The quiet revolutionaries of Indian fashion: Abraham & Thakore
The first time that designers David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore showed at the India Fashion Week was in 2010. They sent a model down the ramp wearing a black handloom sari, belted and worn well above the ankle “because we were playing with proportion”, tied tightly as if to leave its traditional languidness behind, and paired with heavy platform clogs. It was radical and edgy. The demure traditional drape of India had walked into the world of high fashion with a bold new confidence.
“I remember everyone was a bit shocked because, one, we were doing our first show in India and, two, we had opened a fashion show with a sari,” says Abraham.
He, along with Thakore and Kevin Nigli—their third and lesser-known partner, who has been with them since the beginning—had launched their fashion label, Abraham & Thakore (A&T), nearly two decades ago, in 1992.
Last month, we met them at their atelier in Noida, adjoining Delhi. Their body of work reflects, on the one hand, the journey of the Indian fashion industry, and on the other, tells the story of outsiders who have silently pushed the boundaries of fashion in India. Their work is representative of a move away from the highly ornate, traditional stereotype of Indian fashion to an international aesthetic that is based in the textile heritage of India but not limited by it.
Their Noida workshop is a three-floor space with tailors, karigars (craftsmen) and pattern-cutters going about their work. Fabric scrolls lie half unfurled on the floor, colour swatches are pinned on to mood boards, couture pieces hang on rails, some 25 years old and others prototypes of new collections. Abraham—the spontaneous and warm creative director of the company—visualizes and plans the collections for each season. Dressed in a navy blue Mandarin-collar shirt jacket, his intense gaze behind his hip orange spectacle frames is set off by his easy laughter. He takes the lead in this conversation. Thakore, tall, lean and sharp in complete black, completes sentences and fills gaps in memory in the conversation. He takes care of textile innovation and production. Nigli, sitting at a distance, listens, offering accuracy of dates and events. His role involves directing sales initiatives and ensuring the product’s commercial viability.
In terms of aesthetics, A&T’s oeuvre is dominated by a black and white combination. It is a signature that has seen far too many rip-offs to count. Thakore pulls out a stunning contrast scarf from the rails behind his desk: “This piece is 25 years old, but you’ll find it all over Dilli Haat,” he says, unfazed. Working in handloom and with traditional textiles is their forte. They’ve built a practice by reinventing Ikat, Jamdani and fine cottons by engineering the weaves. And, most significantly, they design for a “refined woman”, in the words of Tina Tahiliani Parikh, the founder of Ensemble, India’s first designer boutique—which itself completes 30 years this year. Tahiliani Parikh began showing A&T at Ensemble in 1993, and recalls how they stood out from the bling, the aesthetic that was beginning to take root in India in the early 1990s. “People then were not looking at our home-grown heritage as something very fashionable. They felt that they had to take a garment and do huge amounts of value-add on top of it. Whereas A&T did the value-add in the fabric itself, in the sewing, and the shape. It was simple, high quality and had a kind of quiet elegance,” says Parikh in a phone interview.
Their fusion of modernity and tradition has attracted the attention of museums and curators. A dramatic houndstooth double Ikat silk sari from their 2011 collection was part of a Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) exhibition titled The Fabric Of India, held from October 2015 to January 2016 in London. Divia Patel, curator at the museum and author of the book India—Contemporary Design: Fashion, Graphics, Interiors (Lustre, 2014), writes on email: “A&T have the ability to make a statement about fashion that goes beyond embroidered embellishment, focusing instead on building a signature style of a bold and minimal colour palette, simple patterns and handloom fabrics. The houndstooth sari stands for all these things. It could only have come from a studio with such expertise and confidence at the heart of it, respectfully combining the skill of the artisan with the direction of the designer.”
In the midst of cultural exploration, A&T brings a certain spunk to fashion. One of their latest collections includes a bag, a scarf and a robe made in a gold shimmer foil that prints the initials of iconic fashion labels like CD of Christian Dior, CK of Calvin Klein and A&T itself, in striking gold Devanagari script. A&T is as fun as it is elegant and determined.
