Rajesh Pratap Singh: “Fashion as we knew it, is dead”

“Fashion as we knew it, is dead”

This was the year—July to July—when India’s most reticent designer Rajesh Pratap Singh spoke his mind about the Indian fashion industry. Here is why we should listen

At a time when many fashion designers in India claim “revival” work, and another section tosses “sustainability” into the mix as an instant delight, Rajesh Pratap Singh, doesn’t want to touch either with his cutting scissors. Insistent about experimentation, development, research and originality, the modernist-minimalist in mindset and design ideology, he keeps his expressions disentangled from the revivalism syndrome. Sustainability on the other hand, in practice and belief defines his work and its articulation. Thousands of white shirts, those dark woven bandhgalas with a discreet line of red running down their spines, the precision of pin tucked garments, leather sandals, medical metaphors that sneak into his language and store decors. He refuses though to piggyback on sustainability as a term, arguing instead for fashion that is relevant ecologically and as material possession.

Exactly a year back at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra during an exhibition that celebrated 70 years of Indian handmade textiles, I had the rare opportunity to interview Pratap for a keen and engaged audience. Admittedly, it was my toughest assignment. As predicted by many, Pratap kept clamming up, offering monosyllabic answers or such short ones that the fragile thread of question and answer felt close to snapping. And then, he slowly relaxed, smiled a bit, sat back and got into a real chat about the fashion industry’s deeper concerns, the politics of design, and the creative thrill of making something new.

Noticeably, in the last one year, Pratap seems to have given up being the avoidant (of prickly dialogues) type. He now says what he needs to about the industry.

In this edition of Questions No One Asks, he argues again for modernity in temper and design. For the wisdom of conservation and the need to credit technology as much as artisanal work. Not once did he use the word “simple” as we sat talking in the sun dappled, tastefully decorated lounge at The Quorum club in Gurugram. But, in a self-made white shirt, a pair of white denims, salted hair and guarded, low tones he consistently brought in a vibe of a great simplicity which can only come from complex process worship and pragmatism.

Edited excerpts…

Something changed in you in the last one year, you suddenly became more outspoken.

I realised that time is very little to do the few things that I want to. And if there are important issues one should talk about them. If it can make a difference, why not. It is not that I have not been outspoken in the past. But I believe that if you don’t have anything important to say then keep quiet. But if you do, then say it.

So what shifted in you?

It was something personal. I want to do some things in the right way and then move on and not waste time. There are a lot of important things to do personally and professionally. The whole point is about contribution. How is one contributing to life or work?

What do you mean when you say that time is less?

My brand turned 20. I’m older and hopefully wiser. I feel I don’t have to do anything that I do not wish to. There are things that are right and wrong about life, work and one’s priorities. In our industry and the world in general, significant changes are happening; fashion as we knew it is dead. Traditional fashion, the mechanics of it, the business of fashion is already changing so rapidly. Our priorities too must undergo a change.

Fashion is dead. How do you mean?

Fashion is a very broad term. It is a reflection of who we are. For lack of a better word, it is how a society thinks. That thought process won’t ever die. But by 2050, (with the world itself at great ecological threat), if we don’t correct, things will start falling apart. If we have just 50 years more to live in this format, we have to see where fashion stands and what our contribution is. I don’t want to use the word ‘sustainability’ because it has been used and abused. But honestly, where does traditional fashion stand in terms of ecology? Where does it stand in terms of artificial intelligence? The world is changing so rapidly. We have no clue what is going to hit us. What we were thinking in the eighties no longer holds.

You mean the fashion system is dead?

Yes, the fashion system. The idea of the “designer” as a cult figure exploded and consumption boomed worldwide in the eighties. That is when this form of fashion mechanism permeated into India as well. The traditional fashion system that began in the seventies and eighties is undergoing a rapid change. It should be more about the product now, how it is made, where it is made and how lightly it treads on nature.

Have you seen these changes reflect in your own customers too?

Most of our customers have been really kind to us despite all our flaws. I feel I have to be as honest as possible. So even if I lose the traditional fashion customer, I only want to make what I believe in. I did compromise at some point. And it gave me financial budgets to do what I wanted to do. But even when we made the things that I thought were a compromise, I hoped and prayed that the person wearing them was not a fashion victim. That they understood the language. Now, the customer is also evolving, thinking like us, about relevance. Asking questions about what do we really need to consume, and if we need more. For me, the greatest kick is when a customer says I have this shirt of yours for the last 20 years, it survived and I still wear it. It’s a bigger high than someone asking what’s new.

But all of you designers still fill shops with new things every season. So what is the distinction between the new and the sustained?

That’s where design comes into the picture. Design that must ask and answer what is it that I can make for my customer that will last for 20 years. That is my need and focus. I fail miserably most of the time. I am not saying I have all the solutions right now, but we try.

Are you worried about sales?

Yes, because sales are important for us as we are a business group. But my focus is to try and make something sensible and ecologically responsible. And it is not just a problem of fashion. Sooner or later every industry will have to do this.

What do you mean when you say you compromised? Does it mean you made shaadi couture?

I have nothing against wedding couture. If there is a need, there will be a designer to fill it up. Yes, we do make some sherwanis and some people do wear our bespoke offerings to their weddings. But they are the ones that we seek out or who find themselves resonating with our language, identity and space. What I mean by compromise is some choices I may have made in the past, some projects I may have undertaken which did not turn out the way I would have wished. But today if you ask me, I’d rather lose the business than do something that I do not fully believe in, just to clock in sales.

You made bridal garments? Lehnga sets?

