work with designers who were in sync with her value system. “I also looked for creativity and was okay if it came from some sort of an eccentric madness. I never liked people who follow the ‘right’ path and make something just because that’s what people want,” she says. Sangita is of an opinion that if someone follows their creativity, people will accept it, even if their idea is wild and efforts are sincere.
“Ramesh Nair, Narendra Kumar and I did some radical things 25 years years ago and were accepted.” She talks about experimenting with uneven hemlines, innovative accessories and newer ways of using Khadi. Even today, she works with her all-time favourite fabrics such as handspun mulmul, handwoven Khadi and jamdani. Only when someone takes a chance and scratches the surface, they can create a revolution.
What has changed in last two decades, we ask her. “As a race, we have become insensitive. A culture of disposal, which is Western in origin, has set in,” Sangita says. She points out how in our culture, sustainability is not forced; it is a way of life. “We are re-cyclist and up-cyclist. People may call us hoarders, but we know how to reuse our belongings in the best way possible. We pass down our clothes to younger generation.”
She feels that what is being done to sustain fashion is only a drop in the ocean. We have abused our planet so much that to reverse it, we’ve to make humungous efforts. It is with every single individual having an awareness that change will come, not just with big talks and conferences. “Do you realise that at these ‘sustainable’ conferences, they serve water in plastic bottle or terrafoam glasses. Why can’t we bring out own bottle from home?”
With absolutely no fear of sounding cynical, she says that these conferences should be checked for their carbon footprint. She also finds it intriguing how people over-use tissues at a restaurant. “For five boxes of tissue papers, one tree is chopped!”
Talking of responsible fashion, we discuss how younger generation of designers has found different models of sustainability. While Rahul Mishra would not like kaarigars to uproot themselves from their villages and would rather go to them, Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango has created a safe cocoon for his team of kaarigars at his studio in Delhi, nurturing them along and getting inspired by them.
“I feel both the models are good. Any system will work, as long as it is not forced. Their collections were the first ones to come to Mélange that were crafted by paramparik kaarigar,” Sangita says.
Till a couple of years ago, Sangita met every designer before taking them onboard. Now the process has become digital, at least the first few steps.
“Unlike earlier times, we now receive close to ten requests a day. When a collection speaks to me, I pick it up. After that the merchandising team gets the best that suits our DNA,” Sangita says.
With so much happening in the design world, Melange’s in-house clothing line has taken a backseat. There was a studio for 12 years, where she worked with young designers Lilian and Ranjee Chatargar to create the collections, using natural textiles, such as Khadi. But, as she said, she is not the one to sit back and relax.
After the workshop, Sangita has a passion project up her sleeves, the Kathiwada Project. She is involved in refurbishing hunting lodge into boutique heritage hotel, wellness and sports retreats, organic farming and social development in Kathiwada, her husband’s ancestral home in Madhya Pradesh.
Design has been an integral part of her growing up, and later her passion. The Morarka Foundation is, thus, is closest to her heart that lets her work towards heritage conservation. She also works closely with weavers in a remote areas of Madhya Pradesh. She brings her educational qualification as a textile designer, graduate in history of Indian art and interior design together to create magic, be it on fabrics or walls.
A self-proclaimed obsessive-compulsive person, she tries to put everything in order, even if it means irking a few people. “I recently moved in my new home and was putting a few things in order while doing the puja, only to see the pundit giving me a glare,” she laughs. It’s some sort of an obsession but, she think things should look beautiful whatever once choses to
do. “Creating harmony is very important to me.”
Back in Kathiwada, she is trying to set a few things right. “Boys and girls stay and study at our ashram. I also work with sanitation and hygiene, talking to young girls about the importance of using sanitary napkin, which is provided to them by us. So, it’s farm to fabrics to fashion to finances that occupy me completely,” Sangita says.
As soon as she wrapped up an exhibition to mark 25th anniversary of Mélange, she got busy thinking of ways to bring about change and harmony.