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The intersection of sustainability, fashion and art

Amala Balakrishner
Amala Balakrishner • 12 min read
The intersection of sustainability, fashion and art
Ferzin: For me, living sustainably is a philosophy. I see it as a value system that differentiates good from bad (Image credit: Canvas & Weaves)
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Banker-turned-entrepreneur Ferzin Patel is looking to offer sustainable fashion, art and homeware pieces through online platform Canvas & Weaves

In the past decade, the word 'sustainable' has become more popular in the fashion industry. More products, ranging from swimming suits to wedding dresses and even shoes, are being marketed as carbon positive, organic and even vegan. At the same time, new business models promoting the recycling, reuse, rental and repair of clothing items are becoming more popular as more companies eye the environmentally-conscious consumer.

Still, sustainability in the fashion scene means different things to different people. For instance, Ferzin Patel — who comes from the city of Ahmedabad in Western India — defines it as being self-aware and mindful of consuming less.

“For me, living sustainably is a philosophy. I see it as a value system that differentiates good from bad,” she tells Options in a recent interview. Such a distinction requires one to take a moment to pause and mindfully choose not to fill a personal void with a material item that may not even be needed, she adds.

The 43-year-old former banker is the founder of Canvas & Weaves, an online platform offering fashion, jewellery, art and homeware pieces that are made by artists and designers from around the world. The garments are made in small batches to minimise any wastage of resources.

Her perspectives and passion for sustainability stems from the lifestyle and values she was exposed to during her childhood. Growing up, she remembers seeing her mother carrying around a cloth bag instead of plastic bags whenever she went out. Her mother would also reuse jam jars for the storage of spices and chutneys and would also re-purpose plastic bottles as planters or water sprinklers in the garden.

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Conserve and maximise

This mindset of conserving and maximising resources was also extended to garments. Clothes that were in good condition that had been outgrown were either passed on to cousins or people in need. Conversely, those that were worn out would eventually become dusting cloths or rags used for cleaning, says Ferzin.

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She would then go on to add that the lifespan of her school uniforms was often extended by unpicking or opening up their hems where possible, whenever they became shorter or tighter.

“I absolutely hated [this],” she chuckles. But in hindsight, she views this as a practical move, because it is “not good economics to continually buy clothes for a child who will outgrow them in a matter of months”.

‘Shop sparingly’

While Ferzin’s parents had not explicitly touched on the concept of sustainability and how discarded garments just ended up in landfills, the traditions and practices they followed ingrained in her the importance of saving time, effort, money and resources.

She would go on to put this into practice during her time as a college student when she would exchange clothes with a group of close friends. “Online shopping was not available back then and shopping internationally was not much of an option. The clothes made in India were of a particular style and cut and we didn’t want to be seen wearing the same clothes every day.”

Swapping clothes allowed her and her friends to experiment with different pairings and looks. It also gave the garments more mileage since they were not being kept in storage after being worn just a few times.

These days, Ferzin says that consumers no longer have a personal connection with their clothes. “Unless it is something expensive like a wedding gown or a favourite item [like one that has been handed down across generations], consumers tend not to be invested in the durability of their looks,” she explains.

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This is as we often have too many pieces — a problem which arises as clothes, accessories and even shoes are sometimes bought “mindlessly” based on trends or advertisements. Often, these items get tossed out or even neglected once they are no longer in style — or in many cases — when the consumer gets bored.

Ditch fast fashion

Unsurprisingly, Ferzin is not a fan of fast fashion. Among the reasons she cites is the short lifespan of many of these garments. For instance, a t-shirt at a high street brand is typically priced between $5 to $20, but these items would disintegrate or get discoloured after a few washes thus requiring them to be replaced fairly quickly. Given the relatively low price point, it is “not going to hurt you or pinch you if you were to throw out the t-shirt,” says Ferzin, adding that the real problem is when everybody thinks the same way and too many t-shirts end up at the landfill to get incinerated.

“People need to understand that somewhere, something is missing when you pay such a low price. It could be that someone is suffering in the whole ecosystem because they are not being paid fair wages or it could be that the planet is being compromised because the fabric chosen is not of good quality.”

Such a phenomenon eventually adds to the gallons of clutter and pollution that the world is already weighed down by. To counter this, Ferzin offers a revolutionary suggestion in these times of excess: “Don’t shop casually, shop sparingly and with purpose and make it count when you do.”

Her idea is to treat each purchase as though it is something important and as expensive as a wedding gown. For example, this would involve looking into the finer aspects of the garment like: Where the fabric comes from, how the patterns and dyes are made and whether the price point reflects the amount of work that has gone into making the piece. Another important question to ask: Does it seem likely that some of the profit has gone into providing a decent living wage for the craftsman?

Original, authentic and unique

Throughout the hour-long conversation, it is apparent that Ferzin is very familiar with how the fashion and art industry works. It is also surprising that her background is actually in banking.

The commerce graduate from Gujarat University had worked in the airline industry before taking on a role as a relationship manager at Citibank in Ahmedabad and Mumbai prior to moving to Singapore in 2004 when her husband’s job brought them here.

While she had the option to continue in the finance line, she decided to dabble in the world of fashion. Her first foray was through a now defunct label called Indian Exotique selling Indo-Western apparel for women which she set up with a friend (Ferzin was handling the design and production while her friend focused on marketing).

