By Nicole Ng

Meet Indira Varma, The Fashion Graduate Who Believes That The Solutions To Our Problems Lie In Our Past

The budding designer is incorporating sustainability into her collection and paying it forward
An image from “Ratnagarbha: The Repository”. Photo: Courtesy

In May this year, graduates of the Fashion Design and Textiles programme at the School of Fashion at Lasalle College of the Arts presented a series of looks created in response to the theme, “Transition”, at the Graduate Fashion Show. GRAZIA Singapore speaks to three of them about their visions for the future of fashion—and how they aim to spearhead cultural change through their work. Next up, Indira Varma.

Indira Varma has a fire in her that sets her up to be a force to be reckoned with in sustainable fashion. The 21‑year‑old is passionate about helping artisans reclaim their power and saving the environment, and achieves both objectives with her graduate collection titled “Ratnagarbha: The Repository”, comprising designs referencing the rich heritage of her home country India. One can picture, for instance, the intricate details spanning Jaipur’s vast palaces in the collection’s floral motifs—replications of the actual patterns on the palaces’ marble floors, which Varma had traced by hand—and boxy silhouettes that echo their arched doorways. 

From her inspirations to the materials used, every step of Varma’s creative process was a mindful one, resulting in a collection with a net positive impact on both the environment and society. Her secret? Looking at India’s storied past for solutions. “I believe that practices [from ancient] communities are inherently sustainable. They bear so many solutions to the contemporary challenges we’re facing,” says the designer. Consequently, materials of natural origin, such as linen, were chosen for her collection. She also opted for sustainable inks when handblock printing and digital printing the floral motifs. 

Indira Varma. Photo: Courtesy

On the latter—her response to the environment-polluting ink commonly used in fast fashion—Varma explains: “I wanted to explore eco‑friendly printing technologies. What kind of purification processes are needed for a more controlled release [of pollutants] into the environment, so you’re not putting out chemicals without treating them?” Cue Tharangini Studio, a sustainable handblock printing business based in Bangalore, India, that Varma collaborated with for her collection. Water‑based Global Organic Textile Standard‑certified pigments are used in its printing process—which has low to zero environmental
impact—rendering the ink easier to treat and discharge compared to oil‑based versions. 

An image from “Ratnagarbha: The Repository”. Photo: Courtesy

The textile studio also has an artisan‑first approach, providing them with fair wages and healthcare benefits. This coincides with Varma’s desire to spotlight the exploitation artisans in rural areas face because of the fashion industry. “The working conditions are very poor,” says the designer. “There’s a lot of effluence that is discharged into rivers and the chemicals are destroying the water … A lot of the Bangladeshi children in factory areas are born with chronic illnesses because their parents have been consuming this water.” Unfair wages are another part of this sobering reality. Varma shares that employers often quote artisans prices (not surprisingly dragging the wage down to minimise costs), when it should be the other way around. “This needs to stop,” she asserts.

An image from “Ratnagarbha: The Repository”. Photo: Courtesy

She concedes, though, that there is an encouraging trend of artisans being recognised in fashion—the latest example being Dior’s pre‑fall 2023 show, held in Mumbai in tribute to the craftsmanship of India’s artisans. This upward swing in cultural responsibility by large corporations is heartening, Varma admits, but it must persist and improve for artisans to be properly compensated for their savoir faire, such that there is a rebalancing of power between them and fashion houses.

On issues of sustainability, Varma points out that we as consumers must also do our part. “We need to stop supporting fast fashion,” she says. “[Fast fashion brands produce about] 52 micro collections every year, [which means] there’s a new collection every week. You can imagine the stress on production.” 

An image from “Ratnagarbha: The Repository”. Photo: Courtesy

As for Varma, she will be pursuing her twin passions, striving to better fashion’s status quo, as a member of the Next Gen Assembly (previously the Youth Fashion Summit): an advocacy programme jointly launched by non‑profit organisation Global Fashion Agenda and Fashion Values, a sustainability education programme developed by the Centre for Sustainability Fashion, that convenes eight young changemakers in fashion.