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Visionary duo turns vintage weaves into exclusive designer wear

BY MANVI PANT

Continuing our series from the SarisToSuits.org Omniscient Perspective column which features unique, trailblazing women (and men) the American mainstream media does not cover.

After her Mother’s untimely passing at age 56, Patti (Pratibha) Tripathi, founder of US based Saris to Suits wondered how best she could utilize the vintage seven yards of ornate silk she had left behind to keep their essence and memories intact.  That’s when she thought of transforming her traditional wear into exclusive western designer wear.  Having spent the first decade of her life near the Kathmandu border of Eastern U.P., India, Patti’s heart yearned to go back to her roots.  The trailblazing broadcast journalist had launched her charitable organization in the US in 2012.

That’s when she heard of Italian entrepreneur Stefano Funari, who was in the middle of crafting similarly named I was a Sari, an eco-friendly lifestyle brand that converts pre-owned saris into contemporary ready-to-wear and much more right in the heart of India.   A fortunate stroke of serendipity! The two unconventional minds got together in late 2019 and formed a mission-aligned partnership. Saris to Suits collaborated with I was a Sari for a bigger cause – gender equity, women’s empowerment, and preserving the planet.

The vintage photos from the 70s in North India with her Mother draped in her beautiful silk serve as fond memories. Patti’s Mother would have her saris tailor-made into frocks for her only daughter. Patti kept suitcases packed with her Mom’s saris since 2005 following her death in South Bend, IN.

Anyone who has ever walked hand in hand with Patti’s  Saris To Suits NGO for the past decade has something beautiful to share. Recently, we caught up with Stefano Funari, the man behind I was a Sari, to know more about his journey. Read On!

It is unthinkable of finding a single woman who does not own a sari or a large collection of saris in a densely populated and unevenly stratified India. From a fisherwoman skillfully hoisting a basket of dried fish in one arm and her baby in another to a corporate executive choosing to look distinctive in a boardroom filled with suit-clad men, the charm of a sari doesn’t fail. It is the only garment that equally cuts through classes and masses. Perhaps that’s what caught Stefano Funari’s attention. The Italian-born corporate person first set his foot in India in 2007. Working in technology and media at that time, he hoped to do something more meaningful but did not know precisely what. As his quest began, he left his corporate job in Switzerland and returned to India four years later.

“When I moved back to India, my purpose was not very clear, but I knew that I wanted to stay here for long and dedicate my time and resources to people who were not as lucky as I was, those who never got a second chance or an opportunity to live a better life. And, for its vibrance, the vast Arabian sea, Mumbai naturally became my home, even though I had friends and acquaintances in other parts of the country.”

A change was imminent for the 54-year-old Funari who had made up his mind to pursue social entrepreneurship. The universe conspired and one day, on a sunny afternoon, he stumbled upon a tiny workshop in a boisterous flea market at Chor Bazaar packed with all kinds of second-hand saris. The colors, the richness, the beauty attracted him beyond measure, and it struck him – What if we upcycle these pre-owned saris to create a new set of clothing or a pair of accessories?

“Nothing gets thrown away in this country; nearly everything gets reused. What had just caught my eye was the icon of the Indian women – the sari, the five meters of gorgeous fabric blew me away. I wondered what happens to them when they reach the end of their life?  Is there a way, I can put these saris to further use?”

Funari immediately reached out to some of his friends at Politecnico di Milano (university) to gain their expertise in reimagining these saris into something contemporary and chic. Upcycling is the biggest trend in the West right now, more and more people are embracing ‘trashion’, thrifting is on the rise and repurposed quilts are getting very popular. However, in India, turning trash into treasure has been an ancient practice.

The vision of this passionate entrepreneur cum designer was bigger. Shortly after moving to Mumbai, Funari had started working with an NGO to understand the local culture. Well aware of the grassroots problems, he decided to use his knowledge and the idea of upcycling once loved saris as a medium to generate a steady income stream for women from marginalized communities. Who knew his idea would one day culminate in a fashion movement that not only serves the environment well but also generates a steady income stream for underprivileged women living in Mumbai’s slums?

Inspired by the business model of Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker and economist Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting poverty,  Funari conceptualized I was a Sari in 2014.  The ethical fashion and lifestyle brand with a social mission started running full throttle in a short span under its parent company 2nd Innings Handicrafts (2IH) – a zero-dividend social enterprise that reinvested 100% of its profits into the development of the business itself and in helping underprivileged women to lift themselves out of poverty. The eco-friendly fashion line first introduced womenswear but gradually moved into other categories such as menswear, bags, shoes, accessories, jewelry, etc.