Through this, she discovered the world of textiles and weaves. “I immediately realised that this is what I like and enjoy doing because I didn’t feel that pressure of work,” she remembers. She went on to explore art and the world of textures, medium and colour soon after.

While sourcing for sustainable clothing, jewellery, art and homeware pieces, Ferzin realised that there was a gap in the market. She explains: “People were not really aware about eco-friendly products and where to get them. Many people would often go to high street fashion labels, but [I found that] those fabrics are just not breathable.”

Brand beginnings

A desire to fill this gap for other environmentally-conscious individuals like herself led to the birth of Canvas & Weaves in 2018. For this, she pooled together her savings from her previous fashion business, art exhibitions and money she had earned from teaching art to kids. The online platform makes money by earning a commission on sales.

Canvas & Weaves started off with fashion and art pieces and was catering to individuals seeking out original, authentic and unique pieces that were rich in culture. Many people advised Ferzin to operate a physical store alongside her online platform, since the e-commerce wave had not fully taken off at that time.

Canvas & Weaves has collaborated with 41 independent artists and 50 fashion brands and homeware and accessories manufacturers

Going digital

“People were asking me things like ‘how will customers notice you if you don’t have a physical store.’ But, I had a feeling that the traditional form of business is going to be digital, so I just stuck to that,” she remembers.

However, Ferzin worked hard at making her brand known by holding immersible workshops to interact with prospective customers and educate them on how her products are created. “People need to understand what they are buying. If they are only going to look at the price point, they are never going to be educated about the process and be more invested in the process.”

Her inaugural exhibition in March 2018 entitled Confluence showcased a collection of artworks by established artists. She also invited Indian charcoal artist Ajay De to share his artistic journey and teach attendees how to create artworks on a charcoal medium. Ferzin subsequently hosted a fashion workshop that allowed attendees to learn how to do tie and dye printing. Through this, her hope was for consumers to experience the natural dyes and understand the work that goes behind creating a piece — like a tie and dye scarf — and why it is priced at around $40 to $60.

The homeware section is one of the latest additions to the Canvas & Weaves platform

The future

While the pandemic put a dent on physical workshops, Ferzin has been keeping in touch with her customers — both incumbent and prospective — through a ‘live’ chat function on her website. Through this, buyers can even experience having a “personal shopper” — all they have to do is to input their measurements and the kinds of clothing they’re looking for, and the Canvas & Weaves team will style a few looks for their consideration.

The same feature can be used to look for art pieces. While the kind of art pieces that consumers are drawn to differs from person to person, Ferzin and her team often speak to the client to really understand their needs and requirements. Her take is not to point out pieces are trending since it must be something that evokes joy in the buyer.

Buyers can also get insights on how art pieces can be displayed. One way is to create a gallery wall filled with a hotchpotch of souvenirs, old photographs, rare treasures and even artworks, says Ferzin, who has also sold a few of her artworks on Canvas & Weaves.

Over the years, Ferzin has found that the chat feature has helped to add a personal touch and also boost sales and reduce the number of returns. Being in close touch with her consumers has also helped her keep abreast with their needs. For instance, she recently launched the jewellery section and broadened the range of art pieces to include digital prints, digital art and graphic designers. The clothing and homeware sections have also expanded such that the platform has worked with over 41 independent artists and 50 fashion brands and homeware and accessories makers. The team has also expanded from just Ferzin, to include two other employees based in India who also have been keeping in close touch with the creators during the pandemic since “[she] could not go down to India.”

So, how does she choose the brands that Canvas & Weaves works with? They must first match our ethos and be completely in sync with what we are doing, replies Ferzin. “Everyone needs to do sustainable business. I don’t think you are doing anyone a favour by being sustainable.”

A gallery wall filled with souvenirs, old photographs and artworks is a fun way to transform a room and add a personal touch, says Ferzin

Quality over quantity

She also looks at how innovative the brand is in their work. This entails studying how they make their processes circular, how they ensure the longevity of their product, what fabrics they use, how their workers are paid and what is being done with the leftovers once a product is created. She also emphasises that the garments created must be trans-seasonal so that they can be worn at any time in the year.

“The guiding principle is quality over quantity,” says Ferzin, adding that her focus is on sourcing for indigenous textiles, embroidery and evergreen silhouettes and art pieces. When asked what her favourite pieces on the website are, the fashionista pauses. “I love our jumpsuits,” she retorts. “They are a great mix of laid back, chic, comfortable and forgiving [for] my constantly fluctuating body”.

Ferzin also has a liking for long flowy dresses, which she considers to be very versatile. They can be dressed up with heels and a good purse or dressed down with sneakers and a canvas tote, deepening on the type of look that you are going for. Similarly, she points out that free-sized garments like kaftans, jackets and robes are beautiful additions to any wardrobe that can easily be paired with anything. Looking ahead, Ferzin says she will continue supporting sustainable designs and selecting products that resonate with her client base. For this, she is surrounding herself with makers who are “pushing creative boundaries, rebels, revolutionaries and environmentalists”. She jokes: “They are good people who refuse to be part of a cookie cutter system.”

Free-sized garments like kaftans, jackets and robes are beautiful additions to any wardrobe that can easily be paired with anything (All images: Canvas & Weaves)

Canvas & Weaves will be holding a pop-up on May3 and 4 at the Crane @ Robertson Quay

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