Saturday evening in April. Delhi is scorched even past sunset, but within a farmhouse in the Capital’s Sultanpur neighbourhood, the mood is set for a springtime baithak inspired by the nawabs of Lucknow. White jasmine blossoms are strewn on the grounds and fairy lights strung across the venue, with guests, seated under mango trees, captivated by the music and dance. There are performances by Kathak dancers Shivani Varma and Aditi Mangaldas, followed by a sonorous thumri rendition by Pandit Channulal Mishra. At first glance, the event looks like a music recital but it is, in fact, a fashion party hosted in celebration of designer Sanjay Garg’s handloom sarees label Raw Mango’s 10th anniversary.

Designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango. Photo: Ashish Shah
Designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango. Photo: Ashish Shah

Cut to August 2017. Fashion insiders crowd the newly unveiled Royal Opera House in Mumbai where Garg is showing a new collection on the opening night of the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW). The heritage monument, built in 1911, is transformed into a theatrical runway, with the stage overhung by cloud-shaped installations (the collection was called Cloud People). An orchestra plays in the balcony. Models dressed in brocade and Chikankari glide slowly across the space, from the stage to the balcony aisles, allowing guests a close look at the ensembles.

These settings may seem unusual as fashion events, but then Garg is an unusual man.

Over recent years, a new fashion movement has steadily gained ground in India. Seasonal trends are being linked intrinsically with local, sustainable resources; handloom is being reinterpreted in contemporary designs; forgotten craft traditions are being revived; and the saree is being reclaimed as a bona-fide style statement.

And 37-year-old Garg, textile designer, music lover, avid cook and collector of antiques, is indisputably one of the brightest navigators of this new wave.

A few days before the baithak, we had met at Garg’s Delhi office, walking distance from his flagship store in Chhattarpur and not far from where the anniversary celebrations were held. His modest office occupies only a fraction of the expansive green compound, which is visited frequently by peacocks and monkeys. Cups of fragrant ginger tea are on offer, as are servings of foxnuts and a fried snack Garg tells me he has made himself. During our conversation, Garg flits breathlessly between an assortment of subjects—textiles, The Beatles, a documentary he had watched the night before, the Bishnoi community, development projects in the neighbourhood. But he keeps returning to the sprawling landscape around his workplace that reminds him of home. “I come from a village, I can’t really live (and work) in apartments. This was the closest I could get to my rural roots," he says.

Garg’s frequent recounting of his early life is not merely incidental to our conversation—it is the foundation on which he has built his distinctive approach to design and revivalism. Garg grew up in Mubarikpur, a village in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, surrounded by family. “Women in my village would wear short lehngas when they went to draw water at the well," he says, recounting one of his earliest trysts with beautiful handlooms. “I wanted to know why, and realized that they would change out of their long lehngas just to draw water from the well. Of course, they had to be dressed well, and my grandmother would wear a brocade lehnga, a rare sight around our village, where embroidery was the norm." In Garg’s memories of childhood, local textiles have a constant presence. To a keen watcher, it is clear that his design practice has been an attempt to distil those stories into the warp and weft of his fabrics.

I wanted women to relate to the sari. I wanted simplicity, yet provocation was also important to me, and I approached it by way of colour, imagery and display.- Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango

Sarees for the quinoa generation

How did Raw Mango, a handloom saree brand selling in Dilli Haat and Dastkar exhibitions, become one of India’s most coveted brands?

It was in 2006, during a textile project in Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, that Garg, a 2003 National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, found his calling for sarees. “I was always interested in handlooms," he says. “But working in Chanderi motivated me to think more deeply on the subject—why was handloom in such crisis, why didn’t women want to wear sarees any more, and why was there this great divide between fashion and craft?"

To be fair, sarees have never been absent from fashion in India—come Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter, there’s always a saree on the Indian runway. While festive and bridal lines always feature opulent iterations, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is an unabashed promoter of the six yards in all forms, elevating heritage Banarasis and Kanjeevarams with his signature embellishments. Designers Tarun Tahiliani, Gaurav Gupta, and, more recently, Rashmi Varma have added conceptual flair to the garment, with innovations like the pre-stitched saree and saree gown. Think of a quintessentially Indian costume, and the answer is always a saree. Yet, there have been growing concerns over the years that the garment may be going the way of the kimono, restricted to ceremonial occasions like weddings and festivities or worn exclusively by older women. Many of the traditional ways of draping, from different parts of the country, have fallen into disuse in recent decades and many women will admit that they are unable to wear a saree without assistance. During the Harvard India Conference in February, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee drew widespread criticism when he responded to a question about the difficulties of wearing a saree by saying that the garment was a part of Indian culture and women who didn’t know how to wear it ought to be ashamed. He later apologized for his choice of words, but added that sarees—and, in turn, their wearers—were often belittled.

