Photos by Maya Aristimuño and interview by Ally Godsil.
Runa Ray is a fashion designer and an alumnus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Chennai, India. Runa has studied at the Paris Chambers of Commerce, designed pieces for New York Fashion Week, and served as a member of the Fashion Design Council of India. She uses fashion to create global change and awareness for issues such as pollution and cruelty toward animals.
Adolescent Content: How’s Tokyo? I’ve always wanted to go there—I love the fashion.
Runa Ray: The fashion is fantastic. You walk out and there are all these women in cartoonish outfits.
Adolescent: I would love to travel for work.
Runa: You definitely should! You should never be stuck in one place. Because I believe, as a designer, that people in creative fields should travel. It opens up these little boxes you never thought existed… You get what I mean? You can evolve.
Adolescent: Do you live in New York City now?
Runa: I shuffle between Singapore and here.
Adolescent: How has being from India shaped your experience as a designer?
Runa: I’m from India but I’m more of a global person. I did my fashion studies in India, but then I went to Paris when I was 19 and I studied there. I did my master’s, and then I got to work with the house of Dior and John Galliano. So that actually shaped the way I thought about fashion, because it got me into the house of couture and made me realize what fashion [is] actually all about. India is great when it comes to the finesse of hand embroideries, craftsmanship, colors, and fabrics. But being a global person you travel everywhere and you start imbibing the cultures and tastes of different places, and I think it influences you as a designer. It makes you stronger in what you believe in. So, I’m not a designer that goes overboard, I’m not a person who’s very trendy. I believe in clean-cut, classical pieces, which probably attract a certain group of people who are thinkers. Or people who would like to make a change.
Adolescent: I saw that you were on the fashion council of India—what exactly does that council do?
Runa: I’m a part of this registered member group, which is almost like the Ivy League of designers [in] India. We all share social responsibilities when it comes to design. We share design responsibilities in regards to people, how to make the world a better place, innovation, technology, textile development, everything… And then we have shows.
Adolescent: How are you working to make fashion more environmentally friendly?
Runa: As a designer I always work with the end in mind. [When creating a product] you always need to understand what’s going to happen to the product when it finally dies. When the product is dead, [I want it] to be completely biodegradable—you’re not going to have it ending up in a landfill or choking animals. So with my first collection, which [focused on reducing the carbon footprint, I used] origami. The entire collection was folded, it wasn’t stitched. That can reduce the [number] of tailors working on it. For [my second collection] I removed digital printing and started using chlorophyll and actual leaves and plants to do the printing... The fabrics that I use now are mostly aloe vera, milk, eucalyptus, [and] rose petal. They’re all sustainable, cellulosic garments, which [one day] can be put into a burlap sack [and placed in] soil, and the whole thing [will degrade]. Then you can put seeds in it and it [will grow].
Adolescent: What’s your opinion on fast fashion?
Runa: I think fast fashion started as a solution for people’s desire...for something new all the time. But I don’t think people [understood] how out-of-hand it would get. You did have a lot of designers who were showcasing and that was fine, but then you had mass-market retailers who jumped in and tried to cash in on the trends. And they do it so quickly, even before the designers hit the market… It definitely has to end.
Adolescent: So you never mass produce any of your items?
Runa: No, I never do mass production. It’s based on a certain price point—it’s never going to be really cheap because I take care of the people who work with me.
Adolescent: You’ve already touched on this, but what are your favorite materials to use when designing?
Runa: I love using cellulosic material and organic material. It’s softer than silk, it’s more durable, you can wash it, you don’t have to dry clean it, and it’s good for the skin. There are different ways you can use it—you can use it as innerwear, you can use it as a shirt, it’s very versatile. I’m into exploring new fibers that could be brought into the market.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but they found this little spider that spins the web so you can use it as material for clothing. I haven’t explored it but I find it really interesting to go back to nature and see what nature can give you.
Adolescent: Why don’t most designers use all these biodegradable and natural fabrics?
Runa: Whenever something starts off people are kinda apprehensive. Half the time it’s about deciding whether the market is ready for something of that sort. So you need to [determine whether] the consumers are ready.
Adolescent: How can regular people help make fashion better for the environment?
Runa: When you want to go buy a product, you need to realize why you want it. If you’re going to get bored of it, you shouldn’t buy it. If you feel it’s something that’s going to last with you for a long time, spend your money on it. Is the product good enough that once it doesn’t fit you or you’re kinda done with it, you can recycle it? Are there places which will probably take the product and recycle it for you? Or is the product completely biodegradable? When you buy shirts from me, you’ll never have a problem with it—you can just put it in your garden and it will be fine. There’s no guilt factor.
Adolescent: What’s your opinion on the use of fur in fashion?
Runa: I do not like animals being farmed for fur. I hate that. I think it’s really, really cruel. I’ve seen the process, the way the animals are skinned alive and then left to die. [And all] just because you want to have a nice scarf. You don’t see what happens, so you don’t know. That’s the reason I had this exhibition where you see the actual animal’s face and the way it’s skinned inside out. They’re thrown into a tub and they’re squirming. But they are still alive—some of them are still alive the next day!
Adolescent: What would you say is the biggest problem in the fashion industry today?
Runa: Fashion itself is getting to be so fragmented. People need to start being educated about what fashion is—it’s not about just wearing something different, or wearing something cool.
Adolescent: What’s a good thing that’s happening in fashion right now?
Runa: I think that fashion is getting to be more expressive now. People are having fun! It’s [similar to] the era of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. I do see a lot more shows that are slightly avant garde. It’s getting to be a spectacle like it always should be.
Annie Walton Doyle