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Meet the artists who are giving old clothes a sustainable makeover

From hand- and screen-painting denims, T-shirts and shoes, to visible mending, young designers are making the old new

Tribe Denims By Akhil Jacob
Tribe Denims By Akhil Jacob (Courtesy Akhil Jacob)

On days when the skies are clear in Wayanad, a town surrounded by hills and forests in Kerala, Akhil Jacob rides his vintage motorbike around town in search of inspiration. He is an artist whose paintings depict the rich flora and fauna of the region.

During an exhibition two years ago, he considered developing a merchandise line for his art project, Time Triangle, but decided against it. The idea didn't align with his work, which celebrates nature. “A lot of merchandise is wasteful and fast fashion oriented. So, instead of printing more T-shirts, I recycled denim jackets using art. I call it art cycling,” says the 30-year-old. By painting kaleidoscopic portraits of nature gods on old, worn-out jackets, he transforms them into statement pieces. He tailors the artwork for each customer. 

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“If someone requests a marigold flower in the painting, I ask them about the memories and experiences they associate with it,” he says. “The art should mean something to them. Because if you have something you value, the urge to buy more and more decreases."

Moodbox offers hand-paint denim and screen-print T-shirts.
Moodbox offers hand-paint denim and screen-print T-shirts. (Courtesy Moodbox)

Hand-painted clothing has been in trend for over a year now, even internationally. With Dua Lipa flaunting a colourful Levi’s on Instagram, Harry Styles wearing scribbled BODE cords on the cover of Vogue, and Elle Fanning arriving at Cannes Film Festival in a Vivienne Westwood gown with unicorn drawings—the elevated DIY-style is becoming increasingly popular. The runways of Dolce and Gabbana, Schiaparelli, and Balenciaga, too, embraced it for the Autumn/Winter 2021 season.

“Painted denim is booming in India,” says Amolika Rege, a 26-year-old entrepreneur from Mumbai. During quarantine last year, she started a small business called Moodbox to hand-paint denim and screen-print T-shirts. “People come in with random demands,” she says. “Some want their face on it, some want a caricature.” Art inspired by Y2K, 2000s bubblegum pop aesthetic, is the most in-demand. While she's seen an increase in orders in the past six months, she doesn't think the trend is for everyone. 

“Most people would prefer buying a cheaper alternative from the store rather than spending a thousand or two to get their clothes painted. Only a few people realise that the art is made exclusively for them.”

Ahmed Merchant agrees. The 35-year-old from Mumbai feels his sneaker art project, Merchant Customs, cannot be his only source of income, even after painting shoes for people like Chennai Super Kings player Narayan Jagadeesan. He is an accountant by the day and an artist by the night. For about 3,000, he can brighten drab, old sneakers with fluorescent colours and whimsical patterns. “The USP is customisation,” he says. “You don’t see anyone in the city wearing the same shoes as you.” He scrubs, paints and waterproofs each pair over a week, and the process can be taxing. “At first, I tried doing 22 shoes a month and ended up with back pain and sore muscles. Now I take only minimal orders,” says Merchant.

Ambala's Gahna Gupta Walia has been reviving plain dupattas, saris and salwar kameez with delicate florals since 2015.
Ambala's Gahna Gupta Walia has been reviving plain dupattas, saris and salwar kameez with delicate florals since 2015. (Courtesy Gahna Gupta Walia)

Gahna Gupta Walia, meanwhile, managed to turn her painting hobby into a full-time business with the help of social media. The Ambala-based entrepreneur has been reviving plain dupattas, saris and salwar kameez with delicate florals since 2015, long before sustainability became a buzzword. She once painted a safa (the turban cloth worn by men in North Indian weddings) in such a way that it could also be worn as a sari. According to her, there is nothing a paint brush can’t refurbish. “Sometimes, I forget to wear an apron and stain my clothes while colouring,” she says. “I obviously can’t throw them away, so I just fix the spot by painting around it.”

“Flaws should be embraced,” says Karishma Sehgal, a fashion communication graduate who teaches visible mending. The technique “highlights a tear or stain beautifully” instead of hiding it. She conducts workshops on how to recycle clothes and documents the process on her blog, The Baksa Project. She has witnessed people become more conscious of their clothing choices in the past three years. Yet, many still remain apprehensive about slow fashion because they believe it is expensive, not realising that the most sustainable outfit is the one that they already have. For Sehgal, the prettiest item she owns is a jacket she upcycled from her great-grandmother’s Pochampally ikat sari. “When you buy a dress from Zara, you’ll see 50 others wearing it. But this is yours alone,” she says. “Clothes are such a vital part of our identity. It’s important that they tell our stories and speak our language.”

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