After joining hands with NGOs like Community Outreach Programme (CORP) and Animedh Charitable Trust (ACT) as partners in artisanal production and cultural fit, Funari’s idea of running a social enterprise picked up momentum and in 2018, a high-end luxury fashion house, Gucci, came forward to support I was a Sari through its sustainability initiative Gucci Equilibrium. The Italian label often touted as ‘the best in sustainable fashion’ was looking for a social enterprise that focused on women empowerment, gender equality and is conscious of the environment. I was a Sari happened to fit the bill perfectly.

Thanks to Gucci’s Changemaker Volunteer Program, 24 designers stepped in for training and creative know-how to female artisans in Mumbai. “Through this program, we tapped into their talent pool which is highly experienced, innovative, and otherwise out of reach for most people. We worked with their design team, co-created products with them, which is a dream for many. We worked with their accountants, and photographers, and are now looking to get support in packaging. I believe this is a new frontier for CSR, something that can inspire other companies too.”

The constructive exchange between Gucci and I was a Sari gave women artisans an opportunity to excel, gain independence and establish their own identity. A year into this partnership, Funari’s social enterprise won India’s first award for sustainable fashion, the Circular Design Challenge Award and a funding of approx. $26,000 (USD).  The year 2020 saw the launch of another path-breaking program called ‘Now I Can’ to train disadvantaged female artisans in embroidery and embellishments.

Since 2016, I was a Sari has prevented more than one million square meters of saris, from turning into waste. That’s the equivalent of 800 Olympic sized swimming pools. The brand started off by employing 64 females in 2017, and this number grew to 176 in 2021.  After measuring the impact, Funari not only pays his employees while they train, but also their families receive health care benefits in two years.  Two artisans Sumitra Kadam and Jaya Kishore say their experiences have been life changing.

“I have barely managed to complete my schooling, but today I’m supervising at least 30 ladies at work” – Sumitra Kadam

Sumitra Kadam barely managed to complete her schooling, and could not write her name, read or travel alone. But sometimes, adversities teach one to find a way out of the depths. In 2019, when her husband’s realty business went down, she decided to put her talent to use. To support her husband with household expenses, the 37-year-old started a small tiffin service but gradually moved to stitching and sewing. She joined Animedh Charitable Trust (ACT), which provides financial support and social services to vulnerable children, youth, and women in underserved communities.

“Through ACT, I got a chance to work with I was a Sari. The alliance gave me an identity and trained me in reading the rates and understanding the tags on the clothes. I learned to have an eye for detail in stitching, the criticality of deadlines, making reports, and writing in English and Hindi. From a homemaker who was entirely dependent on her husband for everything, I was earning and saving money for the better future of my kids. I even paid off the loans my husband took out through my savings.”

“I still don’t have a roof over my head but if I can reach this far, I am sure someday I will have a house too.”  – Jaya Kishore

Born and brought up in Thane, Mumbai, Jaya Kishore (name changed) studied up until she was 14  but could not continue further due to early marriage, which is still prevalent in some parts of India. After the wedding, she stayed with her husband’s parents for seven years and then returned to her parent’s home along with three children. Her husband, shunned responsibility to support them financially. With no income to make ends meet, it was impossible to survive in a place like Mumbai as a single Mother. That’s when she was introduced to the Community Outreach Programme (CORP), a beneficiary of I was a Sari. She joined the NGO in 2014 and got associated with I was a Sari in 2015.

I was a Sari trained her in everything from sewing techniques to production.  But Jaya was persistent to learn and her dedication propelled her to land full-time work.  Today, the 47-year-old is far more confident, can speak for herself, and has learned to save money for her children’s future.

Undoubtedly, Funari has set an example for his contemporaries, and his efforts dedicated toward gender empowerment and equal opportunity for marginalized women have earned him a lot of respect in global fashion circles. His company, 2nd Innings Handicrafts, was recently included in the 100 Corporate-Ready Social Enterprises list.

“We are in fashion purely by chance. The primary reason I was a Sari and Second Innings exist is to empower underprivileged Indian women.”

Making a difference one woman and one sari at a time, Saris to Suits website has one of the first e-stores in the US with pop up events documenting Indian culture by using upcycled pre-worn textiles in creative ways. With Funari and Tripathi’s vision, the partnership between Saris to Suits and I was a Sari has already made a huge impact in the US, Italy and in India.  Patti hopes more Americans will buy into eco-friendly, chic, one-of-a-kind clothing line and merchandise to help scores of women to stand on their own on both continents.

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