At North East Mojo, a curated show of six designers from the North-East held on Day 2 of the recent Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) Summer/Resort in Mumbai, models walked down the ramp in chic silk kaftans, shift dresses, off-shoulder jumpsuits and sarongs, each with a swatch of striking, striped Tripuri textile. Aratrik Dev Varman, a designer from Tripura who is based in Ahmedabad, presented his label Tilla, translating the traditional Tripuri breast cloth into contemporary resort wear. Dev Varman works with riahs—fabrics that range in width from 9-16 inches and are woven on backstrap looms. “The breast cloth is an ancient sartorial tradition of Tripura. There could have been so many ways of reusing those, piecing several together, cutting them up, but I wanted to retain their authenticity. They are precious and are woven narrow. I wanted to work along that basic trait, instead of doing something radically different. This is Lakmé Fashion Week’s resort show, and you’ve got a resort look, with a breast cloth made in Tripura," said Varman in an interview after the show.

The region-specific focus at the LFW’s Sustainable Fashion Day, with a designer each from Meghalaya, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Assam made for perfect timing, given the focus on handlooms, sustainability and minimalism.

Daniel Syiem from Meghalaya showed an androgynous line called ShaKiLum, made of an Ahimsa silk fabric called Ryndia. It is extracted from cocoons without killing the silkworm, and handwoven by weavers from Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district. “With this collection, I wanted to inspire people to come to the hills," says Syiem on the phone. He has previously shown at the Couture Fashion Week in New York (2014) and London Fashion Week (2014), among other international showcases. His primarily off-white colour palette had shades of turmeric, green and pale red. Syiem’s talent, however, lies in the way he plays with structure and flow; with silhouettes that are cinched and pleated in places, layered and slashed in parts, while free-flowing on the whole. Not to miss spunky detailing like layered “quadruple collars" and giant drop shoulders.

Richana Khumanthem’s label Khumanthem, started in 2014, is made with handloom textiles by the Meitei community in Manipur. The ivory and khaki jumpsuits, lungis, trench coats and bell-sleeved tunics were sharply contrasted with slim black stoles with Meitei motifs. The collective identity of the designs—restrained colour palette, minimalism in pattern—lends itself to global appeal, while retaining confident evidence of the traditional.

(clockwise, from left) Richana Khumanthem’s creation, a runway piece by Aratrik Dev Varman, Daniel Syiem’s creation, An ensemble by Jenjum Gadi.
(clockwise, from left) Richana Khumanthem’s creation, a runway piece by Aratrik Dev Varman, Daniel Syiem’s creation, An ensemble by Jenjum Gadi.

In putting the spotlight on the North-East designer community, the LFW, held from 31 January-4 February, highlighted its distinct aesthetic and brought together stakeholders who can help support the local fashion and weaving industry. “We’re looking at a more developmental agenda rather than just conversations," Jaspreet Chandok, vice-president and head (fashion), IMG Reliance, said in a welcome note. IMG is roping in a host of partners—Fashion Revolution, a UK-based advocacy group, and the British Council—with the UN, which is part of this collaborative effort. Yuri Afanasiev, resident coordinator of the UN in India, told Lounge in a phone interview that “we are no authority on fashion but we have a strong grass-roots base in the North-East region".

The collaboration, “still at an embryonic stage", aims to study the sector and provide a strategy to develop the region’s fashion supply chain. Afanasiev points out the changing ways that support needs to be provided in growing economies. “Providing craftspeople stalls in the local market is not the answer any more. The answer today is really about integrating into modern supply chains. How do we fill the gap between beautiful craftsmanship, colours and patterns, and what the market demands? What do local producers need to be able to bridge that gap? How can designers and corporations help with issues like quality and quantity? Complying with export rules and regulations—that kind of advice is not available to the average Indian farmer, weaver or textile business owner. That’s where this partnership makes sense," he says. The UN is particularly focused on women’s developement, “because the labour participation of women in India is remarkably low at 27%, and actually has a declining trend which is not characteristic of big, vibrant economies that are growing at 7-8% a year."

At the same time, there are concerns about over-commercialization. “It’s an area of very fragile eco-systems. There are traditional crafts that can be sustainably developed instead of introducing some modern industry," says Afanasiev.

From a designer’s perspective, Dev Varman stresses the need to have “a light footprint" when working in the North-East. “There’s a responsibility in being a catalyst. You can go in and not be aware of the long-term consequences of your actions, because it can be very heady to create something new. Craft traditions are a way of life for certain people. These are fine minds, not just skilled labour. So, as designers, we must be sensitive to that," says Dev Varman.

When footballer Bhaichung Bhutia walked the ramp for Karma Sonam—a designer from Sikkim who presented her label, Kuzu—the cheers wouldn’t stop. At a post-show press conference, a shy, smiling Bhutia said: “People from the North-Eastern states have always been very stylish." The show was enough evidence of that.

Close