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“I think I was Japanese in my last birth," says Kiran Uttam Ghosh. The Kolkata-based designer may make embroidered wedding garments, but she will continue to be recognized as the Indian designer who creates “pleats". Metallic silvers, old gold, bold blacks, fluorescent greens, all pleated, fussily unfinished, form-defying garments, saris and wraps that feed her design soul.

A gold pleated wrap ensemble from Kiran Uttam Ghosh’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection.
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A gold pleated wrap ensemble from Kiran Uttam Ghosh’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection.

India’s Japanese connect began with our designers introducing interventions in Ikat weaving and Shibori. The Japanese influence on local fashion first became visible when Indian designers began to look at Ikat (also a weaving technique practised in Japan) in a modern way. Instead of ethnic patterns, they started creating a stark, minimalist weaving vocabulary for weavers. Something similar happened with Shibori, a tie-and-dye technique practised in Japan and in Kutch in India. Guided by craft exponents and designers keen on form and finesse, rural artisans learnt to tweak the use of riotous traditional colours for a more sophisticated palette and focus on the fine details of the craft.

A textile painting from Neha Puri Dhir’s exhibition Amoolya.
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A textile painting from Neha Puri Dhir’s exhibition Amoolya.

With modern luxury wear defined increasingly by the absence of clutter and a shifting focus towards fabric and material over decorative prettiness, a search for the finer movements in our fashion industry and the influences behind them inevitably leads to Japan.

“The Japanese approach of Wabi-Sabi (the acceptance of transience and imperfection) moves me; I deliberately employ it. It doesn’t allow me to repeat anything," says Dhir. Her exhibition, Amoolya, at New Delhi’s India International Centre in August made a riveting case for Japanese Shibori (she had also employed techniques like Bandhej from India and Adire from Nigeria in her work).

Dhir works with basic geometric shapes and grids and uses the stitch-resist technique to make subtle perforations on fabric to create textured canvases. Ghosh, on the other hand, started her fashion career two decades back with her label Kimono, and still uses the name on her hang-tags and letterheads. Her pleated saris, she says, are her top sellers across all collections.

Arora recreated antique Japanese woven fabrics called Boro for her Autumn/Winter 2011 range. Photo: Aneeth Arora
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Arora recreated antique Japanese woven fabrics called Boro for her Autumn/Winter 2011 range. Photo: Aneeth Arora

Rahul Mishra’s first collection for the Paris Fashion Week last year used patterns from katagami, the Japanese craft of making paper stencils for textile dyeing. “I have always been inspired by the technology-meets-art-meets-science aspect of Japanese design, infused so strongly with minimalism," says Mishra.

Aneeth Arora—who says the whole approach of her label péro is minimalist and represents her reverence for Wabi-Sabi—recreated Boro textiles, the antique Japanese woven fabrics, for her Autumn/Winter collection in 2011.

“The tiny note with my label says ‘irregularities are a part of the textile,’" says Arora, adding that she loves “incompleteness" in her design. Her first collection in 2010 had grey, black and white colours. Later she used indigo—the blue vegetable dye. While the indigo plant is grown and used in India, Arora says her work is about catching cultural techniques from different parts of the world.

Aneeth Arora upcycles vintage garments with sophisticated repairs using the Japanese philosophy of Kintsukuroi. Photo courtesy Aneeth Arora
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Aneeth Arora upcycles vintage garments with sophisticated repairs using the Japanese philosophy of Kintsukuroi. Photo courtesy Aneeth Arora

Then there is Swati Kalsi, a New Delhi-based textile artist who imaginatively interprets Bihar’s Sujani embroidery and creates one of a kind, anti-fit garments and installation-like wearable art.

Kalsi says she went through a phase of reading spiritual and philosophical works and learnt to look at things the Japanese way. “Now, the more I juxtapose Indian philosophy and history from the point of view of lifestyle and costumes, I see immense similarities with the Japanese; like flat patterns, anti-fit costumes, materials, colours, processes, etc.," says Kalsi, an admirer of Miyake and Jurgen Lehl, a Japan-based German designer who died recently. She believes that the global market for “understated" fashion is growing.

Instances pile up. Designer Rimzim Dadu is not consciously inspired by Japan but agrees that she likes to play with the form of a fabric instead of following its normative structure, quite like the Japanese.

For her Spring/Summer 2014 collection, Dadu deconstructed chiffon by twisting and turning strips of the fabric into fine cords. “These cords were then sewn together on a paper base. The paper base was then removed, leaving the cords looking sewn to each other without support," she says. The result is a wonderful instance of formlessness. Earlier, Dadu had created lovely three-dimensional origami patterns for a collection.

Designer duo Pankaj and Nidhi too confess that they keep returning to Japan for inspiration. Not only is their logo emblematically derived from Japanese flowers, they also presented two collections with Japanese themes. For Autumn/Winter 2010, they made Autumn Of The Samurai, drawing from 18th century armour. The clothes had interlaced material hand-pieced together with a complex weaving technique to create slick, knit dresses with weave patterns. The next year, they created Sashiko for Autumn/Winter 2011, exploring sashiko no donza, the intricately quilted and embroidered coats worn by Japanese fishermen. “It is a magical running stitch technique, much like our Kantha," says Nidhi.

