Some of the most uplifting moments at the recent fashion weeks in New Delhi and Mumbai did not take place during the big-ticket designer shows. And definitely not when the so-called show-stoppers (some still remain unidentified) descended on the runway.
They happened when young designers sent out models in contemporary ensembles made out of handloom fabrics. They were far from frumpy or dated, as one might imagine these textiles to be. The garments were fresh, innovative, and echoed their designers’ distinctive voices. They managed to convey that fresh talent had worked on a heritage craft and created a garment that diluted neither the sensibility of the craft nor that of the designer.
At Lakme Fashion Week, Mumbai-based Rahul Mishra put the spotlight on Madhya Pradesh’s Maheshwari handloom fabric; Soumitra Mondal from Kolkata showed that khadi can exist in colours such as ochre, cobalt and tangerine; while Aneeth Arora and Chinar Farooqui of Gaba used handwoven khadi from West Bengal. “We’re trying to fill the gap between the Indian handloom and the Indian fashion industries,” says Arora.
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At Delhi’s Wills India Fashion Week the trend was mirrored. Samant Chauhan showed Bhagalpuri silk, which is now his trademark fabric of sorts; while the label Virtues showcased the transparency of Kota Doria.
“I am definitely seeing more designers using traditional textiles,” says Tina Tahiliani-Parikh, founder and owner of Mumbai’s first designer fashion store, Ensemble. “There has been a resurgence recently, and these garments are well accepted now.” She adds that Ensemble will soon sign on more designers who use such fabrics.
Tahiliani-Parikh points out that handloom was very much in vogue in the early 1990s. It was popular again a few years ago till the Bollywood craze created a demand for glitz and sequins.
Colour crazy: Soumitra Mondal wanted khadi to look everything but dull and grey. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The fashion industry has made embroidery such as zardozi and Gota internationally known and recognized through opulent bridal wear, but has failed to propel textiles into the same league. Young designers working with handloom fabric send out a few signals—that bridal wear is not the only segment of design that we obsess about; that avant garde and Ikat are not incompatible after all; and that not all designers live in a glittery universe where good design sensibility is measured by Swarovski crystals.
Crystals definitely do not figure in Kolkata-based Mondal’s design consciousness. The show for his label, Marg, opened with an audio-visual presentation on khadi and the weavers who produce it. On each seat was a booklet written and designed by Mondal in the form of a diary-cum-sketchbook, recounting the backstory of the collection. Bright swatches of khadi fluttered from the pages filled with Mondal’s sketches and doodles of the charkha. There was also a brief write-up on the importance of khadi, black and white pictures of weavers and cut-outs of his jewel-coloured collection. “I used bright, solid colours to show that khadi is not always dull, brown or grey,” he says.
The 29-year-old has been working with weavers since he started designing eight years ago. His base in Kolkata puts him in easy proximity to Nadia district, the handloom hub of Bengal. He first visited Phulia in 1999 with designer Rahul Gupta, whom he was interning with at the time. These days, Mondal makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive three to four times a month to maintain his relationship with the weavers. He has contracts with owners of 75 looms in Phulia, which produce cloth just for him. His casual A-line dresses, shorts and tops are far from most people’s idea of designer threads, but make for fun, easy-to-wear daily dressing.
It was geography again that decided the current obsessions of Samant Chauhan as well as Ashish and Viral Parikh and Vikrant Mehta of the Ahmedabad-based label Virtues.
Chauhan, 28, who is from Bihar, was not too thrilled when, as a design student at Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in 2004, he was asked to work on a project that involved tracing how silk was collected and woven. Chauhan, who had grown up in Bhagalpur, India’s “Silk City”, could see nothing special about a fabric he had been around all his life.
His impressions changed when he started work on the project. “I saw how skilled the weaver needs to be to work with this uneven yarn and how no two swatches ever look alike. It was fascinating to interact with the farmers involved with sericulture in the region. Four months of working with the weavers convinced me that every single yard of fabric was a masterpiece in itself,” says Chauhan, sitting on a magenta mattress in his somewhat dishevelled studio in Shahpur Jat, Delhi.
