I was a Sari, a peculiar name for a brand, mostly pronounced with a breath of curiosity. A brand name that makes you question its existence. I was a Sari is not just one of a kind name but also, a one of a kind brand. A brand with a story.
There is no dearth of ethical brands today, in fact the concept of giving back to the society is pretty ancient. And after unprecedented rise of consumerism, it is only natural to get to a wave of DIY’s, eco-friendly fashion and ethical brands.
I was a Sari emerged when the brand’s founder, Stefano Funari got to the heart of the problem, while working with the slum and street kids. He realized that if we aim at bringing out change, it is the women in the family who needs to be targeted. Mothers are the lever to be pulled to bring about the change we wish to bring in the lives of the children. Because the mother alone can have that trickle-down effect.
Hence the woman (in so many roles in the family, including that of the mother) is the biggest change-maker in the society. To bring about an impactful change, the women needs to be empowered. When the woman starts earning, it leads to double income in the family, diminishing the dependency on the man of the family for all finances and can contribute to the welfare of the kids.
Not only is financial independence for women aiding in education and welfare of the kids, but it also a catalyst to societal change in the placement of women. Where women are no longer dependent, where women get to step out of the house, develop soft skills and gain confidence.
Hence, the project for underprivileged women came to center stage and their financial empowerment became the mission. The task was to come up with a sustainable model for the underprivileged and semi-skilled Indian women that can result in high-impact social change.
Why Sari? When we started working with the women in the slums, who were mostly un-skilled and sometimes semi-skilled (having learnt stitching at home) we wanted to use something that is not foreign to them. We wanted the material to be something that they can relate to, and what in a way defines them and brings out their stories through its medium. The Sari – worn by most of these women, seemed like the best choice, with its vibrancy, with its heritage, with its cultural importance, it was well- suited and the best fit in all aspects.
In 2012, Stefano approached Fashion in Process (FIP), a research collective within the Design Department of Politecnico di Milano University, and pitched a partnership to work on a project grounded in two very simple elements: upcycling and the Sari.
This is where I was a Sari began, and thanks to the FIP’s team, led by Prof. Paola Bertola and Prof. Federica Vacca, the brand came to life.
The designers from FIP were tasked with a very clear objective: reinvent the sari so that the products can be consumed by a larger audience, to give it a contemporary, internationally palatable, premium touch while utilising simple tailoring techniques that require a high intensity of labour to imbue the product perception with additional value. The designers developed three collections in this stage of initial conceptualisation: Criss Cross, From Place to Place and I’m a Garden. The Criss Cross collection was the first that went into production and can still be shopped here.
The Sari, and upcycling, are the core pillars of the brand’s existence, hence the name I was a Sari came naturally. Each Sari that goes through this metamorphosis has a story to tell; of how it got re-invented, and how the women re-inventing it went through their own transformational journey of empowerment and financial independence.
Community Outreach Programme (CORP), an Indian non-governmental organisation (NGO), supported I was a Sari since its very beginning acting as an incubator. It is where the first few women got involved in the project and the first collection was designed. Involvement of CORP was crucial to the successful start, as it offers a safe environment to the women and understands the local community, its needs and the cultural nuances.
The disadvantaged women employed by I was a Sari through the CORP vocational training centres come for a variety of reasons, each unique to their own set of circumstances. However, they all end up united by the passion to work and improve their lives along with their children’s’. Prior to the training, the artisans have little confidence that their work will result in something meaningful or worth the money. But given the opportunity to be a part of a working community in which they can develop friendships in parallel with soft and hard skills, an observable transformation of their attitudes and self-confidence levels occurs.
Today, about 70 women artisans are a part of I was a Sari. It is just a beginning for us, and a long way to follow. But each life we touch, each women we employ is a step towards our mission, towards the transformational journey that is well signified through I was a Sari.