Ritu Kumar probably enjoys the distinction of having met more brides-to-be in her 40-year career than any other Indian designer. One of the country’s best-known and widely recognized names in Indian fashion, Kumar has built a reputation for using and popularizing traditional Indian textiles and embroidery. She talks to Lounge about Indian crafts, brides and her new perfume. Edited excerpts:
What was the first outfit you designed? Do you know where it is now?
I was doing hand-printed saris for the first two-three years, but I was in my 20s and not wearing only saris. We were very much part of the bohemian theatre crowd in Calcutta. The first garment I really designed, which was so wacky, was a straight denim tunic. I went to a wholesale suitcase market and picked up the longest suitcase zip I could find. I used it to zip up the front of the tunic and stitched on arrow-shapes in red leather. So, it was a zip-up navy blue tunic with red leather motifs. I wore it with tight churidars and a scarf. Everybody said, “Hey can I get one of these”; I said no, but eventually started making them for my friends. My cousin Deepa Mehta wore one. It was very young, street clothing. So, on one side, I was reviving hand block-printed saris and the other part of me was saying “no that’s too boring” and doing this. There was also a bolt dress. Again, I sourced the raw materials from the wholesale market. I was very fascinated with hardware; it also had a front zip from top to bottom, and three bolts across the front. I called it the “safe dress”. It was quite cheeky. I don’t think those dresses have lasted. Every time I cleaned my cupboard, I just chucked things and these didn’t look like anything I should have kept. Looking back, maybe I should have.
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If a bride cannot wear a designer sari or lehenga for her wedding, what would you suggest she wears?
Pick up a crinkled bandhani skirt. Make it into a nice ghaghra and get a pretty, happy-looking odhni (wrap). Buy a good blouse from a designer and put it together, and you don’t need to spend a fortune. Accessorize it with jewellery, bindis, bangles, henna, and you’re done.
What are your three favourite Indian crafts?
One would be printing. Patterning on fabric has always been India’s strength. While I was researching old textiles and techniques, I realized what made Indian cotton sell, from the 12th century or even earlier on, was our ability to be able to pattern fabrics. It came about because we had cotton and we had the expertise of vegetable dye. So Europe completely depended on India for patterned fabrics.
Another one is embroidery. The skill of our workers is unbelievable. We’re the only country in the world that can embroider a three-piece outfit with a couple of hundred hours of work going into it.
The third is the craft of the dyer or rangrez. Take, for instance, the white muslin crinkled skirts they wear in Rajasthan. They are white at the start of the year. After Holi, it is dyed in pastel colours—because it gets splattered with colour, they dye it mustard. Then comes the monsoon, so the same skirt is dyed olive green. Eventually, by Diwali, it is navy blue to go with silver gota-work. So the craft of the rangrez came about by having the vegetable dyes, understanding of the dyeing process, and from the great Indian tendency to recycle. We don’t want to throw anything away. In Kutch, they make multi-hued blouses with scraps and I’m fascinated by this. The unpredictability of it is what makes it beautiful.
What is the most unconventional request you have received for a bride’s wedding outfit?
One of the models some time back asked me to make her a gown. I declined the offer to design it.
What does luxury mean to you in the Indian context?
In the last two-three years we’ve had so many luxury brands coming to India. Suddenly, we are beginning to feel this a concept we didn’t know about and it’s being imported to us in the form of bags. We are the biggest luxury society in the world, and it has been that way for generations. Look at most old sculptures. The statues are wearing nothing, but they’re loaded with jewellery! Our whole textile traditions and fabrics are so luxurious. Fashion to us has always been luxury. A woman in a village in Rajasthan wearing a ghaghra made from 50m of cloth—to me, that’s luxury.
What do you wear for a formal night out?
Depending on how much time I have, I would pick a skirt and a long tunic, a sari or a churidar with a tunic. I love wearing big odhnis because they show off a lot of textiles. And plenty of accessories. I have a huge collection of antique silver and kundan jewellery.
What did you wear at your wedding?
I wore a deep red hand-bandhni sari from Kutch. It took them three-four months to make the bandhni and then they put lovely little real gold metal embellishment. I still have it; it’s gorgeous. That is really what you call exotic India.
Future perfect: Kumar wants to open stores in cities all over India. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
When you look back at your work over the past 40 years, which period do you think was the most creative?
The time when I did the Tree of Life show and shot an audio-visual. It took me five or six years. I researched hand block-printing again, and did a lot of work in the field while making that AV. I’m now working with the Rajasthan government on a promotion of their textiles. I find myself very charged up when I go back to the villages.
What do you think of Indian outfits such as a lehenga with two dupattas or a sari with two pallus?
It’s great fun. It’s really nice to innovate. I have of late started wearing my churidar with two dupattas. It’s just the whole thing of showing the drape in a different way. But this is an old tradition: the khada dupattas from Hyderabad and Lucknow—people had two or even three dupattas sometimes, and they were very long. Even the sari with two pallus is a revival. People used to get married in a sari and have a second pallu or dupatta to cover the head.
You have just released your first perfume Tree of Life. What are your favourite smells?
It was my son Amarish’s idea, moving into other direction besides clothes. Again, it’s a revival of the tradition of the ittar. We developed it in France, but gave them the basic tones of khus khus, jasmine, ittar and a hint of sandalwood. I love khus khus and jasmine. A couple of times, when I’ve gone to Pushkar or other places in Rajasthan, they welcome you with a garland of roses—these are not your imported tea roses but Ajmer roses, which really smell beautiful. The smell of water on dry mitti (earth)—the first rain—I’ve tried to incorporate all this in the perfume.
What do Indian designers need to do to become fashion powerhouses?
I think it’s just a matter of time. Our industry is very young. There’s a huge amount of talent. We’ve seen Sabya (Sabyasachi Mukherjee) come out; Anamika (Khanna) is very good. The designers from Bengal are very talented. There’s also Manish Arora—he’s super; I love his interpretation of Indian fashion. He’s not doing little black dresses, it’s all his own stuff.
Have you ever had any what-was-I-thinking moments?
In the last 40 years, oh yes, there were plenty. For every collection you make, a part goes into the mistake pile. It would be impossible to say it didn’t happen.