Sometimes a designer’s success can be traced back to a single instance—a path-breaking collection, a fruitful collaboration, a prestigious award. For legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld, it was the third.
“When the inevitable Karl Lagerfeld biopic is made, its narrative will peak first in 1954—the year his extraordinary life in fashion really began," writes British Vogue. “The rest is history."
What was this milestone event? It was the International Woolmark Prize, the global competition that two Indian labels, Bodice by Ruchika Sachdeva and Antar-Agni by Ujjawal Dubey, both 29, now find themselves finalists of. As winners of the womenswear and menswear categories, respectively, for the India, Pakistan & Middle East region announced on 25 July in Dubai, they will each compete in January with five other finalists from the regions of US, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and the British Isles.
In addition to changing the course of Lagerfeld’s career (as well as that of Yves Saint Laurent, who also won an award at the competition that same year), the prize has changed destinies closer home, with Suket Dhir winning for menswear in 2016 and Rahul Mishra for womenswear in 2014. Mishra’s win earned him a spot on the Paris Fashion Week calendar, a major coup for any designer, where he has been a fixture since his spring/summer 2015 show.
What is it about the prize that brings with it the power to send a designer’s career trajectory skyrocketing? Awarded by the Australia-based authority Woolmark, which launched the competition in the 1950s in an effort to counter the popularity of synthetic fibres, it encourages young designers from around the world to showcase their skills and innovation using Merino wool. The contest is judged by the world’s most prominent fashion, design and retail minds. The winners receive not only global press, but the opportunity to sell their winning collections in the world’s best boutiques and department stores—the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Harvey Nichols in London and 10 Corso Como in Milan—as well as prize money and mentorship from industry veterans. Given the stakes, suffice it to say that making it to the finals is no easy feat.
“Both Bodice and Antar-Agni represented a global-local aesthetic that was very powerful," says Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India and one of the judges of the regional competition. “The fact that they love wool, and felt at home working with the fabric in a masterful yet understated way, made their entries winning ones."
Sachdeva and Dubey, both based in New Delhi, have built a reputation for themselves as designers who rebel against the status quo, the former with her androgynous, pared-down approach to womenswear, and the latter with his experiments with drape, form and silhouette. So it’s no surprise that the one quality they both highlight in the other is authenticity.
“She has a strong aesthetic," Dubey says of Sachdeva. “She’s made a signature for herself with her play of fabrics, colours and contrasts, and always stays true to it."
Bodice, which Sachdeva launched in 2011, is built on the notion of restrained elegance. “It’s very important to me that my clothes look effortless," she says. “But when you start to look deeper, you see there are so many layers to them."
The look she created for the Woolmark regional contest—a pleated dress, structured scarf and jacket over slim trousers—is evidence of those multiple layers at work. Take the striped scarf for example. In order to bring a human element to stripes, typically done by machine, she worked with a third-generation-run handloom facility in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh.
“We were literally lifting threads by hand on the loom to insert more wefts," she explains. “We inserted threads depending on where we wanted it to be dense or not so dense. By the end we had created a geometric pattern without any scales or measurements, and we had a fabric where no two lines were the same."
This depth of skill and commitment to detail is a familiar Bodice refrain, which is why the fact that her final look was crafted out of three different kinds of fabric—the aforementioned handspun Merino wool, a light and breathable machine-made Merino wool and a paper yarn that “feels kind of like linen"—doesn’t come as much of a surprise. “I like to play with texture more than decoration," she admits.
The simplicity of Sachdeva’s work belies its technical mastery and elegant construction, and her inspirations, too, are loaded with subtext worth delving into.
“For this look I was influenced by the costumes of 18th century dancers in the Indian royal court known as ‘nautch girls’," she explains. “I was inspired by how beautifully and freely they moved, the comfort of it. It resonated with the Bodice philosophy. And since I’ve always been fascinated with opposites, I wanted to contrast that movement with menswear tailoring. I was also inspired by two Indian artists—Tyeb Mehta, whose voluptuous abstract forms in different blocks of colour led to the colour-blocking in the look, and Nasreen Mohamedi, whose monochromatic work influenced the straight lines and linear geometry of my design. These are both artists who rejected stereotypes and embraced individuality. And that’s what I want my work to stand for—individuality."
This strong sense of self is what she values in other designers’ work as well. Of Dubey, she says: “He isn’t trying to be somebody else. He stays true to himself and I think the jury was looking for that—looking for a true expression of creativity."
At a time when menswear in India is relegated largely to excessively embellished and stylized wedding wear, Dubey’s is a quiet but progressive voice. His debut in 2014 at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Gen Next showcase—a confident subversion of sartorial norms via unexpected layering and draping—had every fashion editor filing him away in the “one to watch" category.
“We’ve been pushing for a departure from conventional menswear through our drapes, cuts and layers," he says. “Men have always been sceptical about the thought of additional drama on their outfits but we’ve tried to find the balance… there’s drama but it’s subtle."
While the avant-garde silhouettes bring the drama, his muted colour palette, use of natural fibres and distaste for surface ornamentation is where the subtlety comes into play. For his winning Woolmark look, a woven twill salwar-kurta set with a deftly draped layer around one shoulder, Dubey looked to the nomadic tribes of India for inspiration.
“But I didn’t want to pick up literal elements—colours, stripes, local motifs," he explains. “I wanted to get into the feel of their surroundings, the environment, the simplicity of their life. They spend their time under the sky, sleeping under the stars. So that led me to tinted shades of blue and grey. To interpret constellations in the night sky, we introduced zari into the fabric, which gave it a subtle shimmer."
Dubey’s approach to menswear is refreshing, but how does it read outside an Indian context?
“The judges asked me that too," says Dubey. “What I told them is that the soul of my brand might be Indian but the look is international. My overall aesthetic is Eastern inclined, which includes Japan and China, not just India. Japanese design, for example, is known for its cuts and layers, but it has global appeal." It’s what Rick Owens’ and Yohji Yamamato’s cult labels are built on, he adds.
One thing is certain: When it comes to their design philosophy, both Sachdeva and Dubey are unflinchingly clear. It’s exciting to see their vision of contemporary India through the lens of fashion, a vision that proves how truly international a home-grown label can be.
■She interned with renowned British designers Vivienne Westwood and Giles Deacon.
■Her love for tailoring stems from the Savile Row obsession, born while she was studying at the London College of Fashion.
■She represented India at the 2016 International Fashion Showcase organized by the British Council and British Fashion Council.
■He is fascinated by architecture and structural design—think buildings, bridges, and automobile suspensions and hydraulics—and once wanted to be an engineer.
■He worked with design duo Shantanu & Nikhil for over three years before launching his own label.
■His first collection in 2014 was inspired by Afghanistan’s raw landscape, as depicted in The Kite Runner.