Nimish Shah on Fashion and Sustainability [1/2]

It was Design Fabric Festival, 2018. There was one panel that I was highly looking forward to, on sustainability in fashion, because I had random hope to get a word in with any one of the panelists, & potentially get an interview for this blog. After the panel concluded, I ran out, to find designer Nimish Shah of Shift, standing outside. He was the moderator of the panel. I summoned up my confidence, and went over to introduce myself, thinking ‘this is my only shot’, he agreed to hear me out and be interviewed, and the rest is below!

A big thank-you to Mr. Shah for kindly consenting to this interview for what is a small sustainability & fashion blog, and answering in such detail.

Note, this is part 1 of the interview, and part 2 will be updated soon & linked over here.

Designer Nimish Shah [photo via nimishshift on Instagram]

Varsha: Tell me a little about your brand (Shift)- how did it start?

Nimish: I studied product design for the fashion industry, & I was mostly doing design management for two years after graduation. I did not want to venture into fashion per se, and I wanted to set up a clothing company. We just wanted to do basic, beautiful clothes which have great hand-feel, you know? They have some value adds which are very subtle, and nothing ornate. And then one thing led to another, we did our presentation, and silhouette-wise, it was very fashion-forward, quite edgy at the time. And then immediately and sort of accidentally, it switched to being a fashion company. And that was about it. We still do address feasibility, and apply common sense to every day-to-day practice.

V: On your production process, while it is detailed on your website, as a designer, how difficult or easy is it to keep an eye on every part of your supply chain – for example, where your raw materials come from, how you source it in a responsible way, how you minimise waste in the process?

N: So we work with vendors, and for that, we obviously go in with a lot of trust, hoping that our vendors are watching their supply chain, and making sure that the fabric they are selling us is coming through fair trade practices, if it is environmentally conscious, is it being addressed, et cetera. We expect that, and we pay a premium for it. We don’t audit them – ideally we should be checking them onsite, but we don’t, because we’re not such a big buyer anyway, & we’re running a boutique business. We follow what they’re known for, their speciality. Another thing (we do) is that we build a relationship with them, to know if there is a truth to the whole scenario.

Obviously there is a lot of trust whenever we’re working with weavers directly, so we know it’s going to them, there are no middlemen. And even if there are, they are certified, and they’re big business owners, so we know that they’ve addressed certain issues, and they’re not going offline completely.

About waste management – within our studio, we start from scratch, where we’re designing things with as minimum fabric waste as possible.

We’re trying to eliminate all sorts of scrap while cutting – there is a lot of that, but we try to avoid it in design. So we’ll set it within our language, there’s a consideration for it.

That’s the biggest aspect to our design process, followed by secondary waste management, where we turn all our fabric scraps into quilts, which are beautifully redesigned, up-cycled, created through women employment. Apart from this, we’re expecting a new consignment of adevelopment where we take extra fabrics (a ridiculous amount of fabric waste that can’t be salvaged), and we turn it into paper, and route it back into our communication, brand collateral, and posters, and what not. Through that, we pretty much close our loop on waste, and hopefully we are floating with as minimum waste as possible from our factories.

Shift Summer ’17 collection featuring Joi Raggal, photographs: Vaishnav Praveen Style: Ekta Rajani Hair & Make Up: Kritika Gill

V: That’s fascinating, & even more so that you guys are taking that extra step, to go and buy fabric that’s not being used, and effectively up-cycling it. But what then happens to clothes from previous seasons that aren’t sold?

N: We’re still a pretty small scale of business, our designs are overlapped quite a lot – I’m still using designs from 2014. I don’t think it feels off-trend, or old-fashioned, because our history is only 8 years old. We don’t produce that much, to be honest. We’re always either sold out, or terribly understocked. This situation (of unsold clothing) may arise when we do scale up and when we’re producing several units. We might have to address the situation of dead stock. But that is also the design plan, right?

We don’t want to unnecessarily overproduce. We are producing as and when we feel like it is moving. We make it in small batches, it’s all handled by hand, nothing is mass produced. We are at that luxury at the moment to not have to churn out clothing.

V: That’s fair, and I think you’re also at the point where in the market, you occupy a really unique space in terms of price & style. And the fact that you’re producing small-scale & maintain a price level, appealing to those who may not be interested in buying total luxury but still want to invest in good, well-made clothing.

N: Correct, exactly, they’re buying quality.

V: So just going back to the panel at Design Fabric Festival, there was talk about standardisation for sustainability. As far as I know, there are a few international standards such as Fair Trade, Eco Loom, etc, but it’s barely required here. Indian brands can just slap an organic label on their clothes and say, ‘hey, we’re sustainable’. Apart from the standardisation for clothing, do you think there’s another role that the government can play in incentivising sustainability for fashion brands?

N: I think it’s more about applying standards, because then the minute you are not following a certain standard, you become a defaulter. You shouldn’t be given brownie points for doing something. It’s a pretty large industry, we’re not a minority in any way. The government has a lot of women entrepreneurship programs and loans, which are all very important, and helpful in that space. But to be sustainable and environmentally conscious, there have to be laws in place, and defaulters penalised. Which is very beautifully done in cases of the environment – for effluent treatment, etc- and there are basic norms that one needs to follow to protect against environmental hazards. I think that needs to come into practice for social standards for labour.

Also, such information is not available loosely for small startups and independent brands. When I started, there was not a single place I could go to and ask for a list of things to do. This has always been a grovel among all startups – there is no reference point. Nobody is telling us; they will tell us we are breaking the law after 10 years of us breaking the law, and then say that just to make money out of it. There isn’t a handbook that says that if you’re starting your own business in fashion or garment manufacturing, you follow X, Y, Z.

You obviously learn over time from your peers, from the industry, and people around, but there isn’t a government side, which tells us 5 key things we need to know when we set up a business of such scale. We are lacking on those sort of incentive structures.

The government officers are so caught up in the system that they don’t wish to educate, but rather exploit people who are misguided and doing things the wrong way purely because there is no right information available.

For example, I know there are factory laws and labour laws- and they haven’t made my life easy for it to come into my lap. So then what happens is that this becomes a non-creative job that I’ll deviate from as much as possible. Eventually I’ll become of a certain skill, and hire someone to look into this for me. But most people end up hiring others when they’ve been defaulted by the government, and hit by a penalty. This comes at a certain cost & social haggle.

So going back to your question, a certain standard set by the government would be good. Today if I know that I’m not supposed to dye something and throw the water in the drain, I know not to do that. There’s that transparency in law and structure.

V: For sure. I think after a point if one faces multiple hurdles, or if a designer is facing enough difficulty getting their brand up-and-running, despite their wish to be a sustainable brand, they might just decide to put it on the back burner and do what they want to get the brand up for now, and deal with sustainability as an afterthought.

The Shift studio, photo by Border & Fall

And that’s all for Part 1! Part 2 with more insights on the industry, clothing, & being able to afford sustainable fashion coming up soon.

Thoughts on the interview so far? Leave a comment telling me if you liked it!

2 thoughts on “Nimish Shah on Fashion and Sustainability [1/2]

  1. Though you had to run up to Mr.Shah after the session to get an interview, the questions are well thought out. I can relate how your education in Economics has helped you frame some of the questions here. It’s very detailed and well developed

    1. Hey Prasanth, thanks for the comment! I got him on the phone a few weeks later to get my interview 🙂 Glad you liked it!

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