Contemporary can be a fluid word in fashion, signifying current and topical whenever you invoke it, though every age has its own definition of the term. Ahmedabad-based textile designer Asha Sarabhai’s label Raag holds up “contemporary” as well today as it did when it was first launched in 1975. In 1984, minimalist Japanese designer Issey Miyake sensed the “contemporary” pulse in Sarabhai’s creations and invited the designer, who is now in her late 60s, to launch her own label under the Miyake Design Studio (MDS) in Tokyo. At MDS, Sarabhai’s clothes nested under the label Asha, which means “hope” in Hindi as well as Japanese, while Raag made its way to select stores in European countries—today, her designs retail solely under the label Raag.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sarabhai’s designs—simply constructed handloom chogas, bundis and angarkhas—were featured in Indian textile exhibitions in Japan and in museums in Europe, including the Victoria & Albert museum in London in 1993. They were described as “contemporary, drawing from traditional influences and techniques of India’s past”. The UK’s Independent newspaper called her work “minimal” and described her customers as “stylish and cerebral”.
And when you look up Beejstore.com, the Web store launched in December that brings Raag to Indian customers for the first time, the definition of contemporary needs no retouching. Raag sold through Beej (which means seed) is managed by Ajay Mayor, Sarabhai’s 30-year-old nephew. It stocks womenswear—jackets, bundis, skirts, tops, coats, pants—made from handloom fabrics using techniques that ensure longevity. All the garments are made at the fair-trade practising Raag studio in Ahmedabad, while Beej is being nurtured as an umbrella brand for Raag and “other brands that sync with the ethos of Raag”.
Mayor tells us why Raag, despite being a brand from the past, is relevant to younger customers. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Raag never sold in India even in the mid 1970s. Why?
The initial attempt had been to try and make Raag available in India. Unfortunately, at that moment, there was insufficient interest in the sort of resolutions of the limited scope of fashion that Raag was involved in. Today’s context is a very different one.
What prompted the decision to bring back Raag ?
There was always a desire to bring Raag to India. Logistically, and from an organizational standpoint, things somehow fell into place to enable us to do so now.
The Asha Sarabhai name connects instantly with India’s handloom narrative for consumers of another generation. How do you plan to position Raag for younger customers?
Raag was started with the intent to fashion clothing and textiles with care and attention to qualitative resolutions of design and detail; to make things that would last and give pleasure over the years. These principles form the bedrock for everything that we aim to do and are as relevant now as they were when Raag began.
Beej has been an opportunity to make available seedling collections based on, drawing inspiration from, and improvising on Raag’s distinctive and innovative repertoire and adaptations of forms, techniques, fabrics and other “tactile” resolutions over the years to the making of clothes. Without overworking the musical metaphor, Raag has tried to work in concert with India’s long history as a textile treasure house and attempted to continue and add to that in contemporary contexts.
Is Asha Sarabhai still involved with Raag on a day-to-day basis?
She is not hands on any more. But all our designs are built from the archives she has created over the years. She still directs the brand, meets the team and brings in most of the creative ideas.
There is a surge of contemporary ready-to-wear from woven fabrics in Indian retail. How do you plan to make Raag distinctive?
Our emphasis, quite simply, is to offer a quiet alternative that might resonate with those who appreciate the quality and ethos that it embodies. In the long run, we believe that it is only through the wearing of the clothes that the distinctive details and qualities that have gone into their making can be appreciated.
Will your collections conform to traditional fashion cycles?
Our collections do not conform to the traditional fashion seasonal cycles and instead revolve around a theme. Exploring a different theme for each collection has been an intellectually and creatively stimulating experience. Our first collection takes inspiration from the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich to reinterpret Raag classics. Each collection, while rooted in our values, sensibilities and design language, will hopefully seem fresh and vital.
What is the nature of Beej’s engagement with the people who work for the brand?
We are adamant about making all our products entirely in-house. We source our fabrics from weavers across India. Once we have the fabrics, all the production processes, from dyeing to hand finishing, are done in their entirety by our employees. It enables us to guarantee fair wages and a healthy work environment in which our workers are treated with dignity and respect. Having direct control over all production processes also enables us to maintain high quality standards.