Remade in India

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on: Oct 11, 2019

Better than new: Vimlendu Jha sells products he makes by repurposing used and broken objects at his Delhi store, Remakery India | Photo Credit: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Good old bartering and repairing are back in fashion, with the millennial zeroing in on the pre-owned and the pre-loved. This has left retailers scrambling for ways to beat the competition from re-sellers

At the high-end hybrid residential and commercial colony of Pannampilly Nagar in Kochi, a new project has sprung up to coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of MK Gandhi. Called The Swap Room, it is a place where people can drop off the clothes, toys and books they have got bored of, earn points for them and use those to pick up others’ discarded items.

It is the brainchild of chocolatier, cake maker, model and anchor Ann Benjamin and the operative words she uses are “pre-owned and pre-loved” — not second-hand.


Use, don’t throw: A wardrobe made of old doors, and other upcycled items sold by Remakery


Swing over to India’s capital city, where, in the urban village of Khirkee, environment activist Vimlendu Jha recently set up Remakery India. It is a place for borrowing and bartering and is already creating a buzz. “And only when you exhaust the option then you buy,” says Jha, whose 1,300 sq ft studio-cum-warehouse sells repurposed stuff.

It encourages people to bring in broken stuff, which is repurposed by Jha. So, you might find a wallet made out of tyres, shelves in a broken guitar, a table with wine bottles for legs, and so on. The location itself, in Jha’s words, is a statement — it is within 100 metres of Delhi’s biggest mall, a shopaholic haven. Remakery, in contrast, is all about anti-consumption — a “recycle mall”, as it calls itself. “People can bring in their wedding finery, cutlery, crockery, furniture — all these things that can be bartered,” he says.

Threads of change

Kolkata is host to a dozen and more enterprises that are into repurposed or recycled or eco-friendly products. The beloved LataSita brand is all about upcycling old saris to create dresses, robes, tops and some unique garments. There’s Twirl, where people can bring in old clothes, and get points to buy other stuff; their old clothes are either upcycled or donated to the needy. The eco-friendly venture Brown Boy sells clothes made of upcycled material — the cut pieces that are left over or scrapped when tailoring other clothing.

The main reason for this sudden proliferation of eco-conscious buying and selling is an attitude shift among young people.

In Delhi, college student Devika Krishnan is not one for popular fashion brands such as Zara or H&M. She shops at a high-fashion thrift shop in one of the urban villages in the Capital and proudly shows off the bling jackets she found there. She says her peer group freely borrows each other’s outfits and would rather rent than buy. There is a whole underground ecosystem of pop-up stores selling used designer clothes, she points out.

Hula-hoop artiste Rajni Ramachandran’s Instagram feed is not just about her performances but also the dresses and accessories she has created by upcycling old ones.


What goes round: Hula-hoop artiste Rajni Ramachandran in the skirt she made using an old hoop and discarded lace, and neck and head accessories she adorned with discarded stickers


“The thought of shopping for new now makes me shudder,” says Ramachandran. “When I moved out of home, I could count on my fingers the items that we had to purchase afresh. In my room, you’d find a whole bunch of stuff that has been altered or recreated from used stuff,” she says.

“I look up to minimalism, constantly re-evaluate my needs and the impact on the environment,” she adds. She is in two minds even about the plastic hoops she uses. “I am figuring it out one step at a time.”

Delhi student Aditi Dhir, who moved to Geneva to do a Master’s in development studies, says her thinking has evolved after living in Europe. “I would earlier DIY [do it yourself] clothes purely because it was trendy. I don’t do it anymore. It feels much better to not cut it up and waste but rather give to someone else. I now buy a lot of second-hand,” she says.

‘Second’ best

Time was when people bought second-hand because their budgets would not stretch to new. A whole generation of people embarked on an independent life, away from the parental home, with furniture bought from Amar Colony or clothes from Sarojini Nagarin a city such as Delhi, as they could not afford high street stuff. But as they moved up the payscale, they were quick to dump the old and fill their homes and wardrobes with the best of labels.

Today, in the age of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg’s fiery speeches on climate action, the woke generation is opting for second-hand because it is uncool to buy new. It is hip to consume less — so much so that the entire vocabulary around old stuff has changed. You no longer call it ‘second-hand’ or ‘hand-me-down’.

During the recent online shopping festivals such as Amazon’s Great Indian Festival Sale and Flipkart’s Big Billion Days, some of the best deals for mobile phones and other gadgets were for ‘Renewed’ items. ‘Repurposed’ and ‘upcycled’ are the other usages of choice for e-commerce retailers. To be fair, this whole image change for second-hand was started a while ago by car marketers, who introduced the term “pre-owned”. But from marketers, the vocabulary is now being reframed by green activists or people such as Marie Kondo, the Japanese author whose sermons on decluttering have hit a global chord.

Beyond just a vocabulary change, there’s also a whole attitude and motivational shift at play here. As Jha points out, “The economy of repairs and the economy of barters was historically part of our tradition.”

