There was a time, not too long ago, when fashion and sustainability were two words that could not be imagined in the same sentence. Fashion was always seen as independent of contributing to the environment. But we forget, fashion is not luxury, it is a way of life, and what is life if we don’t have means to a good one?
Sustainable fashion is the future. Many are realising that we owe it to nature to start moving towards a design philosophy that is not just fashionable, but environmentally and socially sustainable. One brand that is breaking all stereotypes, and standing up for the cause is Hemp Fabric Lab, based out of Bombay and a by-product of Bombay Hemp Company (BoHeCo).
We reached out to Mansi Shah and Neha Rao, the managers of Hemp Fabric Lab for an up-close and personal interview to know more about what led them to envision, and ultimately manifest their thought into a bright and inspiring reality. This is what they had to say...
Mansi: Well we’d say, why not! Hemp Fabric Lab is actually the baby of a brand called BoHeCo, which is a six year old startup, and began its journey in 2012. There are seven founders in the company who are all college friends and came together for this to happen, one of whom was visiting Australia when he saw an entire village that was completely living off of hemp. Everything from the houses to the food that they were eating, it was hemp. There were hemp seeds, hemp oil, people were making biofuels off of it. There were so many uses of it that we were unaware of. And seeing that hemp was native to India, because it grows wildly in the northern states of Uttarakhand and UP, it was great to know that we were tapping into the right product. That’s how the idea of starting this came together.
From there on, we’ve branched out into exploring all the industrial uses of hemp, mainly food, clothing and shelter. Every part of the plant can be used for something or the other. You can use the seeds for food, you can extract the oil for consumption, you can even use the unfiltered part of the oil to produce biofuel. The stalk of the plant can be used for making fibre and can be then spun into a yarn, and later fabrics. That’s how the journey started.
One idea was to explore the possibilities of hemp, another was to help the farmers. Because in our country, major part of the economy is run by agriculture and only a fraction of it goes back to the farmers. So seeing this level of discrepancy was what spurred our founders to take this initiative, and start with this project which has now turned into a growing company.
What came first: the idea of sustainability, or the desire to work in fashion?
Mansi: For us, Hemp came first. It was when we saw the potential with hemp that we started seeing a demand for more sustainable options and we saw a growing interest in the space where there was a lack of easy accessibility to such fabrics. That is when we really decided to create a brand.
What exactly is the fabric made of? What is the process?
Neha: Hemp as a plant is really tall. The bark of the plant is where we extract the fabric from. The fibre is durable in nature, so it’s almost like breaking it down in a very labor-intensive process. After which, we then break it down into a much more cottonised form, which is really when the fibre can be spun into a yarn state. We then, either by knitting or by weaving, convert it into a fabric. The process is slow but a lot of development can happen.
Mansi: A lot of our handlooms are made by our partner NGO called Athuliya Krisha Foundation, which employs women artisans in Uttarakhand to weave beautiful handloom products. So we partner with them, and aim at working towards the betterment of these women.
Hemp speaks for itself. It is our hero. We don’t need any influencer to take it big, our mission is big enough to make a difference. - Mansi Shah, Hemp Fabric Lab
Does hemp fabric has the potential to become a luxe fabric?
Mansi: We have a beautiful fabric called the hemp silk, which can be used by any big designer or whoever is a fan of luxury and couture fashion. It looks incredible. One can’t even tell it’s hemp.
Neha: One bride who actually chose to wear Hemp for her wedding was one of the founders' wife four years ago. When the wedding was approaching, she went,, “It has to be hemp.” Because they had been involved with it so closely, and it had to be included in the big day in some aspect. She had a Parsi wedding, and after everything had been done, the designer just called up, and shared how she loved working with the fabric and wants to make a collection. It was the first time then that a hemp wedding outfit was made, and it was a beautiful thing for us to hear. We’ve had crazy response from people in the applications they want to use hemp for. From sanitary pads to surfboard linings, and it is just so overwhelming.
Mansi: We are successfully making some great associations. We have made quite some progress in a span of seven months. Our designs have been showcased by the finalists at the Circular Design Challenge by LFW earlier this year. We've also given away bags of Hemp fabric scraps to be upcycled to artists, students and designers for free. We’re seeing a lot of interest from designers from India and overseas. It’s just been amazing.
Where do you see yourself going with it?
Mansi: We won’t stop at selling fabrics. Our mission is much bigger than that. We genuinely want people in India to understand what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. We want to educate every single person who comes our way, and tell them that sustainable fashion is not a trend, it is the need of the hour, and we can do something about it if we all become mindful.
We want to build an ecosystem for designers, creators, and innovators to come together under one roof and collaborate on creating amazing things with Hemp. We want to be the leaders of Hemp textile in India.
It doesn’t make sense to buy stuff and throw it, and then start all over again. It actually costs the economy billions of dollars every year. People don’t realise that. So, we want to promote the idea of a natural fabric that we can use and dispose of, and feel good knowing that those fabrics are going to biodegrade in a matter of months.