With India’s freedom fabric growing out of its jholawalla image to become fine Indian luxury, contemporary Khadi has a new story to tell. Its climb up the value chain is not a passing trend but an evolving idea. Recognized primarily as the most visible symbol of the Swadeshi movement, it now stands for Swadeshi fashion—a marketing line no other fabric in the world can stake a claim to. In textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti’s words, “It is the only instance of eco-viable, sustainable, luxury fabric in the world.”
The innovative use of Khadi in mainstream fashion has strongly influenced the image of what was once seen as a drab fabric. New or old innovations, pristine or dressed up—they are all adding up to change the big picture. Consider these instances. Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, who weaves Khadi in his Faridabad workshop and works with West Bengal weavers, uses Khadi for his basic, pleated or appliquéd shirts or as a base for vegetable-dyed Ajrakh, creating jackets, tops, tunics and trousers. Designers David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore (A&T) have worked with Khadi for two decades, for garments and home linen, retailing from international stores like the UK-based Conran Shop. “Khadi’s hand-spun texture makes it unique for design experimentation, dyeing, layering,” says Abraham. Couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee embellishes it with gara embroidery, zardozi borders and mixes and matches it with Banarasi weaves to push it up the aspirational chart.
Some younger designers have given Khadi a much-needed edgy avatar. Aneeth Arora, whose non-embellished bohemian garments have an international clientele, creates Khadi separates by bringing design interventions at the weaving stage. You will find a goncha (Ladakh’s dress), an indigo robe worn by a gurudwara gyaniji, a puthia (a Rajasthani costume for women) or a kediya (worn by Kutch’s dance artistes) in her collections, some made from Khadi. Mumbai-based Rahul Mishra’s Spring/Summer 2013 line has many Khadi pieces—short, fitted jackets or long, flowy ones, asymmetrical skirts, long tunics paired with palazzos, even shorts, all with appliqué or thread detailing. You could wear them anywhere in the world and yet be counted as Indian. With his collection set to hit stores soon, he says he will be using more than 3,000m of Khadi to sustain production.
Then there is Mumbai’s trendsetting store Bungalow 8, which has used Khadi for in-house collections called The Bungalow, designed by Mathieu Gugumus Leguillon, for five years. In the fall of 2012, they launched a Khadi-only capsule of day essentials by Injiri, designed by Chinar Farooqui. “At our store, handlooms and handcrafted fabrics have moved up the value chain from an almost fuddy-duddy Gandhian connotation to a must-have luxury. Designers have prompted this shift by demonstrating the many faces of Khadi, marrying the local with the global,” says its proprietor, Maithili Ahluwalia.
Interestingly, the use of Khadi in fashion is fuelling a renewed aspiration for the work of textile experts like Chishti. Even two years back, Chishti lamented losing skilled, Khadi spinners to unskilled labour work under government employment generation schemes, like The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). She was also deeply sceptical about designer Khadi.
Today, Taanbaan, her home brand, which includes saris, fabric and home furnishings, competes with designer Khadi. Given its increasing demand, she has recently added two more looms to the existing eight. Each loom employs around 10 carefully chosen skilled spinners who create hand-spun Khadi of 115 counts, recognized as the finest handmade (machine-spun Khadi can yield up to 170-180 counts). “Hand-spun Khadi cannot compete with yarn made on hand-cranked Ambar charkhas. The logistics and the results of the two are different and should be respected,” she says. This respect is noticeable among consumers who now specifically ask for hand-spun Khadi, remarks Bharat Shah, a director at Ekaya, a Delhi store that stocks handmade weaves from Varanasi. At Ekaya, soft Khadi is woven with real zari, creating distinctive pieces.
Notably, none of these creators buys yarn from the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), a government organization. The designers work with spinners directly, offering better wages. Their products are premium if not luxurious in finish, soft to drape, do not bleed colour, and weaving inconsistencies are explained on labels as germane to handmade goods. They cost upwards of Rs.6,000 for a fashion separate, more than Rs.10,000 for a handwoven sari, and go up to over Rs.1 lakh for unique pieces.
For most designers, Khadi comes without patriotic or political baggage, but not Mishra. He envisions a Khadi Mandir—a centre for employment and welfare of Khadi spinners. “We must ensure that a part of the revenue from Khadi is diverted to weavers to keep its Gandhian logic alive. So the percentage use of Khadi in designer collections must drastically increase,” he says. Chishti agrees.