Vintage is depressing… But ‘new vintage’ is something to come. It’s preparation for something that could last,” said Karl Lagerfeld at the conclusion of Chanel’s Fall Couture show in Paris last year. Interpreting “new vintage”, he sent out his trademark tweed suits, only the “tweed” was embroidery on tulle. Fashion’s flashback moment on global runways has never been more apparent than now, with embroidery and needlepoint playing starring roles in recent collections.
Fall 2012 also saw Dolce&Gabbana embrace their roots with floral petit point (cross stitch) inspired by Sicilian baroque; Balmain bring out the pearl-edged tapestry look; and Valentino roll out romanticism with delicate French knots. With the trend continuing in 2013, embroidery has gone from pillow covers to pullovers and on to—in a more subcontinental context—sari pallus.
Indian designers, no strangers to needlework, tend to get transfixed by crystals and sequins, but they have also, for the last few seasons, trained their eyes on hand-embroidered finery. As Indian luxury makes a marginal shift from the ostentatious to the restrained, it’s the understated delicacy of a more than 200-year-old needlepoint technique—Parsi gara embroidery—that is finding favour with couturiers back home.
Gara is a vintage thread-work tradition dating back a few centuries when Parsis trading with China acquired oriental silk embroidered with peonies and pagodas by Chinese craftsmen for their womenfolk. Now, from protective layers of “mulmul”, it’s making its way to fashion boutiques. The delicate thread work, traditionally white satin stitch and French knot embroidery on vibrant jewelled silks, has moved from the six-yard sari, long associated with Zoroastrian dowagers and communal celebrations, to Khadi bodices, full-skirted hems, the borders of handloom saris, even structured jackets, thanks to designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anamika Khanna, Anupamaa Dayal, Aneeth Arora, Nupur Kanoi and Jaya Misra, among others. With Bollywood celebs like Vidya Balan and Sridevi wearing this art, it seems to have caught the public’s imagination anew.
While Sabyasachi, designer to the above-mentioned stars, has often been credited with popularizing the craft, he wasn’t the first to make it mainstream, says fashion writer and consultant Meher Castelino. “Apart from Mumbai-based revivalists like Naju Daver and Perveez Aggarwal, fashion designer Pallavi Jaikishan and daughter Bhairavi have also been using Parsi gara embroidery for ages. They just prefer to remain low-key,” says Castelino.
That said, there’s no denying that Sabyasachi has made the Khadi fabric and gara embroidery combination an indelible part of his couture vocabulary, and given it a “new vintage” slant by introducing it on non-traditional attire like vests, maxis, peplums and accessories like headbands and bangles. Fellow Kolkata designer Khanna, who sent a dramatic, floor-sweeping handworked jacquard silk coat down the PCJ Delhi Couture Week 2012 runway last August, also aims to give gara embroidery an unconventional spin. “My motivation is to take something that is centuries old and make it modern and ‘now’ while not compromising on the beauty of the craft. The idea is to give a new language to old art so that more people wear it ,” says Khanna, who plans to put smaller gara embroidery details on modern shapes like jackets and waistcoats in future.
Much like newbie designer Kanoi, whose Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2012 collection, Chapter 2, had structured jackets with sharp shoulders, peplums and exhaustive tailcoat versions with pants embroidered in similar colours. “We wanted to work with the craft, yet keep it chic and wearable. The idea was to treat this embroidery (a mix of hand and machine work) as a texture with no specific form or pattern so it looked more contemporary,” says Kanoi.
In designer Ashdeen Lilaowala’s words, “It’s important to take a skill forward and make it fashion.” Lilaowala has been researching Parsi embroidery for five years. “For instance, Dolce&Gabbana will put petit point on lace and make a sexy dress or Sabyasachi will team gara embroidery with velvet, zardozi and pearls. That, I think, is the key, to take an old technique or tradition and push it further,” he says.
At his studio in Sarvapriya Vihar, New Delhi, a crane fluidly stretches its wings over a sari. The supple satin stitches are being painstakingly hand-embroidered on fabric, true to the tradition of the Parsi gara sari. But the colourful Leheriya base is a far cry from the gajji silk or salli gaaj fabrics of Chinese vintage. Nor is the design as dense as its historical avatar.
a handworked silk coat by Anamika Khanna
On the frame of Lilaowala’s karigar (artisan), the gara sheds its weighty proportions and is turned into a versatile and colourful drape. “I do make the traditional border and all-over gara saris for those interested, but also like to give it a spin and take smaller elements like butterflies and bows from a design and embroider a whole sari with them,” says Lilaowala. He has replaced heavier fabrics with jacquard silks and introduced silver zari embroidery for dressier pieces.
Revivalist Aggarwal may have had a 20-year head start on Lilaowala, but her motive remains the same—to keep the thread-work tradition alive and contemporary. “My mother used to say, ‘I don’t like garas; I feel like I’m wrapped in a razaai (blanket)’,” recalls Aggarwal, a comment that prompted her to shift from heavier silks to slimming French chiffons and silk georgettes. While the hand embroidery remains as intricate as ever, she uses colours that are in vogue, like turquoise blue, apple green and shocking pink. And to keep non-Parsi and NRI (non-resident Indian) clients coming back for more, she also offers jackets, skirts, salwar-kurta material and stoles, displaying that innovation is indeed the way forward for any vintage craft form.
While purists like Farzeen Daver-Boomla, the daughter and successor of revivalist Naju Daver, are irked at the “cheap imitations, aari work (chain stitch) and machine embroidery” passing off as authentic gara work in modern interpretations, others, like Lilaowala and Aggarwal, look at the brighter side. “The more mainstream it becomes, the more the value of the authentic increases,” surmises Lilaowala. After all, if the “new vintage” draws attention to the vintage, how can it be a bad thing?
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The real thing
It’s like buying a genuine Rado watch versus buying a fake one,” says Farzeen Daver-Boomla of Naju Daver Creations, about purchasing an authentic ‘gara’ sari. While ‘garas’ are available in both hand- and machine-embroidered variations, it is wise to make an investment in a handworked one, suggests Daver-Boomla. Connoisseurs will know that in a genuine ‘gara’ sari, the finish of the embroidery will be identical in the front and back,” she says. Also, make note of the quality of the satin stitches. “In a machine-work ‘gara’, the embroidery is thicker and not as fine,” says Ashdeen Lilaowala. “As in all things hand-wrought, since the stitching is done by hand, each motif will look different and have its own movement,” he adds.
Inversely, if the embroidery is too perfect and symmetrical, you can be sure it’s a computer machinery ‘gara’, where a pre-programmed digital pattern has been used.
“The most basic rule of thumb? If it’s selling for Rs.3,000, it’s not hand-embroidered,” says Lilaowala. A genuine one should cost you upwards of Rs.20,000 (with minimalist modern embroidery). The densely embroidered ones would be above Rs.40,000, going up to Rs.80,000 or even more.