Karishma Shahani Khan @ The Conscious Collaborative

Updated: Oct 30

With a vision to create a culture and economy that upskills and empowers, Karishma believes that people are eventually at the core of everything. It is this belief in people and the heritage of India, that led her to create Ka-Sha in 2012.

A graduate of London College of Fashion, she is candid about her journey and setbacks as she expresses her thoughts on India’s influence on the brand, and the impact of conscious circular brands in fashion.

Take us back to how you began Ka-Sha, what is the backstory?

When I was studying at London College of Fashion conversations about the notorious word 'sustainability' were already happening. This was back in 2007-2010. I realised that a lot of these conversations were so inherent to India as a culture, like reusing, mending and repairing, and upcycling for example.

My great grandfather was a freedom fighter and my great grandmother wore only khadi. I missed India while I was studying in London and I remember I bought khadi in London! These were my roots and I had never really paid that much attention.

So after graduating, I did a lot of internships in India. What eventually happened is I started questioning everything and going into the depth of the extraordinary crafts, skills, techniques of production, and value. People - the workers, skilled craftsmen and artisans, create true value.

"My great grandfather was a freedom fighter and my great grandmother wore only khadi. I missed India while I was studying in London and I remember I bought khadi in London! "

What was your first collection about?

It was my debut graduate collection called Yatra. It was based on my own journey. It was inspired by India, the culture and my connection to it. I realised the lasting impression India had on me, only when I lived outside the country. It was only natural for me to take inspiration from the crafts, aesthetics and culture of India. Work really connected me back to my culture.

It was very pure because it was not made for a commercial purpose, so it will always be close to my heart. (Karishma won the ‘Best Surface Textiles’, the ‘Nina de York Fashion Illustration’ and the British Graduate 100’s ‘Fashion Graduate of the Year’ awards for this collection)

"I realised the lasting impression India had on me, only when I lived outside the country. Work really connected me back to my culture."

You use Ka-Sha as a medium to support a circular economy. What has been the impact of it?

It’s a domino effect. People are at the core of what we do. We pay workers better, so that they can have a better lifestyle as a family. This impacts larger families and the community altogether. We are one big ecosystem, that's how we look at ourselves.

The idea is not to hoard and not to be wasteful. We are mindful of that. Heart-to-haat is the concept that was born of this ideology. We train women to make pouches, bags, accessories out of scrap fabric and waste material. They learn a skill, they earn good wages, this empowers them. Loom and Hand is our initiative to make hand-woven pre-existing textiles accessible far and wide. It combats deadstock and over consumption, and really enables access to extraordinary work from the handlooms across India. What we do at Ka-Sha has to make sense for us and others - people and community at the heart.

"This is what I have, what can I do with it? The idea is not to hoard and not to be wasteful."

What is the essence of Ka-Sha?

Ka-Sha is not limited to a particular style, it is really how you make it your own. We do multiple layers and everything is made-to-order. The fabrics are natural and comfortable. It is how you want to style it and we help you with that. We get to know you better so we can find something that not only fits into your life at that point, but it is also something you can style seamlessly otherwise. It's a balance of detailing and comfort.

Women's bodies are so different from one to another. We are doing multiple things throughout the day, so it is important to be comfortable in what we are wearing. Fashion is about flamboyance and functionality, and we create products focused on process and quality.

There is pride in every product we create and every product has an identity, like the Billi jacket or Taara dress. We live by - Change by design.

What inspires you to create?

History, social sciences, anthropology have always fascinated me. Ideas really come from historical clothing and then creating a way to wear that seamlessly. Fashion is closely linked to how a society is at a particular point. It is a depiction of it and there is always contrast in it.

When I am traveling within India there is so much to explore - handlooms, weavers, crafts, textiles and people. I love to go to the local market wherever I am, and observe. I see people dressed in fabric or garments specific to their origin or where they come from. In the global environment we live in, if we all dress the same then your origin has no space, it is lost.

The collection Kaam Kaaj for example draws a parallel between the work wear of our ‘working classes’ and ritualistic ceremonial wear so it's about work+celebration. It’s inspired by the local vendors, the house help, the fruit and flower sellers and their movement in clothing. The surface ornamentation, fabric dyeing and technique used is an amalgamation of crafts from three different states in India.

In the global environment we live in, if we all dress the same then your origin has no space, it is lost.

What has been a profound eye-opener for you on this journey?

In my first ever internship as a 20 year old, I had traveled to and was living in the place where the craft was being practiced. And I thought things had to be done in a certain way and that I knew better just because I was 'educated'. I had my opinions about how people were living and in the way they were doing things. When they explained to me why they did what they did, and in the way they did, it had such an incredible impact on my perspective.

We view craft as something to make, buy, sell, recreate. But craft is intrinsic to peoples lives. They practice it because it fits into their scheme of things. They make things for themselves, their homes, their communities. That's how craft has always been - functional. That is why there is a beauty in the aesthetics of where it comes from. Things were made for a particular reason and used in particular situations. We think we know better because we live in the city or because we have certain privileges.

For the first time I was exposed to people's lives and choices which were different, didn't mean that they were any less or wrong. That helped me shape how I wanted to view my work.

"We think we know how to do things better just because we live in the city."

What is the future for niche, conscious brands and their impact on the economy?

Educating the consumer is what makes a difference in the long run. Let's say 10 years down we will be in positions to have a much larger impact. So what we are doing today is enabling us to build that future. It’s an exciting time because there is such a shift in consumer mindsets as well.

The core problem with fast fashion brands is not only about them not using recycled fabrics. It is about paying workers well. I think that when large companies and corporations think in that direction, it helps everyone. For example, the Conscious Collection at H&M probably helped put the smaller brands who were already working in a conscious manner, at the forefront.

You have received accolades and done commendable work. What has been a trying time for you?

One of the worst setbacks we have had is a big order that was not paid for. We were fairly new and it was a huge financial setback. But looking back it was a lesson in the making, it helped us structure ourselves better. My biggest learning was to learn to say no and that it's okay to. When you partner with people who are willing to take equal responsibility that's when the magic happens.

You have done so many international shows, and showcased at incredible platforms. What is the one reaction you have received that has surprised you?

At the London Fashion Week’s International Fashion Showcase in 2017, five designers from different parts of India were chosen to showcase. I was one of them, and the theme was The Indian Pastorialists. Drawing inspiration from pastoral communities in India and their diverse artisanal skills, we were representing the emerging fashion aesthetic to a global audience. Unfortunately, we have been typecast as a country, so initially people were surprised that there were no sequins, elephants, or yoga silhouettes on the garments. We emerged a winner in the country showcase category. What people haven’t seen is India’s extraordinary work and value. The variety of skills in every corner of the country is remarkable. We want to spread this as far and wide as we can, that’s why Ka-Sha is a love letter from India to the world.

Karishma loves books and music and doesn’t have any one favourite genre. She loves to read stories that revolve around people, their origin and their journeys. The Kite Runner was the first one of this category that she read. She loves making things by hand and DIY is always a favourite pastime. Karishma lives in Pune, India.

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