How a Wasteland Shrub Is Becoming the Next Big Thing in Fashion

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this common shrub can pave a sustainable future.

  • Fashion entrepreneur Gowri Shankar is harnessing the calotropis gigantea shrub, common around his southern India home, to create vegan wool.
  • With growing interest in Europe amid a sustainable fashion boom, Shankar’s Weganool looks like it has wide appeal.

The sunbirds beat Gowri Shankar to the punch. A natural fashion entrepreneur in southern India, Shankar saw a group of sunbirds near his window one day taking a fiber out of a wild shrub to keep their young ones warm. “I saw that the yarn was very fine,” he says, and for the first time Shankar thought of using calotropis gigantea plants, so abundant in the area’s coastal villages, for fabric.

The result? Weganool, a vegan cousin of wool that is primed to take off as the next big thing in sustainable fashion in Europe and beyond.

Shankar comes from a traditional family of Devanga weavers in Villupuram, a district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. For five generations, his family has been perfecting the art of weaving colorful silk saris. “The belief in our community is that our ancestors had received the first thread from Lord Shiva [a principal Hindu deity]. Even as a child, I had always been around the loom and have had no doubt that I’ll be weaving.”

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Shankar, 34, spent the initial days of his career in merchandising for a leading fashion designer. “It is there I realized how polluting our industry is.” He resigned and launched his own brand, Faborg, in 2015. He began experimenting with various natural fabrics such as banana, hemp, bamboo and aloe vera. Then came his observation of the neighborhood birds.

The material flows really well and has the lush properties of high-end fabric. Optically, it looks gorgeous.

Julia Gaydina, co-founder of sustainable luxury clothing brand Infantium Victoria

He spent the next 18 months trying to understand how to extract the calotropis gigantea fiber from its stem and pod without using any chemicals. After discovering more of the plant’s past uses, he created a natural fertilizer and insect repellant from the fiber’s residue.  

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Paliniammal, Shankar’s cook who goes by a single name like many in the region, recalls how she was shocked when she heard about his plans for the shrub known locally as eruku. “When [Shankar] wanted a person to forage for these plants, I pitched in,” she says. “You can find these plants in every nook and corner and this was the first time we heard of someone using it for producing their yarn.” Shankar guided their team of five through every stage, from harvesting the stems to extracting and drying the fibers. Paliniammal says that while the fibers from the pod are very soft, the stem fibers are rough. “We have now managed to master the art of extracting both with ease,” she grins, happy to earn an extra 6,000 rupees ($80) per month to support her family.

Their insect repellant, Arka (the Sanksrit word for calotropis), created from the liquid leftovers, has also become a huge hit among the cashew farmers in Villupuram. Organic farmer Sivapraksam, 29, says he was familiar with calotropis as an insect repellant but had not seen anyone from his generation use it. “Gowri made it extremely easy for us with his ready-made repellant, and it has helped us handle pests,” he says.

A design by Infantium Victoria, a high-end German children’s clothing brand, using Weganool.

The residue is one thing, but a major polluter in the fashion industry is dyeing — which often leaves behind toxic sludge. Hence, Shankar partnered with a company in Tirupur that uses plant-based dyes like marigold or myrobalan. His zero-waste yarn is now slowly garnering the attention of sustainable designers around the world.

Faborg’s commitment to sustainability won over Julia Gaydina of Infantium Victoria, a German designer of children’s clothing. “The material flows really well and has the lush properties of high-end fabric,” she says. “Optically, it looks gorgeous. I believe the only challenge is that the product is a true innovation and we are in the early stage of the product life cycle. Many people are enthusiastic, but the material is not widely available yet. We hope to contribute to changing this by introducing material to the European designers this fall.”

For its winter collection, Infantium Victoria is introducing the Weganool in a hoodie, a baby jacket and a cape. With more plans for their upcoming summer collection, Gaydina believes this fabric is going to be one of the company’s staples.

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But the battle is far from over for Shankar and his team. Leading designer Sowbaranika from Chennai points out that the fashion industry is one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus, given that people don’t need nice clothes if they aren’t leaving their homes. Plus, wool isn’t too popular in a hot country like India and its longer life means fewer repeat customers. “I also believe that though it might take time, Weganool could make it big in the European market, where the material is more relevant and with increased awareness on cruelty-free products,” Sowbaranika says.

For Shankar, it’s been much more than a business or a fabric. He hopes that this plant, which requires little water and can grow even in high salinity, could help often exploited Indian farmers extract some profit from the wastelands. He points out that 40 percent of the land in his district goes “unused due to water issues.” Though they are currently foraging from the wilderness, he hopes to see more farmers take up Calotropis along with crops like cashew trees or soap nuts. And the shrub is global: Shankar imagines this idea taking shape just as easily in Africa or Australia.

To see a brighter future, sometimes all it takes is an open window.

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