From the ’60s to the ’90s, the habit of buying less and repairing stuff stemmed not just from frugality but also because it was an age of scarcity. The tendency to conserve was ingrained in the average Indian’s subconscious. Then came an age of plenty and the spread of the use-and-throw culture.

For the millennials embracing second-hand, however, it is not a subconscious habit but a conscious choice. And their second-hand is not something they scrounge from downmarket shopping areas, but are items that are “cool” and come with a backstory. People want to weave a narrative around the pre-owned stuff they have acquired.

Lending inspiration are the rich celebrities who have made it “cool to repeat”. When Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, first repeated her dress, she faced snarky trolling for her supposed fashion faux pas. Today, she is lauded as an icon for “rewear”, with her former critics applauding how she repurposed a sparkly Jenny Packham ball dress.

Recommerce is a big deal

The fastest growing category in fashion retail today, according to reports, is the pre-owned or upcycled commodity.

And most of this comes from new digital startups that flaunt their ware on social media, especially Instagram — the platform the new generation loves to dwell on, buy from, and do some wonderful storytelling on where they get their stuff from.

Discovery of these stores is fuelled by Instagram accounts or handles such as @repuposed4u and @reimagineandrepurpose, which not just share information on stores doing recycled ware, but also spread messages of zero waste. Leading online thrift store thredUP mentioned in its annual fashion resale market report that of the 2,000 American women aged over 18 surveyed, 64 per cent had bought or were open to buying second-hand products in 2018, compared to 45 per cent in 2017. It says the resale market in clothing has grown 21 times faster than retail apparel market over the last three years.

Doodlage is another brand on Instagram that champions upcycled and recycled chic and it has an enormous following. Even the waste generated during upcycling is used to make bags.

As with many new trends today, it’s the small entrepreneurs who first spot a gap and get going to fill it. Remakery’s Jha, who earlier ran an enterprise called Green The Map to make products out of waste for a social cause, started the new store because he believes upcycling has come into vogue.

But it wasn’t long before the mega brands got a whiff of this trail. Retailers know they are under threat from the Re-Salers.

This is why more and more brands today are rewarding consumers with points for returning old clothes — some will do so only for their own labels while others will take in any old garment. From Marks & Spencer to Levis to H&M, retailers are setting up collection days to hop on to the woke bandwagon.

Many are also jumping headlong into upcycled fashion. Rajeshwari Srinivasan, chief operating officer, Taneira — the sari brand from Tata group, admits it’s a trend they are closing watching and that there are plans to come up with an upcycled range soon.

At the Milan fashion show last month, United Colors of Benetton showcased a trench coat made of paper and recycled fibres, while harping on its sustainable offerings. Benetton India CEO Sundeep Chugh describes how the brand remained circumspect at a time when fast fashion (aggressively priced apparel with rapidly changing designs) became a rage the world over. It stuck to its USP of durability. Today, he says, the brand feels vindicated.

Aside from consumers of fashion, where the maximum change is being seen, buyers of gadgets and technology too are increasingly becoming more conscientious.

Hariprasad Shetty, chief business officer, Cerebra Green, a company that specialises in e-waste management solutions, says a growing trend in IT today is to rent rather than buy gadgets. “Despite being a late entrant, India is on its way to becoming one of the largest markets for refurbished products globally,” he says.

“While this growth is driven by the youth, a considerable percentage of customers who buy refurbished are 30 and below and a majority of them are male,” he says.

Interestingly, Shetty says that while metros such as Bengaluru, Delhi NCR and Mumbai form the biggest markets for refurbished products, alongside other major cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Kolkata, the growth in demand, especially during the last three months, has been in non-metro cities including Surat, Jaipur, Coimbatore, Lucknow and Ahmedabad. “We expect volumes in Tier II and III markets to increase significantly,” he says.

Repurposing is clearly in. Advertisements, they say, often mirror a society; the latest Fevicol ad, which celebrates 60 years of the company, tells the story of a sofa that has undergone multiple transformations over the decades, while remaining as good as new. It admirably connects and bonds with what many in the younger generation are doing today.

Three ‘R’s and one ‘C’

  • Environmentalists have mixed feelings over the recycling and upcycling trend.
  • That’s because, as Vimlendu Jha, the owner of a store called Remakery India, points out, recycling should really be the last option among the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle.
  • But, ecologists stress that while the world is more conscious today, C — or consumption — is still growing at an alarming rate. Figures from Flipkart’s The Big Billion Days (TBBD) sale last week amply reflect this.
  • Fashion witnessed a 70 per cent growth in sales compared to TBBD 2018
  • In the Flipkart Fashion portfolio, 20 brands sold more than one lakh units this year
  • In the mobile phone category, more than 20 models sold over 1,00,000 units each
  • One furniture item was sold every two seconds
  • Although Flipkart says it saw a 2.5 times growth in the use of exchange in mobile phone purchases, India is still adding more and more rather than reducing.


Published on October 11, 2019
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