Cassandra Harper’s Ikat designs.
Cassandra Harper’s Ikat designs.

Indian artistry meets Aussie aesthetics

A showcase of Australian designers at the Lotus Makeup India Fashion Week explores new avenues for Indian crafts

Australian designer Cassandra Harper, who runs her eponymous label from Brisbane, has been working with Indian weavers and artisans for 20 years. “I come to India every year, if not twice a year, to work with hand-block printers in Jaipur, Jamdani and handloom weavers in West Bengal, and in Delhi with some talented artisans on Shibori and beading," she says. This year, for Harper turned her attention to Telangana, working with the region’s skilled Ikat weaving clusters. The result of the collaboration—a capsule collection of dresses and separates dominated by Ikat motifs in blue, grey and white—was showcased by models on the opening day of the Lotus Makeup India Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2019 edition.

Harper’s collection was part of a showcase of five Australian labels curated by Artisans of Fashion, a Sydney-based social enterprise that aims to support and provide means of employment for village artisans in India. All five designers have collaborated with Indian crafts clusters to create capsule collections blending cultural and sartorial sensibilities. Presented in association with the ministry of textiles, the showcase was the outcome of the MoU (memorandum of understanding) between the two countries that was signed at “Textiles India 2017"in Gandhinagar. Along with Harper, the other labels were Romance Was Born, a label by designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales, We Are Kindred founded by Sydney-based sisters Lizzie and Georgie Renkert, menswear label Brother’s Earth and ROOPA, India-born designer Roopa Pemmaraju’s label.

For Harinder Sidhu, the Australian high commissioner to India, the show has been a dream three years in the making. “We have seen a succession of Indian designers use, for example, Australian wool and win international prizes. And we thought why don’t we reverse that," she said after the show. “India has such fantastic textiles—what if we were to build a collaboration with Australian designers and create an Australian aesthetic around Indian textiles. That’s what we have done tonight," says Sidhu.

The result of the collaboration was a varied showcase. Pemmaraju, working with Phulia’s weaving clusters, created asymmetrical and ruffled silk ensembles, the handloom fabrics layered with embroidery and beading. Varanasi weavers collaborated with We Are Kindred and Romance Was Born, but with different results—the former showcased blush-hued ladylike dresses and separates while the latter infused the fabrics with a kitschy aesthetic, adding multicoloured embellishments and fringe detailing on brocade and denim.

Brother’s Earth presented the only menswear collection, a capsule of indigo-dyed garments developed in collaboration with Puducherry-based designer Naushad Ali. Peter Naughton, the brand’s founder came across Ali’s store when he was visiting Puducherry and began a discussion with the designer. Indigo was a common area of interest for both designers, and they created shirts and shorts with tie-dye detailing, indigo separates layered with checked shirts and textured overlayers.

Retail possibilities for the garments are still preliminary, and the aim of the presentation had more to do with the showcase of Indian craftsmanship whose demand, according to Caroline Poiner, founder and creative director of Artisans of Fashion and curator of the show, is globally on the rise. “There’s such a demand because of sustainability and slow fashion," she says . “Handlooms is something I really promote—it’s the ultimate in sustainability. The carbon footprint is minimal, but most of all you are contributing to community and giving weavers an opportunity to be at the forefront and recognize the work they do." Poiner hopes to promote the designs in Australia and launch them for sale in the coming months.

The showcase is part of Australian Fest, a six-month-long promotion of cultural events and experiences in India. Sidhu is optimistic that these collaborations will be a means of creating a long-term economic outcome for the artisan community and also pave the way for new creative opportunities for the two countries. “One of the things we are trying to do is (create a) collaborative culture. What we have seen tonight is how you can create a cultural product with Australia and India as equal partners," she said. “These textiles that have been created are going to be very unusual. I am hopeful that the groups we have brought together for the first time won’t be the last time they work together."

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