From Payal Pratap’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection Winter Blossom, inspired by the Japanese kimono.
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From Payal Pratap’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection Winter Blossom, inspired by the Japanese kimono.

Gaurav Gupta, who admits that subliminally he is influenced by the balance and rhythm of Japanese design, is a big fan of Rei Kawakubo, the founder of avant garde Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons. Amit Aggarwal, who creates strong modernistic garments mixing luxe fabrics with industrial materials like malleable silicone, rubber or glass, says that a designer like Kawakubo is one of the most inspiring fashion stories—someone with absolutely no formal study of fashion but with a great understanding of creativity.

“Understanding deconstruction after one has understood construction is like knowing the rules of a game, mastering them to know how to break them. That shaped me while I was still malleable," says Aggarwal.

These may be just a few of the many designers exploring Japanese inspirations in fashion.

On the face of it, Indian fashion looks terribly warped in its decorative impulses. Wedding fashion is the assumed Pied Piper of this procession. The reality—especially in prêt—isn’t so sequin-studded, simplistic or limited. Some may say that only a bunch of commercially unsure, avant garde designers give expression to Japanese design, but that argument only does Indian fashion’s depth and dimension a disservice.

Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore would agree. Way back in the early 1980s, he designed hand-painted fabrics inspired by the temple hangings of south India for Issey Miyake. These exceptional Kalamkari-like textiles were featured in Time magazine as part of a cover story on Miyake. “A circular tablecloth made from the fabric had been converted into a skirt by Issey," remembers Thakore. He adds that people starting streaming into Poompuhar, the Tamil Nadu government state emporium, to ask for them.

Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore with textile artist Swati Kalsi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore with textile artist Swati Kalsi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“Asha’s products had a hand-feel to them and that minimalist vocabulary is also visible in the Calico Museum (of textiles)," says Thakore. “Yet a design team came from Japan to tweak products for the Issey Miyake studio—looking at the collaboration from the Japanese market perspective."

In 2002, for the Washington-based Smithsonian Institute’s festival exhibition, Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust, Sethi created the Great Gate of Nara in Japan with bamboo and textiles and suspended noren fabric (traditional Japanese fabric dividers between walls or rooms).

“We have an overarching tendency to only look at the West. But if modernism was essentially a 50% Western idea, the minimalism we argue about as a part of it essentially comes from Japan," says art and textile curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul, who is currently working on a Japan-inspired show that investigates the relationship between India and Japan.

From Japanese influences in Puducherry’s architecture and aesthetic to the finest Jamdani work at Kolkata’s Weavers Studio, the pristine design of Byloom, a clothing store there, the way Yoshiko Wada’s ideas transformed Bandhini techniques in Kutch, or the white -on-white embroideries of Lucknow, Kaul cites many instances to make the case for the continuing influence of Japanese design.

Mishra is in talks to create a large collection for Isetan—the chain of Japanese stores which has branches in many Asian countries. His Autumn/Winter 2015 collection, to be shown at the Paris Fashion Week later this year, will also use a Japanese technique of resist-dyeing called tsutsugaki.

Something must be said about the black and white handwoven Ikat, and Abraham & Thakore’s contribution to turning it into a veritable flag for modernized Indian textiles. Against the maroon-turmeric-red-black-white palette of ethnic Ikat popular during the crafts movement of the 1980s, the duo’s stark, contemporary black and white Ikat patterns on saris and fabrics brought a Japanese sensibility to Indian design. “Ikat is an Indian vocabulary and while there is no conscious Japanese influence on our sensibilities, we both do believe in purity in our way of thinking. The construction of a beautiful fabric into a simple garment is the final product for us," says Thakore.

On the other hand, textile conservationist Neeru Kumar’s long held and commercially buoyant association with Japanese designer Chiaki Maki is another milestone in this tale. Kumar, who began to take handwoven Tussar to Japan in the 1980s for exhibition-sales, would evolve, with Maki, a design vocabulary for dhurries, rugs, fine shawls, home décor products and fashion pieces for the Japanese market. That collaboration continues till today.

Because of its commercial promise, there is more to this “beautifully imperfect" journey of cherry blossoms, tea leaves and white space. Neeru Kumar has for long spoken of the appreciation she gets in the Japanese market, Abraham & Thakore remain one of the most recognized fashion and design labels in Japan. Aneeth Arora says that her work is admired most by Japanese clients.

The most important aspect that Indian design and fashion could imbibe from Japan is, as Sethi says, “a measure of restraint and the art of packaging". Japanese-like Indian fashion is clearly a part of India’s growing global fashion vocabulary—Kaul calls it “the participation of India in a universal project".

Understanding these alternative impulses in local design is also a way to tap commercially viable fashion with growing awareness for logo-less and quiet luxury.

The soaring success of Japanese fashion and design labels like Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, lifestyle store Muji and, most importantly, the couturier Hanae Mori, is not just a good “Asian" narrative. Individually, as designer-artists and trend-setters, and collectively as an influence, they introduced an alternative fashion system based on anti-fit, art as fashion and seamless design in Paris, for long known as the world’s fashion capital, creating nothing less than a revolution.

Surely Indian fashion, now assimilating cross-cultural tones, can also hope to do that.

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