The creators of Virtues, too, found inspiration in their neighbourhood. “We live in the Manchester or the textile capital of India. Here, in every corner you will find people who know so much about different textiles and weaves. That set us thinking and we decided to incorporate the Indian textile heritage in our garments,” says Ashish Parikh, 35. His wife Viral, 34, a Nift Gandhinagar graduate, and model Vikrant Mehta, 32, entered into a partnership in 2005 and showed their first collection at Wills India Fashion Week (WIFW) in Delhi a year later. “Since it was Fall Winter time, we decided to work with Tussar silk and Banarasi brocade. The idea was to present a contemporary collection of jackets and tunics rooted in Indian traditional weaves. Some of the best pieces that we did that year were Kedia jackets,” says Viral. Kedia is the flared, frock-like short tunic with a tight bodice worn by men in rural Gujarat and Rajasthan.
For subsequent collections, they explored Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh—not on Tussar silk but on Mashru, a type of handloom weave where the top yarn is silk and the lower one cotton. For WIFW Spring Summer 2009, they used Kota Doria from Rajasthan because they wanted a light, transparent fabric. “Our major focus has been to portray the beauty of these fabrics through our clothes. We don’t want the weaver to change what they do but like to enhance the beauty of the fabric and our garment by adding another print or embroidery,” says Viral.
For Chauhan, however, “the beauty of Bhagalpuri silk is in the fabric’s texture. I don’t believe in drowning that beauty with sequins or other embellishments.” So inspired was he with the silk that he decided to use it for his first collection at the Singapore Fashion Week where he was invited in October 2005. Textures were the key elements of this collection and Chauhan produced a menswear line complete with jackets, long coats and men’s bags in earthy tones such as brown and beige, with no embellishments or embroidery.
Thirty-year-old Rahul Mishra also treats his fabrics with this same near-reverence. “These age-old crafts are bigger than individuals. I’m more than happy to let the textiles dictate how I construct my garments,” he says.
Cutting edge: Rahul Mishra crafted the garments so that tension is on the neck and seams, not the fabric. Rahul Mishra
He says that the best way to increase interest in a craft is to show contemporary uses for it. Each season, he picks a new textile—from Kerala’s stark white cotton handloom cloth with rich zari or coloured borders to Bandhani from Bhuj, Chikankari from Lucknow and Mashru and Bhagalpuri silk from Bihar.
His Kerala collection, with which he debuted at the Lakme Fashion Week in 2006, was such a hit with Indian and international buyers that he still gets orders for it. Mishra tries to find innovative ways to cut and drape—the Kerala cotton was transformed into reversible, two-way dresses; he used Chikankari and Mashru to craft dresses that had no seams or darts but fit like a second skin. His Spring Summer show at LFW in October put the spotlight on the Maheshwari handloom—a transparent fabric woven in geometric patterns and adorned with gold and silver. While working with the gossamer textile, he realized how fragile it was and had to modify his garments to give them strength and longevity.
In his central Mumbai workshop, Mishra pulls at the seams to demonstrate to us that when stretched, there is no tension on the fabric, only on the thread. He used Banarasi organza to make corded dégradé neck and sleeves, to absorb the strain that would otherwise act on the fabric. “It’s a big responsibility to work with handmade fabrics. I have to make sure I showcase every fabric I use in the best way.”
New Delhi-based duo Aneeth Arora, 25, and Chinar Farooqui, 30, of Gaba, are also seasonal textile swappers. The textile design graduates from the National Institute of Design presented a cotton khadi collection at the latest LFW. The line before that was a checked Chanderi cotton-silk that the duo had had specially woven for them in Madhya Pradesh. Their layered, minimally embellished dresses and skirts in red, mustard blue and green, worn with checked Gamchas (neck scarves), got more reactions from international buyers. “We took khadi as a challenge. We wanted to get people to look at it positively,” says Arora. “International buyers react to khadi quite well.”
