Slow fashion platform Shuffling Suitcases founder Devyani Kapoor on sustainability, educating customers and community building, and how the fashion industry is changing for the better.
When Devyani Kapoor discovered blogging, she realised that this was something she had been doing since 2013. “I would call it my journal,” she says about her fashion blog, where she’d share her firsthand experience of different clothes and trends. During this time, she worked with several major fast fashion brands, who would give her limited information about their products. “My instinct was always to know more, ask questions.” But these questions about where her clothes were coming from and how their packaging was made remained unanswered. After some research, she learnt about slow fashion, and realised that this is the space she wanted to work in going forward.
In 2017, Kapoor conceptualised Shuffling Suitcases, a platform that curates slow fashion and builds a community focused on sustainable fashion. It started as an experiment in a 100-year-old Calcutta bungalow as a two-day event where 10 sustainable brands showcased their products. She expected about 50 people but ended up having a footfall of about 2,500. At a time when fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M were making speedy strides in the country and when sustainability as a concept hadn’t received the same traction and popularity it has today, she was surprised to see so many people willing to experiment with fashion. “I spoke with people, tried convincing them that we need to change what we’re buying, eating, putting on our faces.” She realised that people wanted to change, but didn’t really know where to look. “They could feel the difference between the polyester they were wearing and a handwoven textile.”
Since then she’s continued her work, having completed 32 editions and worked with almost 500 sustainable brands over the years, in major Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and internationally in Sri Lanka and Singapore. She also plans on going to Dubai later this year. In addition to their online store, Shuffling Suitcases will also open their first physical store in Calcutta this year. “People keep coming back because there’s no other place for them to find all things sustainable under one roof.”
For these vibrant edits, Kapoor has a tight curation process, presenting only between 15 to 18 brands in each city. “I’m not here for every body and I’m very clear about that.” She’s looking for products that are handcrafted, ethical, organic, vegan, zero waste, cruelty free, and locally sourced, among other criteria. The process includes extensively questioning the brands, bringing in samples and checking for bleeding and other quality diameters, and visiting the manufacturing units and speaking with the artisans.
While curating brands matters, equally important is educating consumers. Fast fashion has ingrained a consumer psyche of expecting cheap clothes, not repeating outfits too often, and soon discarding clothes. A big part of the edits is connecting with consumers and building a slow fashion community. “It is not an exhibition where people just come, shop, and leave. It’s a community where people come and spend hours, because they want to understand and ask questions.” It’s important for Kapoor to maintain transparency, and encourages consumers to ask brand owners questions, and really understand where their hard-earned money is going.
Besides their edits, Shuffling Suitcases also organises smaller community gatherings as part of their efforts to educate audiences. These include swap parties where people can bring old items they don’t want anymore and exchange them with other people’s items. They also organise workshops where audiences can interact with unique materials like rose and banana fabric and vegan leather, among others, and understand the dyeing process. “One of our brand owners dyes fabric using onion peels. So we called people to come, do it themselves, and understand the entire process firsthand.” Another initiative she’s excited about is reselling, which involves them buying back old Shuffling Suitcases clothes customers don’t want anymore, and reselling them at a cheaper price, essentially giving these clothes a new home instead of sending them to landfills. “I’m seeing reselling happening a lot in India now. People are getting more and more comfortable with second-hand clothing.”
Kapoor also does all the customer facing herself, from being present at her edits and speaking with people to answering every query on the Shuffling Suitcases website herself. “I don’t want a bot answering these questions. I’m the one who has put in this whole idea of asking questions.” Besides talking about process and origin, she also answers questions about what would suit a certain body type or specific questions about brands. “If people can trust me and my curation, and come back to me when they need something sustainable, that’s a big win.”
As sustainability becomes popular, it’s slowly and thoroughly changing the fashion industry, from the type of materials and designs becoming trendy and are altering fashion trends to encouraging up cycling and reselling that are changing buying trends.
In terms of production, more brands are connecting directly with artisans, using natural dyes and ingredients, and sustainable materials, reviving traditional knowledge and encouraging appreciation of indigenous arts and crafts. This is affecting tastes and making space for new, sustainable trends. For instance, materials like khadi and cactus leather have gained much traction in recent years. Sustainability is also affecting design, with trends like anti-fit clothing becoming popular.
Consumer patterns are also changing, with customers becoming more conscious about their choices and asking more questions about where their clothes are coming from and what’s in them. Instead of discarding used items, they are up cycled or resold. Garments are cherished and valued for the effort that went into making them, and are generally acquiring a longer life. “People are also very conscious about not splurging and hoarding. There’s a lot of change in people’s mentality.” Changing demands are evident in the fact that big fast fashion brands are also launching conscious lines and communicating more clearly about the garments they’re selling. As consciousness increases, the mainstream fashion industry has no option but to respond and evolve.
“Fashion is really changing for good.”
Importantly, fashion is becoming a more empathetic and inclusive space. “Slow fashion is something that’s been produced with a lot of love and kindness toward both the planet and the consumer.” As the industry makes space for slow fashion, with a slow production and consumption cycle, the focus is on thinking longterm instead of about what’s trending at the moment. “Slow fashion is trendless. It doesn’t need a trend to sustain in the market. It’s ageless. And it doesn’t need a certain body type. It’s a beautiful concept.”
Kapoor’s success with Shuffling Suitcases is also a testament to the growing popularity of slow fashion. Importantly, she only visits each city once a year. “The whole idea is for people to not hoard things.” The thing that excites her is several people waiting an entire year for them to return. “There have been people who were hardcore fashion hoarders who are now completely converted into the slow fashion evangelist,” she says with a laugh. “People are really converting. That makes me so proud.”
Aarushi Agrawal is a culture journalist with interest in research, reading, writing, and spending time with her cat.