“It hasn’t been easy,” says Abraham. “The first 10 years were a battle. Nobody wanted to touch anything. They would think, ‘what is this boring handloom stuff?’ We had to be thick-skinned. But we were lucky because we had an export business to fall back on. The international customer understood it. They would pay for a rough-looking Khadi shirt. That’s why we survived. If we had only been in India, we would have had to do lehngas covered in Zardozi,” says Abraham.
As we sit down in their busy office on a smoggy November day in Delhi, they tell us their story, one that has been marked by the ups and downs of business and changing economies, the trials of designing for an elusive consumer, and building a practice that confronts fashion with questions of identity: who we are, who we’re designing for, and what Indian design is.
The pre-A&T days
Abraham, who grew up in Singapore and Bengaluru, and Thakore, who grew up in Tanzania, Delhi and Indore, met at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, where they were studying textile design in 1975.
“That’s where it all started,” remembers Abraham. NID was, and still is, a place where design is taught within a strong social context. Subjects like textiles and fashion are taught with a focus on ethnographic study. “There was this attitude at NID that you had to be engaged with political issues of national identity. That to be a designer, you should look at your surroundings and be sensitive to it,” says Abraham. “Do you remember Bhandari’s projects—we had to go to these bastis (low-income neighbourhoods) and sketch their lives?” Abraham asks Thakore. “It was called environmental exposure or something like that.” Their main subject of study, the textiles of India, was taught by a Finnish designer, Helena Perheentupa. “It’s funny that a foreigner had to come teach us about our own textiles,” says Thakore.
Ahmedabad is home to the Calico Museum of Textiles, “so we had access to the richest resource”, says Abraham. Towards the end of his stint at NID, Thakore worked alongside the late Martand Singh—affectionately known as Mapu—on a series of touring exhibitions from 1982-92 that showcased the textiles heritage of India to the West. “I had just come out of NID and I began to work with Mapu on the Festival Of India, the Master Weavers exhibition and Vishwakarma series. They toured from the Royal College of Art in London, followed by Paris, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York, among other places. While still in NID, I had gone to Andhra (Pradesh) to do my craft documentation on Ikat and Chirala’s Rumal (Thakore continues to work extensively on Ikat). When Mapu began travelling to Andhra, he discovered that I was floating around, and was surprised that someone had gone there before he did,” Thakore recalls. “From then on, I worked alongside him. He was a fabulous person and gave you the freedom and space to do what you wanted in terms of design.”
Coming from different, privileged backgrounds (“blinkered”, in the words of Abraham) and learning the textile crafts of India at NID—those roots are evident in the route that the designer label eventually took. Dressing appropriate to a culture and climate, finding an Indian fashion identity that is beyond the ethnic stereotype, having a small production run and using craftspeople as much as possible—that’s A&T in a nutshell. “When I think about those early days at NID, they have a lot to do with how I look at fashion now. That’s where our values come from and I’m getting more cranky about it as I’m getting older,” says Abraham. Thakore quietly corrects, “getting more engaged with it”.
While the beginnings lay in understanding the aesthetics of their home country, that did not restrict Abraham and Thakore from looking outward. By the time they graduated from NID, Thakore had begun working with Mapu. As part of a different project, he designed a collection of black and white Ikats for the iconic Japanese designer Issey Miyake. And Abraham spent several years with the New York-based clothing company Sandy Starkman. Between 1991-92, he worked solo under the label David Abraham, which sold through departmental stores like Fred Hayman and Bergdorf Goodman.
Those were the days when Rajesh Pratap Singh—today an accomplished designer in his own right—had just graduated from Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. “I must have been 19 and I interned with David. (Now) I keep telling them that I was just the photocopy boy and we laugh about it,” says Singh. “We were all scared of David. He was a very strict man, very disciplined. For me, it was like baptism by fire,” he adds. Singh, recalling Abraham and Thakore’s work from the time, says: “David was doing a lot of colour, the most beautiful embroidered dresses I’ve ever seen. I remember once the display windows of Bergdorf Goodman, New York, were all by David Abraham. It was really rad stuff. Both David and Rakesh had this sensibility with things that didn’t quite exist yet”.
Taking A&T abroad
In 1992, Abraham and Thakore founded their label. Their third partner, Nigli, a graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, joined six months later. “For the first 10 years, we really had nothing to sell in India because there was no real market,” says Abraham.
