Materials Reborn

Conserve India’s recycling program creates jobs and chic accessories

The artisans employed by Conserve India are not picky about the materials they use. Whether it’s an old grocery plastic bag, a worn rubber tire or a frayed seat belt, these materials are transformed into stunning and chic handbags that mix traditional and contemporary designs to suit fashionistas.

Launched in 2004 by Shalabh and Anita Ahuja, the organization employs rag pickers and craft persons in the unorganized sector. Members of these communities face a number of obstacles including economic, political and social ones. Conserve India provide their employees—currently numbering at 300 where 40% are women—training in both soft and technical skills. Soft skills include basic literacy and improving Hindi language skills, opening of bank accounts, but also factory protocols that include punctuality and fundamenal hygiene maintenance. Technical skills include operating sewing and die cutting machines so that they acquire more marketable skills. 

“We have faced many challenges while working with these communities. For example, in our project[s], color is very important. Because the people come from different regions they do not speak [the] same language. Even if the group speaks Hindi we have problems with colors. Hindi language does not have a name for every shade of a color like we have in English. So what we have done is named every shade of color after a Bollywood star—Shahrukh Khan is black, Aishwarya Rai is white etc. We have created a whole new language for our group,” Anita explained in an email. 

The artisans work with a wide range of waste. Items include plastic bags, tire tubes, seat belts, industrial belts, packing materials, textile and leather scraps, labels, and banners.  “We have a waste lab where the designers work to create new techniques and patterns to create beautiful products. We try all types of techniques like fusing, weaving, printing to get unique results. Similarly while creating the bag design we keep in mind the color palette of the season, fashion trends and our own individual inspirations,” says Anita. 

A believer in combining contemporary design with traditional craft, Anita notes, “I stick to designing cutting edge designs. The products are more for the cultural creative. While traditional scraps like leather and textile are woven and then cut into shapes which will appeal to a modern women. The designs are a happy mix of technology and craftsmanship. On one hand, you can see the culture, tradition and history of the craftsman. On the other hand, you can spot products in our collection reflecting contemporary culture and design which the craft persons have learned in our organization,” she adds.

From February 1-4, Conserve India will be attending Artisan Resource at NY NOW™ and exhibiting at Pier 94 upcycled messenger bags, sling bags, electronic accessories, and handbags. The inspiration behind this new collection Anita states is “Celebrating the synthesis between technology and craftsmanship, this theme creates an alluring contrast between innovation and tradition by weaving together textile or plastic yearns or layering of kitschy trash with precious treasure.” 

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