Most movements in current Indian fashion have something to do with Indian textiles. The pendulum swings from dialogues at global-local conferences, designers collaborating with weavers and showing at crafts exhibitions, inclusions to existing educational courses on Indian fashion, design interventions at weaving stages—like Rahul Mishra’s work mixing merino wool with Chanderi fabric that won him the International Woolmark Prize recently to totally textile-based collections by a clutch of designers.

In this ecosystem, Lakme Fashion Week’s (LFW) Indian Textile Day, now a regular ritual with shows, artistic presentations and debates fits neatly into the larger pursuit. The Ministry of Textiles seems eager to join hands with fashion week bodies both in Delhi and Mumbai, clearly realizing that this may the only way to catch the eye of the fashion press and glamourously ring in the “textile comeback".

A creation by Shruti Sancheti who mixed Tamilian temple weaves with European prints.
A creation by Shruti Sancheti who mixed Tamilian temple weaves with European prints.

It was an evening debate moderated by Parmesh Shahani, the head of Godrej India Culture Labs that got me thinking. Titled “How to make Textiles cool and relevant for young India", it had as its panelists Savar Oberoi a hemp farmer, Maithili Ahluwalia of Mumbai’s Bungalow 8 store, Sabine Heller, the CEO of OneSmallWorld, designer Payal Khandwala, Bollywood actor Kalki Koechlin and Dinesh Singh, from the Ministry of Textiles. The panel had a good urban presence but lacked representation from, let’s say, an Indian master craftsman’s family, mentors of our varied and complex crafts movement and educated (but sometimes unemployed) weavers themselves who best understand the challenges of making textiles “young, cool, relevant."

Few for instance, seem concerned about what young weavers feel; why the average age of the weaver in India is above 50 years of age, why weaving textiles is not a “cool" option for rural youth or the frustrations of creating fashionably acceptable stuff from impoverished crafts clusters, compounded with cultural resistance and caste-based approach to patterns, colours, motifs…

We could take a dozen names of people working with these issues 24x7 who need to be seen and heard at fashion weeks. The very inclusion of textiles at a fashion week automatically connects the urban with the rural. By that same logic, it is not enough to have urban retailers, Bollywood and an obligatory presence from the MoT for an honest, if difficult discussion. Fashion week panelists need to sit across people from the other side of the fence if a bridge must be formed. I voiced this concern there too that “youth" can’t just be urban youth being propped up and indulged to receive, wear and thus patronize textiles. If the term excludes young weavers who work in porous and water leaking huts without air coolers, without sketching devices, proper dyeing vats, consistent supply of electricity and in demotivating working conditions while pursuing education on the side, we are fighting a lost war.

What LFW did by instating the Indian Textile Day was lay a contextual ground. Now it needs to do the tough work—organize a one day crafts fair, get representations from crafts organizations like Dastkari Haat Samiti, Dastkar, Weaver’s Studio of Kolkata, the Asian Heritage Foundation to name some, mix fashion with craft and clothing, get textile experts like Rajesh Pratap or Anju Modi (both also showed at LFW) to conduct educative “design" workshops for weavers; invite a marketing wizard to teach textile makers about strategy, planning and production.

At the same time, inviting a representative from an international fashion brand and/or retailers from multi designer stores abroad may be exciting. Would they be interested in supporting art and textile exhibitions or manufacturing projects? French saddler brand Hermes, for instance, is known to have been involved in supporting select crafts groups in Gujarat.

It is essentially a game of numbers which is what mass movements are about. It is about clothing more than fashion. It is definitely about how to push supply instead of just trying to create a demand among the urban hip.

This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion.

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