A&T started by selling textile-based accessories like kimonos and scarves, then went into home collections and, finally, fashion, at The Conran Shop, a high-end curated boutique in London founded in 1974. That leap to London was due to a lucky turn of events. “When we started, John Bissell (founder of Fabindia) was still alive. He was an incredibly generous man. One day, he said, ‘I’m bringing someone over,’ and it was Polly (Dickens), the buying director of The Conran Shop. She bought some of our pieces and we never looked back. One thing led to another. I have a friend, Sue (Holt), who lives in London, she introduced us to the owner of Browns (at the time a leading boutique store in London). She further connected us to Tricia Guild, who owned Designers Guild in London.
“It grew organically. We didn’t have a plan. The only strategy we had, which I really fought for right from the beginning, was that I refused to label our products under any other name. These buyers were not used to Indian brands. So they would ask us to put The Conran Shop label, for instance. But we said, ‘you buy it as A&T or we don’t come in at all.’ You know, we were so small we could be arrogant. We had nothing to lose,” says Abraham.“So every year we used to go with a bag of samples to London. We were lucky. We were small. It was a happy business,” he adds.
What worked in their favour was that A&T was giving London what it couldn’t make itself. Handloom fabric from Phulia and Maheshwar, cotton Ikat from Andhra, woven by hand and cut in wearable, international styles.
Both Abraham and Thakore are weavers themselves. “We had our little looms when we were at NID. I hated it,” says Abraham. “I loved it,” adds Thakore. “But what helped was that we could weave small quantities, like 50m. We could do the minimum and these top shops preferred tiny quantities. We were suited perfectly for that,” says Abraham.
Creating small quantities is a characteristic inherent in the handloom industry. And to see it as problematic is a foolishness that shapes the perception and policy of the handloom industry in our country. For handloom to imitate machine work, or to aspire to create quantities that a powerloom can, is counterproductive to what handlooms have to offer: qualities better suited to the luxury, not mass market.
A&T has built a practice pivoted on this small-run, flexible production model of handloom, of creating one-off garments, where no two pieces are exactly the same. Abraham stresses on the possibility of still being able to do that in India. “The Indian fashion designer is the most privileged designer in the world. In no other country can a designer go and print or weave something as small as 10m of fabric. Nowhere else. Japan is impossible. It’s gone. Died. They’ll do a little bit of Shibori. Indonesia maybe, but their range of expertise is limited to Ikats and batiks. In London, nothing but a little bit of tweed maybe. No wonder you’re seeing an explosion of digital printing there, because they can’t make anything by hand. But in India, any designer can go to a craft cluster or village and say, ‘I have Rs10,000, can you weave so much fabric for me?’” says Abraham.
A&T continues to work with the craft clusters that it began with 25 years ago: Ikat from Andhra, Jamdani, and fine cottons from Bengal, Mangalagiri, 100% cotton, again from Andhra, cotton from Maheshwar, Bandhani from Kutch and Bhuj.
Internationally, it went on to sell in shops like Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty in London, and was a regular at trade shows, like Maison&Objet in Paris, where lifestyle brands converge. “But the 2008 economic downturn hit people like us very badly,” says Abraham.
Meanwhile, in India, curated designer boutiques like Ensemble and Ogaan were finding their feet. Ensemble was showing designers such as Rohit Khosla, Rohit Bal, Asha Sarabhai, Tarun Tahiliani and Monisha Jaisingh, followed by JJ Valaya and Ashish Soni.
By 2000, the official India Fashion Week, organized by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), had taken off. At the time, it was called Lakmé India Fashion Week, and it was disciplining designers into creating collections in accordance with seasons—starting with one a year and expanding to twice a year, a spring/summer and autumn/winter.
In 2002, A&T attempted to sow the seeds of fashion retail in India by setting up One MG Road, India’s first designer mall, in the fast-developing MG Road suburb of Delhi. “Four of us—Rajesh Pratap Singh, Neeru Kumar, Manish Arora and we—got together and opened at One MG Road because we all felt that we need to start selling properly,” says Thakore. Later, others joined them, including JJ Valaya, Suneet Verma, Narender Kumar, Rana Gill and Anju Modi, operating much like a crafts guild that is based in community and promoting each other rather than functioning as an industry marked by competitiveness. “We were all friends. We trusted each other,” says Abraham.
