Gowri Shankar is taking the vegan cashmere substitute Weganool to brands like Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss. And he is roping in farmers for its production
Earlier this week, the world’s first Vegan Fashion Library was unveiled in Los Angeles. Featuring an array of designer apparel and accessories in plant-derived wool, vegan silk and vegan leather, the launch proves yet again that the hunt for alternatives to animal-derived fabrics is going strong. Earlier this year, Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato’s outing at the Paris Fashion Week featured boots embroidered with recycled silk yarn and stunning ‘unit’ dresses with fabric processed from plant-derived Brewed Protein. Meanwhile, on home turf, wasteland shrubs are being used to make vegan wool.
Developed by Faborg, headquartered near Auroville, Weganool is silently making inroads in the fashion industry. “The pandemic actually did well for us; we’ve seen nearly 400% rise in enquiries,” says entrepreneur Gowri Shankar, who sees this intervention (derived from the wild flowering shrub calotropis) as a way to ease the industry’s over-dependence on unsustainable practices. Promising a chemical-free and sustainable start-to-finish process and “no greenwashing”, he adds that people needed this time off in isolation to reconsider their lifestyle choices.
Weganool’s first commercial outing comes in German vegan kidswear brand Infantium Victoria’s fall/winter 2021 collection — also showcased at Future Fabrics Expo in London this year — that features delicate cape dresses and hoodies.
Like green cashmere?
Shankar has over 15 years of experience in the fashion industry. He has worked with high-end brands like Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, courtesy his association as a freelance merchandiser for Chennai-based embroidery atelier, Vastrakala. A profile he gave up in 2015 to start Faborg. “The first thing I did was research different plants and their uses,” says the 35-year-old, who came across Calotropis Gigantea and Calotropis Procera — ayurvedic plants that grow in conditions otherwise considered too barren for agriculture. Shankar, who set up his first Weganool processing unit in 2017 after two years of research, says that rather than seeking certifications for organic farming, it made sense for him to alter present-day practices and make them sustainable. “I maintain complete transparency. I send them samples to test, photographs from an electron microscope [to show the hollowness of the fibres], etc,” he says, adding that he also encourages factory visits for first-hand verification.
Additionally, hailing from a family of weavers belonging to the Devanga community, Shankar has seen age-old weaving methods being replaced by the use of harmful chemicals. Which is why he went on to co-found Natural Dye House in Tirupur in 2018. He is also working on his brand of natural repellent, Arka (made from a byproduct of Weganool production), and has convinced close to 70 farmers in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to make the switch from chemical pesticides.
“A lot of farmer communities in Brazil, for example, have shown interest in collaborating with us [for Weganool and Arka]. The model can be replicated anywhere along the equatorial belt, where you have ample sunlight,” he elaborates. “The final product is insulative and anti-microbial, and uses a blend of 70% organic cotton and 30% Weganool.” Shankar is now in talks with brands like H&M, Marc O’Polo, Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton to develop collections. While this mix is the current favourite, the company is looking at experimenting with blends and spinning techniques. What sets calotropis fibres apart from other vegan alternatives such as coconut or hemp is that it is hollow inside, similar to alpaca wool protein fibres. “This makes it as good as cashmere,” he says, adding that the yarn can be spun on readily available cotton spinning equipment.
Something for the farmer
- Fibre extraction from calotropis leaves behind a concentrated liquid that’s packaged (with other plant extracts) and branded as Arka. “The solution sticks to the leaves of crops, which drives away pests instead of killing them,” explains Shankar, who is now focussed on marketing Arka (Faborg plans to produce nearly 10,000 litres within the next three months).
- A litre of Arka, priced at ₹60 for the farmers (and ₹910 for five litres commercially), is sufficient for an acre of rice. “Every season, chemical pesticides used to cost us anywhere between ₹2-₹2.5 lakh. With Arka, it is about ₹50,000,” says Arasu, an Auroville-based mango and cashew nut farmer, who began using the brand this March.
Collabs for the future
As of today, regions like Europe, Australia and the Americas make for the maximum enquiries fielded at Faborg. “There is growing interest in Europe, Italy in particular, to find natural alternatives. The customer is more conscious today,” says Michele Vencato of Isan Ai Mirai. The Italy-based textile agent — who represents a number of global fibre and yarn manufacturers and links them to potential buyers — connected with Faborg last year. Eager to find cashmere and alpaca wool substitutes, Vencato has taken Weganool to a number of brands in Europe to incorporate the material in their sustainable collections.
The drive to experiment and expand — from knitted shoes to bringing more farmlands under calotropis cultivation — is also on Shankar’s radar. He has already wrapped up a campaign with cashew farmers in and around Auroville and, with close to 30 acres dedicated to raising the plant around Auroville, he plans to introduce multi-crop farming. “Most farmers don’t work in the summer. Instead of sitting idle, they could grow calotropis along with their primary crops, and get busy with the collection and processing of fibres,” he says, adding that growing the plant along the peripheries could function as a natural fence for their fields.
As far as raising funds, collaborating with others and potential investors go, Shankar would rather fly solo until he gets the right fit. “Such investments usually come with riders but for us it is about how we can take our knowledge to everybody. We’ve patented our processes so that big companies can’t take advantage of it,” he says, sharing that at best, Faborg will opt for crowdfunding. “The priority isn’t just about looking for someone to help us, but placing more faith in the farmers to support the project.”
With the calotropis plant available in plenty, Shankar sees no reason why this model shouldn’t pick up pace, especially when it comes to cultivating barren land. But will a system overhaul take time? “Not more than 10 years,” he concludes.