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The Summer House


Indian brand The Summer House make sustainable clothes with designs that draw on traditional craftsmanship and render them in modern, timeless silhouettes. They also offer homewares, working directly with local creatives and NGOs to ensure direct benefit to the makers. As such, The Summer House represents a new kind of brand, working towards a more sustainable, global future. KEIN magazine caught up with founders Shivangini Parihar and Rekha Datla to talk about creating a brand with a conscience and the future of Indian fashion.

interview by India Doyle
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The Summer House


How​ ​did​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​for​ ​The​ ​Summer​ ​House​ ​begin?  

When you move from a smaller town to the city and life becomes a blur of activities, you start missing the simplicity and celebration of the everyday.​ ​So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that The Summer House was simply born from nostalgia for a place in life that is relaxed and not rushed. It also came about from the memories of childhood, when we took good quality for granted. Rekha and I both grew up in households where all meals were home cooked; life was laid back and mostly spent running wild in the outdoors, and craft techniques were appreciated, worn and lived with (as was the norm with most households in India back then). Long discussions about this inherited love of handmade and craft and technique combined with our appreciation for modern aesthetic is what eventually set the ball rolling for The Summer House. 

Why​ ​was​ ​sustainability​ ​as​ ​a​ ​core​ ​foundation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​brand​ ​important​ ​for​ ​you? 

It simply is who we are as people, irrespective of whether we own a lifestyle brand or not. When we started The Summer House, we didn’t know the impact of fashion on the world or that sustainability would soon become the buzzword. We did things the best way we could, without cutting corners for the sake of profit. As people, we can’t imagine doing something that is not right for the people who work with us, our planet or our customers, just so that we can show a better bank balance.
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The Summer House


Do​ ​you​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​the​ ​fashion​ ​landscape​ ​in​ ​India​ ​is​ ​changing?​ ​What​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​be​ ​done​ ​to​ ​make a​ ​more​ ​sustainable​ ​industry?  

Yes it definitely is. For a few decades India was desperate for international retail chain store brands as well as cheaply made imported clothes from neighbouring countries. But now there is a growing awareness about the impact that what we choose and wear has on the environment. There is a big spurt in the number of local designers using natural fabrics, brands starting eco-friendly ranges - all in response to a more aware consumer. But of course, we have a very very long way to go. 

Only awareness will salvage the grave mistakes we have already made in in the name of fashion, and the consumer is the one that will eventually drive broader change. When a company sees demand/profit in being sustainable it will automatically adopt it (you can already see it happening, but in a very limited capacity). So in our mind, we need to invest in creating awareness of the impact of fashion within every social, economic, political class of people. We can already see change even with just a very small percentage of people questioning how brands are made; imagine if everyone did it.
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The Summer House


You​ ​have​ ​pursued​ ​a​ ​level​ ​of​ ​environmental​ ​awareness​ ​in​ ​your​ ​production​ ​that​ ​many ‘​sustainable​’​ ​brands​ ​don​’​t​ ​offer.​ ​How​ ​did​ ​you​ ​become​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​the​ ​sustainable​ ​industry, and​ ​what​ ​are​ ​the​ ​most​ ​interesting​ ​things​ ​you​ have ​learnt? 

The more we learned, the more interested we were in sustainability and responsible processes. There really was no strategy to get seeped into it, it just so happened that we kept asking questions and seeking answers.  

Over time there are many things we have learned and observed and found interesting / amusing. Simple things like black dyes are most damaging to the earth (we only buy deadstock black fabric if we need the colour). Or that if you use handwoven cloth or eco-friendly colours or fabrics but then transport it across various parts of the the world in a conventional way, your actual carbon footprint is much higher than the good you did. In that case then, technically, you aren’t a sustainable brand. 

The fact that cotton is actually quite damaging to the earth. It is a thirsty crop that completely takes everything out of the earth it grows on, and if you farm it with pesticides of course you further damage the environment. If you farm it organically you end up using larger tracts of land which means more deforestation for farm land and lesser output for farmers. Living in a tropical country like India, we have no choice but to use cotton. Or the irony that we spend more time in closed spaces in clean clothes but our detergents are getting harsher and have more chemicals than before when we were actually working and playing outdoors. Learning so many simple facts like these help us function more sensibly.
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The Summer House


Are​ ​Indian​ ​audiences​ ​receptive​ ​to​ ​a​ ​new​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​fashion?  

Yes, they are slowly opening their minds to it. Bollywood influencers have made a large impact in this field, and awareness through the internet more widely of course. The fact that we are one of the fasting growing fashion markets in the world is proof. 

What​ ​are​ ​your​ ​main​ ​design​ ​influences? 

Indian hand crafts, vintage design books and strangely, even fiction books. Sometimes you come across a line or story that triggers an idea. 

And​ ​how​ ​did​ ​you​ ​both​ ​get​ ​into​ ​fashion? 

Out of the blue is the easiest way to put it! Rekha owned a darling little store for a couple of years in Bangalore where she curated fashion clothing & accessories before she took a long break to have and raise her children (now aged 7 and 9). I worked in advertising for nine years before I decided I had the audacity to leave the security of a job to work on something I had been dreaming of for a while. I knew I wanted to work with design and craft though I had no idea what it would be. Luckily, Rekha and I met by sheer chance, instantly hit it off and after months of discussion and dreaming and doing, The Summer House website was launched with its first collection in February 2015. Neither of us have any training in fashion as such.
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The Summer House


What​ ​have​ ​been​ ​the​ ​biggest​ ​challenges​ ​+​ ​most​ ​exciting​ ​elements​ ​of​ ​building​ ​this​ ​business?  

We knew nothing. We knew we had a sense of aesthetic that was appreciated and that we wanted to work with crafts and handmade, that’s it. I travelled for a year across the country to meet craftsmen in the many corners of India, understand the possibilities and nuances of different craft styles and that was very exciting. Rekha learnt about the construction of various fabrics, their qualities and behaviour. She went about the mad task of finding the right team of pattern makers and tailors that could achieve the quality we desired. It is not an exaggeration to say everything was a challenge. Especially since our kids were even younger then. The biggest challenge right now is to get our craftsmen and vendors in India to deliver on time. Planning collections in advance is something we are still learning.  

The most exciting part is when we get emails and messages with the loveliest, kindest words from our customers telling us how much they loved the product. Or when we come across someone who is wearing The Summer House clothes, that is such a high!
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The Summer House

Interview by India Doyle @officialindiadoyle


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