Four years later, One MG Road closed down after a demolition drive that razed shops and structures. “We went in the middle of the night to take out all our stuff. It was terrible,” says Thakore.
It was in 2010 that A&T first took the ramp with what was called the Wills India Fashion Week. They had truly arrived in India after 18 years of fine-tuning their aesthetic.
Abraham, however, recalls the challenges in making the transition from a foreign customer to an Indian one. “When we shifted focus to India, apart from the sari collection, by and large, what we were making and selling abroad was the merchandise we were putting in our India shops. That’s where the conflict began for me. The relationship between the two markets is difficult and it makes you very schizoid—we didn’t quite develop a specific Indian design sensibility,” he says.
But India tugged quietly at their hearts. “After a while, it felt easier to design for a customer you know. When you’re designing for a completely different culture, you tend to have to assume a lot. We didn’t grow up with our mothers wearing coats and stockings. I always felt that it was a language you had to learn and it continues to mystify me,” says Abraham.
He calls attention to the Indian woman’s historic appetite for textiles and fashion. “If you look at your mother’s generation, they would instruct the tailor, go to the raffoo wala (for darning), go to the dye wala (dyer), they knew which person to go to in Kanchipuram, which person in Varanasi. This is part of who we are and it’s not been lost. When girls get married now, for one year they are running around getting every bloody weave in the country. In India, our relationship with textiles is very different,” says Abraham. “Look at all these Punjabi ladies in Delhi; when winter comes, all the lovely pashminas come out,” says Thakore. “And their shahtoosh shawls which they are not supposed to wear,” laughs Abraham.
Vibe of the future
As we talk about their future course, there is a string of activity planned around their 25th anniversary. Currently A&T has two stores in Delhi and Bengaluru and retail through multi-designer boutiques such as Ensemble, Atosa, Bungalow 8, Amethyst and Ogaan. In the coming years, it intends to increase its retail presence in the country—“but not too much because we want to retain our small-run production model,” says Abraham. “More so, we plan to build our online presence. It’s crucial these days.” The label’s Instagram is a beautiful—quite active—collection of pictures that captures its essence. The company already produces textiles and uniforms for hospitality partners like the Taj group and The Oberoi. It is now forging ties with a luxury wellness retreat in Dehradun, Vana. “We plan to work closely with Vana in the areas of design for textile and attire,” says Abraham. In another interesting project, A&T has collaborated with the historic rug-maker Obeetee. Adding to a collection called Proud To Be Indian (which has previously been done in collaboration with Tarun Tahiliani, another iconic designer), on 13 December, A&T will be presenting a limited edition of carpets inspired by block print, Bandhani, Ikat and calligraphy.
To mark this milestone, Delhi-based curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul is putting together a retrospective of their work in the coming months, “not exactly like a chronology, but to highlight recurring visual and material ideas that the brand has consistently returned to”, says Kaul.
Reflecting on their path, and that of the larger designer community, Abraham and Thakore are aware of how they situate themselves in the larger fashion landscape of India. “The designer industry is just a drop in the ocean. But it’s influential. Definitely much more influential than its size. Go to Chandni Chowk and you’ll find half the guys are copying Sabyasachi,” says Abraham. Their own black and white signature aesthetic is ubiquitous.
Their commentary on what the future holds for fashion in India is more positive than critical. “All these young designers are doing such interesting work. Look at all the Lovebirds and Doodlage and those two boys from NID working with resist dye, I can’t remember their names,” says Abraham. “Interestingly, they’re all turning to handloom,” notes Thakore. “And they are looking at a space which is not the wedding market. To me, that’s very interesting,” adds Abraham.
Today, with a string of established designers like Anavila Misra, Eká by Rina Singh, péro by Aneeth Arora, Rajesh Pratap Singh (the latter two are protégés of A&T), Indian fashion may have reached a critical mass with handloom, with muted, earthy colours, creating what might best be described as understated glamour. But to be the first to do it, before its value has been established, takes a single-minded stubbornness that Abraham and Thakore have shown in great measure. They don’t quite articulate it in words, but a sense of contentment comes through. The values that they founded their label in, protected and nurtured, are emerging strongly in the fabric of fashion in India.
Five A&T looks from India Fashion Weeks