Runa Ray

Sustainable luxury designer Runa Ray reminds me that there is more to the Prince Albert Foundation than meets the eye. (WATCH VIDEO above.)

Sure, since it was created in 2006, the non-profit organisation PA2F has given out more than €100 million in grants and been involved in 750 projects dedicated to planetary health, including Beyond Plastic Med: BeMed, Human Wildlife Initiative, Forrest and Communities and, in our backdoor, the fantastic Pelagos Initiative. And yes, the PA2F Planetary Health Gala attracts some pretty big names: Leo, Sting and Redford.

Yet if you happened to stop by the first edition of the free Green Shift Festival last week on Promenade du Larvotto, you would have witnessed the Foundation’s other star power: partnering with those not–so–celebrity names who work relentlessly at a grassroots level using art to inspire a public shift of consciousness when it comes to environmental issues.

One of those stars is Runa Ray. The bio-couture designer was in Monaco for the Festival June 7-10 encouraging people to write messages of their commitment to the ocean as part of her Ocean Flag initiative, which is an endorsed activity by the United Nations Ocean Decade 2021-2030.

“I have been working with the Foundation mostly as a sustainable fashion designer,” Runa told me at the Green Shift Festival. “And this is using fashion’s waste for a social cause, which connects humanity and speaks about environmental purpose, which can be linked to climate justice and social justice.”

The Bangalore-born artist added, “These messages are going to be sewn and this specific flag will be displayed at COP28 UAE in November. People across the world – orphans in Ukraine who have sent in their commitments, India, the Indo-China border, San Quentin State Prison, and now people from Monaco – have all sent in their messages.”

Photos Facebook Martine Ackermann

According to the UN, “A three trillion-dollar industry, fashion is responsible for 20% of the global wastewater generated through pesticides for land cultivation, dyes and textiles – which often flows back into the ocean.” The UN says that the Ocean Flag “aims to bridge the gap between fashion’s environmental pollution and educating the public on the detriments of climate change on the ocean through the lens of fashion.”

In addition to being involved with the UN’s Ocean Decade, the author of Fashion for Social and Environmental Justice also works with the UN Environment Programme Faith for Earth. “I have used fashion as activism and education to engage youth and future decision makers and educate students in universities on the intersection between climate change and Peace,” she said.

Runa grew up in a city in the south of India, where the most coveted professions after graduation were medicine, engineering and dentistry. “It was important to be educated in the sciences whereas arts took a back seat,” she described. “India was still adapting to the post-colonial era for the need of the above mentioned professions and peer pressure was at its best with students vying for top honours to establish themselves and the names of their families.”

She studied science but found herself at a crossroads: become a doctor or pursue fashion, a new career path introduced by her mother who said “the world had enough doctors and that fashion could use some help.”

Runa was one of the prestigious few who were chosen to be a part of the ministry of textiles India and study fashion. “Fashion was nascent and I, being of the creative bent of mind, decided to enrol myself at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. It was an arduous process of selection wherein only 120 students were chosen for four centres all over India.”

She excelled in what she described “a wonderful journey where I won the best design collection award”. This led to a Master’s at the Ecole Supérieure des Industries du Vêtement in Paris under the Chamber of Commerce. Studying fashion and marketing helped Runa gain industrial experience in factories and couture houses, where she “notably came across fashion’s waste not just from the standpoint of consumer waste but that which existed within the industry from prototypes to printing, dyeing and even packaging.”

She continued, “One should understand that waste starts from the sketch that is created, from paper to prototype and the final product. This is what probably inspired me to take on being an environmentalist. I loved creating wealth from waste and using fashion as activism to educate and advocate for policy change.

“As I further explored the industry, I came in contact with the highly fragmented garment sector from nomadic workers to the denim industry, which employed young boys to scrape at jeans for the faded look using only sand paper and led to occupational lung diseases because of the fibre in the air, to the tanning industry and dyeing industry, which discharged effluents into water ways at night.”

This would further her reason to connect the arts, humanity and science for the benefit of mankind through fashion. “An environmentalist is one who keeps the environment in the center of everything that they do. I am a fashion environmentalist because I keep nature in the epicenter of my designs, to benefit and find ways to reduce carbon footprint within the industry, and any process that could contribute towards it.”

For Runa, it is “extremely important” to go to the source. “As a fashion designer, it is imperative to understand where your clothes come from, to understand the geography, the geo-political causes, the livelihoods of people engaged, the impact of economy on prices and the control of governments on natural and synthetic fibres.”

She literally goes to the source. “For my Himalayan expedition, I travelled to four villages in Ladakh to document the pashmina goats, their rearing, harvesting of their fur and making it into yarn and final conversion into products. Most of the pashmina farming is government owned, where subsidies are given to the herders. The communities are pastoral and semi-pastoral who depend on goats and yak for income.

“The goats are combed in summer months to get the fine pashmina fur, which is then sent to the de-hairing unit where it is cleaned of any debris. The hair is then sorted into variations depending on their length. The hair is further taken to communities in the mountains of which one would make the yarn and they are paid for their efforts. the yarn is collected and taken to the next village which spins the yarn to sweaters and other products. The products are collected and then sold in the wider market.

“With the advent of climate change, most goats are dying and pastoral communities are moving out into urban dwellings to find jobs, which means that by 2050 we would have most of our pashmina farmed and not free-raised as they are currently in the Himalayas.”

Runa, who dressed Grammy award-winning artist Laura Sullivan, will be creating a multi-episode docuseries to be shared with the Prince Albert Foundation to enable wider learning. “It is only right to help amplify the work of the Foundation through fashion and arts, to connect with science and throw light on relevant issues of climate change through storytelling,” she emphasised.

Photos: Facebook Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco

The fashion environmentalist YouTuber was a sustainable hit at Monte-Carlo Fashion Week on May 19 this year when she presented “The strait of couture” in collaboration PA2F. “I used seaweed as the main agent to print the fabric. By using the ancient art of Floating inks which was prevalent in 12th century Japan, I created unique organic prints which negated water wastage and pollution.”

When it comes to fashion and clothes, Runa says the biggest misconception that most people have is that if they donate used clothes to charity, most of the garments find a new life. “This is untrue, because most garments end up in the land fill, as only gently used and slightly worn ones make their way into the secondhand market.

“The one tip I can give consumers is to not follow trends, but stick to classic buys that will last for years, where quality and style will never go out of fashion.”

Runa Ray is currently working on a trip to Sudan to connect with displaced communities and their dying art of weaving, which is impacted by civil war.

Article first published June 18, 2023.