Designer Iba Mallai on responsible fashion and her latest Cocoon Collection
“We shouldn’t just take something from nature. We should give back to nature.”
Meghalaya-based designer Iba Mallai doesn’t just believe in responsible fashion. She and her team of women weavers from Ri Bhoi in Meghalaya weave it into every step of the way. Starting with the cocoons that create the eri silk - a soft, lustrous fabric with thermal properties to keep one cool in the summer and warm in the winter, responsible fashion for Iba begins with ahimsa or non-violence. Unlike other silk yarns such as tussar or mulberry where the cocoons are killed in order to extract the fibre, in making eri silk the cocoons are unharmed, which is why it is sometimes also called the peace silk.
Iba’s journey with eri began almost a decade ago when she was studying to be a fashion designer in Bangalore. At the time when she was trying to fit in, to belong, but also find her own voice as a designer.
“I felt far away from myself. I was looking for a place of comfort, of acceptance.”
It is this inspiration that Iba took for her latest collection where she lets the shapes flow out of her, without a sense of fear or judgement, but out of a sense of play and exploration. She wants the wearer to feel the same sense of comfort and creativity, regardless of their shape or size.
Iba believes that true belonging can only come from presenting one’s authentic, imperfect self to the world. The silhouettes in her latest collection are grounded in zero-waste draping techniques where the fabrics are uncut or minimally cut. The one-size-fits-all clothing reduces the need for overproduction. Iba believes that for a brand to be truly zero waste, it has to own the entire process of creation.
“Often many designers who are committed to sustainability, don’t know where their fabrics come from, or how they got made.”
Iba likes to make her yarn from scratch. This gives her a lot more freedom to build on indigenous skills of her women weavers, but also in experimenting with newer textures and details in the fabric itself. The Cocoon Collection, for instance, is made from two different naturally found tones of eri - a creamy white, and a rarer red eri that creates a soft nude beige tone. In some of the pieces, Iba used a blend of both to create yet another tone that seamlessly merges into the wearer. Further, she has leveraged local weaving techniques such as the khnong, a running chord line added to the fabric while weaving. Women in Ri Bhoi have used this technique for generations to adorn their plain woven shawls. But Iba has made this her own, by running the lines over the fabric instead of within, with a thicker yarn to add subtle texture whilst retaining the natural beauty of the fabric. Her team of women weavers equally enjoy new twists to their tradition, though not everyone is always up for it.
“I want a business that doesn’t benefit me alone, but others as well.”
Today Iba’s studio enables over 30 women in and around her village to work at their own pace, with the rhythms of the seasons, working their traditional skills to craft everyday luxury. Going back to her roots has helped Iba pave the way forward not only for herself and her community, but for fashion itself and how it can renew its relationship with nature.
Iba's latest limited edition Cocoon Collection is available only for a limited time. Please place your order request here.