It is a problem that afflicts every fashion designer: what to do with last season's clothes that didn't sell? In India, unlike the US or Europe, there are no luxury consignment stores or outlet malls where designer "seconds" can be sold at discount. Instead, says the designer Joe Ikareth, the "dead stock" would just lie in boxes in warehouses because "the label was too precious to just give clothes away". So he began thinking about ways around this - ways of reinventing and recycling last season's stock, something that he does with his own designs.
Ikareth graduated from the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in 1996 with an award for Best Design Collection. He then worked with the couturier Suneet Varma, experiencing the business of Indian fashion first-hand. Four years later, Ikareth moved back to his native Kerala to set up an atelier. He uses local fabric and traditional techniques of embroidery and woodcutting, but his design sensibility is quirky. He says that he is inspired by the movement of clothes on the acrobats and dancers that he used to design for in New Delhi. But, he says, the image of designer clothes lying dormant in empty warehouses stayed with him through the past 15 years.
Two years ago, he approached the owners of Grasshopper in Bangalore, where he retails, with a bold idea. How about getting a group of designers together to collaborate on last season's leftovers? They would exchange their creations and transform them into something unlike the original. The owners of Grasshopper, Sonali Sattar and Himanshu Dimri - a husband and wife team who design linen and silk dresses under the label Hidden Harmony - were immediately enthusiastic. They approached some designers, and, in June 2008, six young Indian design teams sat down in Bangalore and came up with TransForm.
"The idea was to give a new dimension to leftover stock so that it doesn't pile up," says Krishna Murthy, who designs leather handbags and pouches. "Since we all came from different design backgrounds and principles, we thought it would be interesting to see how we could transform each other's pieces." In addition to Ikareth, Sattar and Dimri the original six design teams were Atul Johri, who makes jewellery, candleware, vases and lights using traditional craft techniques; Saviojon, who is frequently cited as one of the rising stars of fashion; Murthy who worked with leather among other things, and the designers Jason Cherian and Anshu Arora, who play with textures and details for their fashion and home products under the label A Small Shop.
"It was wonderful how we all connected and agreed on how things should be taken forward," says Sattar. For instance, even though they ended up selling the TransForm designs due to public demand, they set out to be a "conceptual exercise without the pressure of commercial output", as Ikareth says. Also, says Sattar, they originally wanted to make the final products label-less because, in a sense, TransForm was about subsuming the individual ego for a collective one.
She points to a Hidden Harmony dress that Saviojon converted into a blousy top. "Customers liked that they were getting two labels instead of one, so we ended up leaving the labels behind," she shrugs. The designers agreed that they would share equally in the proceeds from the sales, since the final products were design amalgamations. For the first TransForm event, which happened in November 2008, each designer had four months to create their piece. Ikareth made a fabric wall using material from other designers into which clothes were sewn in. Viewers could put their hands, legs and faces into a piece, "thereby transforming themselves into a new character", while a photographer documented the entire process and installation.
For this year's TransForm, the designers chose Alice in Wonderland as the theme to link the products together. Ikareth has created a line of clothes with bags stitched into them so that the clothes fold into the bags. "Poor Alice left for Wonderland in such a hurry that she was really unprepared," says Ikareth. "Using this idea, I created a Things to carry to Wonderland line in which all the products had a dual purpose: pillows, bags and cushions could transform into skirts, pants and tops. This way you had something soft to lay your head on and spare clothes to change into if ever you find yourself stuck down the rabbit hole."
The other designers came up with equally creative products: leather necklaces, appliqued hats, dresses converted into lamps, frilly blouses and shirts that used to be trousers. Most interesting, however, is the contrasting design sensibility evident in the difference between each designer's original products, displayed in Grasshopper's downstairs area, and the TransForm products, displayed upstairs. Downstairs, the clean lines and minimalist sensibility of each designer is obvious. Upstairs at the TransForm display space, everything is wildly exuberant, colourful and whimsical.
"We all had loads of fun and learnt to work on mediums that we probably wouldn't have tried since our work is quite specialised," says Johri. "No one was competing with each other. Rather, we had the luxury of cutting open works of other designers without any limitations and creating something quite unique." In addition to Transform, Johri has also been invited by The United Nations Development Program and India's Khadi and Village Industries Commission to develop paper out of banana fibre and launch a series of banana fibre paper lights for the first time in Southeast Asia. He also works with the talented artisans of the Channapatna district outside Bangalore, famed for their wooden toys. Johri has used their talents to create a range of lacquerware lifestyle and fashion products. For TransForm, Murthy made a belt out of some coloured wooden beads from the range. Saviojon took a bright purple silk skirt that was originally a Hidden Harmony design and converted it into a halter-neck dress. The Hidden Harmony duo, in turn, took a transparent blue Saviojon top and added vivid red and yellow borders.
On opening night a few weeks ago, more than a hundred people thronged the exhibition space, trying on clothes and playfully using skirts as headscarves or blouses as vests - all of which was immensely fulfilling for the designers. As Ikareth says: "Fashion isn't a design that you wear; it is a thought you express. My clothes are represented by a stylised dragonfly label and do not carry my name. It is important that every single piece is first an object with its own independence; later the garment takes on a personal note depending on who wears it."
For each of these politically conscious young designers, TransForm wasn't merely a way to revamp their clothes or themselves. They view it as a way to transform the world: "The textile industry contributes in a major way to global warming. TransForm is our effort to give back to nature."