Sarees have never been absent from fashion in India. Photo: Kumar/Mint
Sarees have never been absent from fashion in India. Photo: Kumar/Mint

The saree seemed to be weighed down by its own heritage. It was timeless yet not functional—or stylish—enough to make a fashion statement. When Raw Mango emerged in 2008, it instantly filled a vacuum, introducing a new sartorial vocabulary. In bright hues and rich textures, these sarees were the desi equivalent of Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking tuxedo suits. The French couturier’s feminine take on the classic masculine design pioneered a movement towards androgynous silhouettes and power suits for women. Raw Mango transformed the saree into a power move that made Indian women sit up and take notice. “I wanted women to relate to the sari. I wanted simplicity, yet provocation was also important to me, and I approached it by way of colour, imagery and display," says Garg of his visual language.

His choice of colours was intense—rani (hot pink), gulabi (light pink), totaiyi (parrot green) and lime, distinguishing the designs from conventional handloom emporium saris. But the deal clincher was the label’s lookbooks. I remember coming across Raw Mango’s first photographs on social media around 2010. Almost documentary in setting, they showed women (not models) of all ages, shapes and sizes, and devoid of make-up, posing in hallways, bathrooms and rooftops. Their saris, crushed and imperfectly draped, made an instant connection.

From the Raw Mango collection: Chheent (2011) bright saris and printed petticoats.
From the Raw Mango collection: Chheent (2011) bright saris and printed petticoats.

“Sanjay is often credited with reviving the sari but what he really revived was an interest, primarily through his image-making," says Delhi-based brand consultant Meher Varma. Garg’s appeal is one of the subjects of Varma’s PhD dissertation, Making Design On Fashion: Producing Contemporary Indian Aesthetics (UCLA, 2015), which addresses how Raw Mango became popular among socialites and brides. “He taps into certain pre-liberalization values, appealing to people who don’t want to be seen wearing their money."

A designer’s success in this country is often based on which Bollywood celebrities are spotted in the label. Garg performs spectacularly on that front—Deepika Padukone wore a Raw Mango sari during the promotions of her movie Padmaavat and Anushka Sharma included a Sanjay Garg design in her wedding trousseau. Director Kiran Rao is a perennial Raw Mango fan while Nandita Das wore the label to the Cannes 2018 red carpet. But his popularity goes beyond the obvious, appealing to corporate leaders, philanthropists and artists. In May, four members of the Mumbai-based charitable organization Myna Mahila Foundation (MMF) wore Raw Mango saris to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “My family in Delhi often told me about Raw Mango and their humble beginnings and the work really resonated with the kind of grass-roots-level work we do ourselves," says Mumbai-based Suhani Jalota, founder of the organization, who wore a peach organza sari designed by Garg to the wedding.

He (Sanjay Garg) taps into certain pre-liberalization values, appealing to people who don’t want to be seen wearing their money- Delhi-based fashion consultant Meher Varma

Over the years, Raw Mango has developed a clientele of accomplished women from all walks of life who don’t just wear the label but are happy to endorse it too. The list includes Chiki Sarkar, founder of Juggernaut Books, product designer Lekha Washington, JWT India’s chief strategy officer Bindu Sethi, and journalist Gayatri Rangachari Shah, among countless others. As Anita Lal, founder of Good Earth, one of the first spaces to stock Raw Mango back in 2009, says: “Sanjay brought the sari back (in fashion). Everyone wants to wear the sari now, and it’s because he is a man of great courage who took it upon himself to break the norm."

Handloom is the new black

The Indian fashion scene today abounds in fresh sensibilities. In Mumbai, Anavila Mishra crafts dresses from Bengal Jamdani and saris from linen while Payal Khandwala innovates with reversible sarees and pairs brocade with neoprene. Ahmedabad-based designer Aratrik Dev Varman drapes traditional Tripura textiles into resort-wear for his label Tilla. Aneeth Arora, founder of the Delhi-based label péro, has been a long-time advocate of handlooms, sourcing woven wool from Himachal Pradesh and Khadi and cotton silks from West Bengal, while another designer from the city, Rahul Mishra, collaborates with Indian artisans to create intricately embroidered garments that are showcased on the Paris Fashion Week runway. The trend has been boosted further by industry initiatives. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) collaborates with the Khadi & Village Industries Commission to promote handwoven fabrics, while the LFW is dedicated to showcasing local textiles every season.

2014 Sanjay Garg Festive: Brocade dress in signature gilded gold.
2014 Sanjay Garg Festive: Brocade dress in signature gilded gold.

In this new ecosystem, where the idea of fashion is woven with that of handloom revival, Raw Mango and Garg’s other label, Sanjay Garg, have been a catalysing force. He has sold over 70,000 sarees and a few hundred thousand designs overall, for his labels. Apart from 120 people in city offices, the brand employs 1,500 weavers and other workers at 500 looms across India. In 2008, Raw Mango’s annual turnover was 90,000. It crossed 10 crore in 2012-13, and, according to Garg’s team, has increased multiple-fold since (the latest figures were not made available).