So do younger Indian buyers, says veteran designer Ritu Kumar. Two years ago, she says, only 2% of her ready-to-wear line, Label, comprised of handloom fabrics. “Today, it’s 25%.” Currently, she is experimenting with organic cotton from the Andhra Pradesh belt—she intends to retain the natural off-white colour. “If woven on a handloom, it becomes a handicraft item. The non-standardization adds to the appeal,” Kumar says.
Khadi was one of the fabrics that brought together designers Rohit Kamra, Aruna Singh and Swati Uberoi, all in their 30s, to create Woven Gold, a collective that promotes Rajasthani village crafts. The three designers visit weavers who mainly produce cotton and woollen khadi and Kota Doria in remote areas of the state and help them develop new weaves and dyes.
Kamra says they liaise mostly with the region heads, and estimates that the organization has impacted 7,000-10,000 weavers. “We help them produce good, lasting fabrics. Not like the khadi and handloom from older times which were always sold at a discount,” says Kamra. Woven Gold also helps other designers source and buy the fabrics.
Sangita Singh Kathiwada, the founder and owner of fashion store Mélange, has been promoting traditional textiles and Indian crafts since she set up her Mumbai-based store 15 years ago. She is passionate about the fact that designers who use crafts should not compromise and make do with cheaper varieties. “We try and compete with global experts in the global arena on their strengths. We should use ours; they can never have the craftspeople we have,” she says.
Despite the level of skill, there are some problems when it comes to using handloom, and designers must make their peace with them. Handloom cloth is typically four times more expensive than fabric created on a power loom. “A Kerala sari can be made on a powerloom in 5 hours and it costs Rs250. The same sari on a handloom costs Rs850, because it takes two-and-a-half days to create,” says Mishra. His clothes retail between Rs5,000 and Rs15,000.
Tahiliani Parekh says the price of garments made from handloom cloth end up being priced the same as those created from commercial fabrics such as chiffon, because typically, the designers try not to hide the fabric under much embroidery or embellishments. Chauhan’s dresses and tops, which combine chiffon and georgette with Bhagalpuri silk are priced from Rs7,000-Rs12,000, while his silk jackets for men sell between Rs8,000 and Rs25,000.
Mishra says that a long gestation period is also something he is resigned to. Buyers wanted to get their hands on his LFW collection immediately after he showed it in October. “But it will take two months for the weavers to make enough fabric for me to start production,” he explains.
Patience is a key requirement. Mondal says he would never be able to work with handloom cloth if he went to the weavers’ village “like a tourist”—for a short while to place the order—and then kept calling them to ask how much they had progressed. “I have spent a lot of time with them and set up a system. You have to try and gel with their way of thinking,” he adds.
Out of the 30-odd pieces in Chauhan’s show at WIFW last month, 12 were made completely with Bhagalpur silk, while about 10 (mostly dresses) were blended with what Chauhan calls “commercial fabrics” such as chiffon and georgette. “I have found that Indian women hesitate to buy garments made from this silk alone because they feel it does not fall very well. Plus silk is normally associated with winter wear and so they tend to resist buying garments just made with silk,” he says.
Mishra’s got a long list of positives. “Different textiles make my designs not seem repetitive. I can control quantity—I only need to buy a minimum of 50m from weavers, while I need to buy a minimum of 1,000m of powerloom cloth. So that automatically gives exclusivity,” he says. And using it satisfies his philosophy of taking rural areas and villages along in economic development.
Chauhan says that the uniqueness of working with his fabric of choice is that no two garments can ever look exactly the same. “Each will be different in texture and colour. In fact, part of the designing process includes working with the weavers at the weaving stage itself to get the pattern of the fabric just the way you want it.” To ensure that nothing went wrong with his first collection, Chauhan stayed in Bhagalpur for a few months, working on the weaves as well as the silhouettes.
“I will continue working with Bhagalpuri silk because I believe awareness will come eventually. I cannot give up because then there is nothing distinguishing my work from others. In fact, using this raw, textured silk has helped to market my designs better.” He also says that by using this fabric, he is working toward keeping at least one of the crafts traditions of Bihar alive. “My state is known only for three crafts—Madhubani paintings, Kantha work and Bhagalpuri silk. I want to work with all three so that, in years to come, these don’t become dying art forms.”