The Red Carpet Green Dress Design Contest for 2020’s first winner from India on her gown that can later turn into table linen, and her academic approach to design
“More research-based, innovation-driven fashion brands can collectively change the narrative for the better,” says Chennai-based Sanah Sharma Mehra, 28, who has just bagged the Red Carpet Green Dress (RCGD) award for 2020. A gown designed with Tencel (a sustainable rayon fabric made from wood pulp), a first for Mehra, has been made keeping “circularity in mind” and is zero-waste.
Conceived by actor Suzy Amis Cameron at the press tour for husband James Cameron’s film Avatar over a decade ago, RCGD ‘challenges designers to create an ‘Oscar- worthy’ dress made entirely of sustainable materials’. The contest guidelines reflect this — using certified eco-friendly, organic and/or recycled materials is mandatory, as is adopting initiatives to reduce textile waste. In addition to a cash prize and mentoring, winners will ‘see their designs constructed and worn by the contest ambassadors’. At this year’s Oscars, Marlee Matlin sported a sustainable Vivienne Westwood custom-made gown crafted in black vegan textile made with Tencel luxe filaments. And prior eco-collabs have included the 2019 AMUR x RCGD (sold through select Bloomingdale’s stores), and Reformation x RCGD in 2015 that featured ‘six dresses loosely inspired by previous Oscar gowns’.
The Pearl Academy graduate, who developed Planar Flux — a cutting technique that drew inspiration from a maths concept called Mobius Strip and Subtraction Cutting — back in 2015, says the idea to apply for the contest came about thanks to influencer Kestrel Jenkins’ podcast, Conscious Chatter. After she was interviewed by Jenkins last year, Mehra had listened to an episode featuring RCGD’s CEO, Samata Pattinson. Curiosity piqued, the designer (who runs her own label, sanahsharma.com) researched the organisation and submitted her application for their Design Contest in July 2020.
Excerpts from an interview:
How long did the ideation and making process take?
This gown is special because of the design process behind it. Usually designers make a sketch of a finished product and work backwards, but my approach is different. I like to design the patterns, the foundations of garment making, and then watch a silhouette develop. There’s a lot of risk involved because one can’t really predict the appearance of the end product right at the beginning.
How is this outfit different from your earlier designs?
The gown uses a special cutting technique of its own that amalgamates a concept in physics with garment making. It’s zero-waste and also has embellishments that are representative of the story behind the design. This dress is sustainable in design and material which is a total win-win. Additionally, it was designed with circularity in mind. So, later in the life of the gown, it can easily be converted into handbags, table linen, perhaps another dress too.
Which celebrity would you like to see in your winning design?
I would definitely like to see celebrities who believe in the need for sustainable development and are actively participating in this movement wear my designs. My list includes Michelle Obama, Emma Watson, Shailene Woodley, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Diipa Büller-Khosla, Nikki Reed, and Livia Firth.
You’re said to have an ‘academic approach’ to fashion.
Sustainable development and education go hand-in-hand, and what bridges them is research. While researching, I was shocked to learn that we were making clothes the same way we did in the Middle Ages. The average cutting waste is about 15%. I wanted to change that and created my own cutting technique. I was inspired by renowned pattern cutter Julian Roberts [of the Royal College of Art, UK] and reached out to him to know if my methods had a place in the world, and he began mentoring me virtually.
Knowing that nearly 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage puts a lot of responsibility on the designer. While my brand focusses on educating consumers about sustainability, I also engage with students at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Pearl Academy, UID (Ahmedabad), VIT, and Iowa State University (USA) through workshops and guest lectures.
The RCGD guidelines are said to be quite stringent.
This was a true test of design prowess since applicants had to work with their fabrics [Tencel]. I wanted to portray the Earth’s essence in the dress, I wanted it to be very symbolic. More than challenging, I looked at it as the perfect opportunity to communicate my journey, perspective and ethos through the language of design.
What are you working on now?
We’ve worked on three lines: pret, upcycled and a virtual one. Every product shipped out has the name of its maker on the tag. We want people to know that sustainable garments can be high fashion and glamorous as well.
We retail on digital marketplaces like Etsy, and our gender-neutral pret collection [to be launched this Diwali] is going to feature Oeko-Tex certified and GRS certified fabrics in very transitional silhouettes. We’re also working on a line made entirely with recycled handloom fabrics in easy, comfortable silhouettes [a September launch]. To be more size inclusive, we have opened up to customisation so customers can now either walk into our studio or have an online consultation to place orders.
The unveiling of the winning looks will take place at this year’s Red Carpet Green Dress event in Los Angeles in September.