In the early years, he was often known for popularizing the Chanderi. But, by 2011, Raw Mango had turned its attention to new fabrics and design interventions. Garg, who switches between Hindi and English in conversation, says, “I often wondered ki Chanderi tukke se toh nahin ho gaya (did it happen by chance?) or did I really have something to say?" He began working with mashru, cotton and sheer silks, experimented with metallic zari and digitally printed motifs, and surprised everyone—including himself, he says—by creating collections in pastels, navy and charcoal hues.

The big change came in 2014, when Garg launched his eponymous label. Though its aesthetic was similar to Raw Mango, this new label had few connections with the handloom saris Garg was known for. Showcasing a line of stitched Banarasi garments, it was also the year Garg stepped on to the runways for the first time.

There are a number of reasons for this, and it’s difficult to say whether Sanjay is one of the causes or one of the beneficiaries. But, certainly, his timeless yet incredibly stylish saris have become a brand that even trendy young yuppies were happy to be seen in- Laila Tyabji, founder of Dastkar, a Delhi-based society for crafts and craftspeople

Garg isn’t limited to the saree any more, but his designs are still rooted in tradition. “What is interesting is how he comes from a certain traditional framework and brings it into his work and contemporary life," says artist Sudarshan Shetty, who has been friends with Garg for a few years.

“There has been a growing revival of the handloom saree after some decades of it being regarded as boring behenji wear," says Laila Tyabji, founder of Dastkar, a Delhi-based society for crafts and craftspeople. “There are a number of reasons for this, and it’s difficult to say whether Sanjay is one of the causes or one of the beneficiaries. But, certainly, his timeless yet incredibly stylish saris have become a brand that even trendy young yuppies were happy to be seen in."

Today, Garg doesn’t just sell at trunk shows from Lucknow to London—his work is also displayed in museum spaces. In 2017, when The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York hosted Items: Is Fashion Modern?, an exhibition of the world’s most influential garments and accessories, curator Paola Antonelli chose a Raw Mango saree to feature along with iconic items like vintage little black dresses and Levi’s Strauss & Co. jeans.

Varma thinks Garg’s widespread success may also be one of his main challenges. “When I walk into a wedding today, there are at least 20 women wearing Raw Mango sarees," she says. “It’ll be interesting to see how he will continue to innovate, and keep his design sensibilities intact."

The Renaissance man

At our second meeting, Garg is ready with more cups of chai and some surprising details about where his brand is headed. First, he tells me of Raw Mango’s new collection of sarees, Grid, a line of summery Chanderis inspired by the line-based drawings of pioneering Indian abstract artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Fascinated by Mohamedi’s interpretation of lines and geometry, Garg imagined weaving itself as a geometric process. He says: “Every saree is a grid. You see a mogra or a curve woven on it, those too are patterns pixelated on the grid."

2017 Monkey Business: East-meets-West separates in brocade and cotton silk.
2017 Monkey Business: East-meets-West separates in brocade and cotton silk.

For Garg, fashion and design are in a constant state of interaction with society, from art to everyday experiences. According to Shetty, who first bonded with the designer over shared interests, it is this quality about Garg that makes him truly fascinating, “Sanjay is not restricted to fashion," he says. “His information comes from other interests, and he travels far beyond the confines of what fashion could be." From music to food and books to history, Garg’s aesthetics are deeply informed by other disciplines. His collection Monkey Business (2017) made the animal its main motif after he came across mentions of monkeys in a book he was reading. In Cloud People, which launched in stores this spring, he added the unusual motif of the devdoot, or angel, drawing from mythology and designs he came across on an old doorway.

But now Garg has his sights set on new directions, in a quest to expand his design acumen as well as the creative footprint of his labels. “Are you working on menswear?" I ask, given that he has recently launched Itoh Delhi, an up-and-coming menswear label by Amit Babbar, in his store. “Not really, I am hoping to work with new materials instead. Why do we have to restrain ourselves in fashion?"

What does he want to make? There’s a music album in the works and Garg also points to an antique on his table. “I want to make objects," he says, somewhat cryptically. “I like to imagine what a Raw Mango food or garden or toy or furniture would be like. I want my brand to embody a lived experience."

Raw Mango 2018 collection : Grid, Geometric summer Chanderi saris.
Raw Mango 2018 collection : Grid, Geometric summer Chanderi saris.

I wonder aloud if the designer is bored with making clothes, but Garg says handloom is never far from his mind. “Like the world looks to the West for fashion, they must look to us for the best in textiles in the future," he says. “We must support weavers, but, instead of worrying about the plight of crafts, we must encourage our children to engage in these crafts and create an ecosystem where a profession like weaving is lucrative."

Raw Mango is part of a wave that has reclaimed traditional handloom as a luxurious style statement. At prices ranging from 5,000 to 4.5 lakh (for saris and stitched garments), his designs can be more aspirational than affordable, but Garg is keen to find ways to make this luxury more accessible to India. He says: “There are many reasons why everyone can’t wear handlooms. If I could harness technology to make an improvement, I would make handlooms easier to wash and dry, lighter and cheaper too, without compromising on quality."

What is his vision for the next 10 years? Garg answers almost immediately. “I want us to have the best textile infrastructure and designers in the world."

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