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Saris to Suits

Jan/06/2024 / by elizabeth-marglin

How one woman transformed her inheritance into positive change

What do you do when you inherit a treasure trove of your mother’s vintage saris? When Patti Tripathi, entrepreneur, journalist and eventual founder of Saris to Suits, inherited these gorgeous saris in 2004, she was 35. Her mom had passed young, at the age of 56. Tripathi carried the two suitcases of saris around with her as she relocated several times in the U.S. “I couldn’t let them go,” she says. “I wanted to keep her essence intact in a new form.” 

That new form would become, in 2012, Saris to Suits, a nonprofit devoted to breaking down the barriers that constrain the advancement of women and girls. This includes raising awareness of domestic violence and trafficking, employing impoverished women in Mumbai, creating sustainable fashion from upcycled saris, hosting women’s conferences, and highlighting remarkable women across the globe.

Tripathi, who does not wear saris on a regular basis, rejected the idea of converting the saris into pillow covers and curtains. Rather, she wanted to create modern fashion statements that incorporate the sari fabric but with more cutting-edge designs. But she also had this idea of helping other South Asian women get on their feet. “I had the vision of not only saris but women getting a new life in this process.” Tripathi herself had suffered from a sham marriage and knew firsthand how disempowering it is to be a victim of outdated cultural attitudes and an oppressive legal system.

Tripathi was not daunted by the process of creating the change she wanted to see in the world. In an earlier phase of her career, in 1996, she became the first Indian American voice and face on television while anchoring the news for CNN. (She was, however, requested to change her given name Pratibha to Patti.) In 2012, spurred on by the New Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, she launched Saris to Suits. A trademark of the organization became a signature calendar campaign, featuring extraordinary South Asian women who “pose for a purpose.” The proceeds were donated to women and girls causes throughout the U.S., as well as to a rehabilitative care facility for girls rescued from sex trade and trafficking in India. The calendar campaign was paused in 2020 during the pandemic.

In 2019, Tripathi stumbled serendipitously upon Stefano Funari, who had launched an eco-friendly lifestyle brand in India and whose products, upcycled from pre-owned saris, were already popular in Italy and Greece. Funari and Tripathi began a collaboration, with support from Gucci’s sustainability initiative, Gucci Equilibrium. Called I Was a Sari, the project transforms pre-loved saris into modern fashion pieces, including Bombay bomber jackets, kimonos, kaftans, and flowing robes. Each piece is handmade by women artisans who lived in Mumbai slums, who now have the opportunity to change their destiny. At this point, their joint efforts have helped to provide “second lives” to 650 women and 1,400,000 square meters of fabric, which would cover 200 football fields.

What does the upcoming year look like for Saris to Suits? For now, Tripathi says they are concentrating on bringing more trunk shows around the country, some professionally choreographed, to garner support for their sustainable, humanitarian, and fashion forward mission.

sidebar: Air India’s New Look

Tripathi’s vision is not just an effective fundraiser; she is on point with her fashion eye. In December of 2023, Air India revealed their new uniform rebrand, designed by India’s leading couturier Manish Malhotra. Like Tripathi, Malhotra infused the traditional sari with a contemporary twist, introducing trendy pant saris or sari pantsuits in three quintessential Indian hues, red, aubergine and gold. 

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