I was looking for some quotes to go with this story on recycling, or upcycling to be specific. I was expecting to find some succinct and to-the-point words of wisdom from politicians like Jimmy Carter or Al Gore; environmentalists like Julia Hill or Gaylord Nelson; or even film stars like Richard Gere or Ted Danson. Surprisingly, in my book, the best one I found was: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” – conservation motto during World War II (credited as a New England proverb).
Now, this story is about someone living much closer to us – right here in Bengaluru. She is the unassuming but fiercely talented Ratna Prabha Rajkumar, who runs an upcycling boutique, imaginatively called BlueMadeGreen, from her residence. The name came about because she started by upcycling denim fabric (she now recycles other fabrics and materials too). If you see the quality and finish of products turned out by Prabha, you will be forced to agree that a pair of jeans in her hands will live on in some form or the other, for at least a couple of decades, if not more. ‘Make it do’ is what she does best!
So how did an accountant and fashion designer like Prabha become an upcycling stalwart? The story has its origins in Guangzhou (Canton), China. Prabha, her husband, and her daughter were living there for a few years in the mid 2000s. Prabha wanted to make a Kathakali costume for her daughter to wear to an event called the Masquerade Ball. Here’s what she says about the incident, “At that time, we were in China, where these costumes were of course not available. I wanted to make her wear a Kathakali costume and decided to make the entire costume on my own. The whole outfit took a week’s time to get ready. It was one of my first recycling efforts and won me recognition and acknowledgements from many. The crown, the earrings, the bangles, the beard, were all made from empty cartons, newspapers, and mineral water bottles. At that time, I had no clue that I would start upcycling denim one day.”
Of course, Prabha had also done other recycling projects around the home. She had always enjoyed making new articles from old ones: a chocolate box into a tea tray, school books and cartons into photo frames, and fabrics into wardrobe organisers. She says.
“Even though these things are not so difficult to make, the satisfaction that comes from constructing or making something new is overwhelming.”
What is upcycling and downcycling?
Though we all use the terms recycling, upcycling, and downcycling with relative ease, here are some simple definitions. Upcycling and downcycling are both forms of recycling. A working definition of upcycling is when something that is disposable is transformed into something that is of greater value, even if it is only seen from a creative viewpoint. Downcycling is converting disposable materials into products that are of lesser value or functionality. Of course, these definitions are very simplistic and for a thorough understanding of these terms, one has to be familiar with (or read up on) all aspects of modern-day recycling.
Family influences and inspirations
Prabha’s mother has been running a boutique in Kerala for more than 25 years. She was inspired by a relative called Mrs. Dakshayani, who had learnt Kerala mural painting at the age of 72, and painted these murals onto sarees and kurtis. She had a great influence on the young Prabha and taught her to crochet at the age of eleven. In fact, she is the one who truly inspired Prabha to fall in love with sewing and develop the eye for detail and aesthetics that is necessary for any creative pursuit. Besides her mother, Prabha says that her teenage daughter and husband are sources of great encouragement, but they are her greatest critics as well.
However, there is a more practical scenario that inspired Prabha to take up recycling. And that came from her wardrobe! She reasoned that most of her storage space was taken up by clothes she hardly or never used. Prabha says,
“Most of us give away such clothes to those who help us with household work. Often, they are not able to use them as these garments don’t suit their lifestyle. So, initially, my idea was to upcycle all kinds of clothing into new garments (as a dress designer, I thought only about upcycled garments). Two things discouraged me. One, I was not confident that I would be able to handle all kinds of fabric. Two, storage and maintaining an inventory would require a lot of space and resources. In the meantime, I had converted a few of our abandoned pairs of jeans into a frock and skirt for my niece, and a bag for my daughter. That’s how I decided to work mostly with denim.”
She decided to upcycle denim so that old pairs of jeans could be used again as new denim products, instead of being thrown away, as denim is a fashionable and durable fabric. She feels that durability (of the product’s life) is the just reward for the hard work that goes into upcycling a product.
Concern for the environment
Prabha says that she has changed a lot after starting the venture: “During exhibitions and events, I meet a lot of people who are genuinely concerned and care for the environment and I learn a lot from them. I have started attending workshops, and am even holding some of my own to demonstrate and teach my way of recycling old garments into fabric bags. I have become more and more aware of my own lifestyle, and turned into a more conscious consumer. Personally, it has really helped me understand how our lifestyle affects the environment, both directly and indirectly.”
At BlueMadeGreen, the motto is to reuse materials as much as possible. And minimum new resources are used to make new products. In fact, she has designed two very innovative and practical products
(shopping bags) that everybody can (and should) use. One comes with a Velcro attachment that can be used to roll up the bag into the shape and size of a small Chinese spring roll! The other shopping bag, also made of fabric, has an empty wheat flour (atta) packet used as the lining – this makes the bag waterproof and easy to clean.Other products include- backpacks, laptop bags, handbags, sling bags, denim skirts, jackets, frocks, aprons, organisers, cushion covers, and bedspreads, to name a few.
Prabha’s venture has inspired her to become a truly conscientious citizen. She always carries a fabric bag or two when she goes out; and even keeps old newspapers in her car just in case she buys something that requires bigger or absorbent packaging. She never accepts plastic carry bags when she buys her provisions. If you think that is a bit too much, then this statement from her will put it in perspective:
“Mothers make sure that they take all the required essentials for their babies when they take them out. No compromises are made. That is the sort of love and care we should have for Mother Earth. If everyone cared for nature as we do for our children, we will be able to protect and conserve Mother Earth for them.”
Challenges and the road ahead
When quizzed about her challenges, Prabha says, “Making products with great finishing requires good training and a lot of time. Coming up with new designs each time is a challenge – which I enjoy. All products at BlueMadeGreen are unique, i.e. no two are the same! Of course, many of the products are customised (as per customer requirements) and one can place an order for an upcycled product (along with an old pair of denims and other fabrics).
After seeing some of the products and their finish, I could not resist placing my first upcycled product order! Though it is not quite ready yet, if you ever see me in a hip denim Photographers’ Vest, you should know where that came from! Most of the orders for customised work are placed through Facebook and/or personal contact. While word-of-mouth fetches her quite a few clients, Prabha also does exhibitions and workshops. At the moment, BlueMadeGreen sells online only through Goli Soda in Chennai, but she does have plans to expand her e-commerce horizons as well.
Does she plan to raise funds and scale up at some point of time? “Maybe. Not sure,” she says with a smile.