I have made three such in my life. Kind of lehnga sets if you want to have a name to them. They were not strictly typical though and I agreed to do them and more importantly, wanted to do them. They were not embroidered garments but woven. One was a draped ensemble, more like a cross between a sari and a motorcycle jacket; the second was woven in the classic kadua which we did in our factory. The third was woven brocade. All for people who are very special to me.

We must return to the white shirt; unavoidable in a conversation with you. Why do you remain obsessed with and committed to it?

Well, everyone needs white shirts; they are like a pair of jeans. I love it when someone says, I wore this all these years and now it is torn, can I have another one. Or, this survived, but the collars are frayed, can you fix it. We are still producing the first shirts we ever made. For me the white shirt in the desert is a strong reference.

You once told me you had created 3000 styles of white shirts? Is that correct?

I just keep making versions of them again and again. I don’t know how many thousands, we don’t calculate. I wish I had kept an archive.

Have you thought about an exhibition that narrates the journey of your work through white shirts?

I haven’t. Will it be a good idea? Maybe. But let me tell you, I can recognise every shirt I made, I know all of them. I see a copy and I know it’s a copy. Each piece has gone through my hands.

Have your shirts been rampantly plagiarised?

Yes. But I have never initiated any litigation in the past whether in or outside the country. There is no time. Also design protection laws have only recently gotten some teeth. So maybe now would be as good a time as any to address this issue.

You are also into trekking and climbing mountains. Tell us a bit about it?

I used to trek and climb a lot when I was younger. Now I can’t do all that. But few years back, some of my close friends took me to the mountains. We had a big disaster. There were only two ways after that disaster. One was never to go back. The other was to keep going back and keep climbing. That’s what I did. I eliminate the trash and focus on a few things. I don’t want to have regrets later in life, that I didn’t trek, didn’t summit a particular place. Mountains are important for me and I want to go back to them.

The Neemrana unit you run is essentially a sustainable space. But since you are wary of the term sustainability, aren’t you doing your brand an injustice by not talking about it?

First of all, sustainability is not about fashion, it is about survival. I don’t want my brand to be called a sustainable fashion brand. I don’t want to piggyback on a trendy term. If I do that, I will make the idea of sustainability weak in my eyes. I feel cheap if I promote my work that way. At the same time, I do want to say every industry has to have a point of sustainability. Yes, Neemrana (Rajasthan) is an important project for me. I see it like a lab where a group of people make new fabrics. A lab that is going to show me directions. This is where 80 per cent of what I create is first sampled.

You have always stressed on R&D and technology.

When it comes to fashion, it is not just handloom and handicraft that will keep us sustainable but we need to focus on technology too. In some ways, we are misguiding craftspersons when we tell them that all kinds of handloom are sustainable. If the child of a craftsperson wants to do cutting-edge technological work, we should go all out and support them instead of convincing them otherwise. The real answers to the sustainability dialogue will come from how we can blend the two worlds of hand work and technology. And the mind, which is very important. We can’t be sitting in cities with our mobile devices and condemning technology as an alternative for rural textile empowerment. That’s just my opinion.

Do you think most collaborations between artisans and fashion designers are unequal?

Honestly, it depends on operation to operation, brand to brand. Fair and equal are subjective terms. All I say is don’t make artisans weak by making martyrs out of them. They don’t need our pity. They need collaborative support. There has been a revived interest in handloom, and the creative design intervention by young designers is seeing a resurgence in handloom consumption. The crafts weavers I’ve interacted with are strong on technical skill and also understand business. But basics like insurance, social security etc. needs to be extended to them like any other industry.

Would you agree that without a partnership with artisans, creating distinctive Indian fashion would be impossible for designers?

Not true at all. Distinction comes from getting the real value of a certain product. If handloom is trashy, it needs to get out of the way. On the other hand, if a certain product or technique can only be done on handloom, then prices have to be paid for that. Else it should not exist. For instance, there is no point in making poor quality khadi. There are other ways of employment generation. The only reason khadi should exist today is as an instance of Indian luxury. It cannot, in my opinion, be treated as a mass produced, bad quality product. The technique of authentic khadi needs all the support it needs. But just to produce something of poor quality that competes with mill-made is not sustainable.

You have been speaking about unifying the two fashion weeks in Delhi and Mumbai. Why do you think there are so many difficulties in bringing them together?

Because there are so many people on both the sides, equally in Delhi and Mumbai, who try to argue otherwise. They don’t see it fit to have one fashion week. Even during the split, they were the ones who felt that this is what the industry and the designers needed. The designers themselves need to take these decisions. These are still the reasons why the split continues.

And what would really be achieved if we had one fashion week?

The whole country will have one event to attend, to work towards and gain from. We won’t have to waste time, money, effort. Right now, it is about so many lost talents, so much loss of energy and money and unnecessary duplication.

If we can talk about Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) that you have been a part of for many years. Why doesn’t it have any archives, records or the functional processes of a council after so many years?

Recently, work has begun on the archives and the question on its role going forward as a council, is being addressed. There is a committed group now that is trying to put everything in order. Is it easy? Not at all, but it is being done. There are many good people doing good work and we should support them. So many of our fraternity have benefited directly from the body.

And the board been re-elected?

Like any other board. Every two-three years, the FDCI too re-elects a board. A majority of FDCI board members currently are young designers who are very committed to the cause. Of course, there is always room for improvement as is the case in any situation. I too was also on the new board until recently and had to step down due to my personal work and time constraints. But I was privy to the fact that a lot of good work is being done.