Tega Collective supports one of India’s nomadic indigenous communities of Lambanis through their own craft in clothing and fashion, as the founder believes that her team is striving for justice for people and the planet through Adivasi craft and knowledge.
Much far and beyond the western standards of monochromes and minimalist clothing, lies an Adivasi group of Lambanis in Ballari, Karnataka, that is proud to wear their colourful clothing and ornamentation, the fact which has now also been advocated by a fashion collective named Tega Collective.
Although the initiative dates back to July, 2022, the seeds for “sustainability” were sown in the mind of the founder of Tega Collective long back. Growing up in both India and the US, Niharika Elety, figured out that people practiced sustainability differently in each place. “I realized how ingrained sustainability was in South Asia from the local accessible food systems, homegrown textiles, ancestral practices, and perspectives. In India, sustainable fashion to me was just fashion because the production of textiles was inherently sustainable,” she says.
While Elety always wanted to create a brand that could focus on amplifying communities and their practices, she found a way through a panel on “sustainability,” where she was invited as a speaker. She came across a group called Adivasi Lives Matter and resonated with their work amplifying Adivasi youth. “A lot of tribes have had their crafts and designs stolen and mass-produced by non-Adivasi people,” the fashion designer at Tega Collective says.
As a few of her friends from the Adivasi Lives Matter group knew of Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra, an NGO in Ballari working with Lambani artisans to create products, Elety thought of working with them too. “I thought it would be incredible to collaborate with them and amplify their work. So, I reached out and visited the community. They were very excited to collaborate. That inspired me to advocate through Tega Collective,” she adds.
The Adivasi essence
Following this, the Tega has been collaborating with the Lambani people. They are also commonly recognized as “the tribe of wandering grain carriers.” Historically, they had come from Afghanistan, settled in Rajasthan, and later, in other parts of India like Karnataka, Maharashtra, etc. “In a world where western modernity overflows with neutral tones, the Lambani women ensure their walls and dress are adorned with vibrant colours,” says Elety.
According to Elety, people fear patterns and colours due to the pressure to aspire to western standards of wearability and modernity. “For indigenous communities, colours, patterns, and embroidery are integral to culture, freedom, and self-expression,” says Elety, adding that the same idea inspired Tega’s cloth pieces.
Initially, Elety and her team chose the everyday silhouettes of button-down shirts, blouses, hoodies, slacks, and dresses. “We wanted everyone beyond the gender binary and wide range of sizes to feel comfortable wearing our pieces,” Elety says. She asked the artisans about their colour preferences and as she says, three of them stood out — red, periwinkle and matcha green. “We created these hues with natural dyes like madder root, indigo and marigold flowers,” she adds.
The selection of fabrics was simple as the team went with indigenous fibres of Khadi that Lambani people wore and Eri silk for the airy styles. “Both fibres support our local biodiversity,” Elety states. Adding to it, she says that her team communicated in person and over WhatsApp, especially during COVID-19. “I sent them a lot of images and they were immediately able to translate that into the vision we had. They also showed us ideas for embroidery, and we were excited to explore them. Overall, it was a slow, intentional, and collaborative process end to end,” she says.
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Currently, the majority of garment creators and artisans are based in Karnataka. The garment creation, including handloom textile weaving, natural dyeing processes, and stitching, takes place in Bengaluru with the garment team of Tega. After the garment is semi-stitched, they are sent to Ballari to the artisan partners at Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra for hand embroidery. “We wanted to keep our teams as local to the regions as possible,” Elety mentions.
Elety, who is based in Dallas in the USA, says that they house their products and pieces between Dallas and Bengaluru to be able to ship domestically in the US and India and cut down on emissions. Moreover, the US also accounts for the majority of sales, with California being the biggest state, as per Elety. The “Alankara Balloon Sleeve Crop top” has been the best seller for the Tega so far.
Giving the profits of indigenous craft back to the community
Elety remembers a recent interview with the Lambani community where they mentioned how good the collaboration with Tega was for them. “We all hugged each other after the cut was over,” she reminisces. “We have learned so much from these women on what it means to create, preserve culture, and collaborate reciprocally. The artisans often sit in sewing circles outside or against the walls of their homes, threading each piece together as a community. Fashion is more than just a beautiful garment, but the knowledge, practices, and community created in the process,” Elety says.
Hence, in return for the love and support from the community, Tega makes sure to give a due share to them. “15% of our proceeds are funnelled back to the communities we work with for each collection to remove traditional hierarchy of power and profit,” Elety says. She also highlights that 3% of profits are donated to organizations supporting indigenous community regeneration and “land back initiatives”.
Further to it, Elety says, “These communities are paid every time ‘indigenous knowledge is shared on platforms as a part of reparations. Tega strives to build healing and enriching relationships with the communities and ecosystems that we support.” Similarly, Elety also says that her team wants the artisans and communities to be reflected in the collections that they create.
Talking about the plans, she says, “Reimagining textiles and craft to reflect our love for vintage street style and bright patterns will be key in all our collections. We will collaborate with more artisanal groups and explore even more native fibres like lotus stem silk!” Elety also aims to educate the people about the communities and their practices for each collection through “articles, videos, and oral histories”.
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