Handloom in fashion design


Handloom in fashion design

Fashion is the “tail end” of the work that handlooms have achieved or need to achieve, says designer Ritu Kumar. And rightly so. All the same, if anyone can give this narrative the upward curve it needs at this juncture, it is fashion designers. Creating highbrow aspiration, turning handlooms, including Khadi, into affordable luxury for a discerning clientele, fashionizing the weave, modernizing the handwoven sari, making design interventions to save weaves from the sea of power-loom fabrics, launching sustainable businesses with weaving clusters—designers have introduced an urban sensitivity to handlooms. A majority of them—from Tarun Tahiliani, J.J. Valaya or Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla of the senior cadre to Nachiket Barve, Rimzim Dadu and Swati Kalsi among the younger brigade—work with crafts, creating beautiful embroideries and reinventing traditional embellishment, dyeing and printing techniques on handlooms. But this story limits itself to those whose focus has been on handloom interactions. Designers like Bappaditya and Rumi Biswas of bai lou or Rta Kapur Chishti of Taanbaan—to give just two names—have strong handloom viewpoints too, but we have focused here on those who show at fashion weeks. This is not the ultimate directory, only a representative idea of designer work.

David Abraham & Rakesh Thakore, Delhi

Why: Abraham & Thakore (A&T) are the handloom masterclass. Their work is culturally reflective, mirrors top fashion trends in simple-complex ways and is commercially accessible. The strong, graphic black and white Ikat design that has seeped down to craft bazaars is an A&T signature. An instance in houndstooth pattern woven in silk is in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is, of course, their work with Mangalgiri weaves, Jamdanis and Banaras brocades. Patterns of vertical and horizontal checks were woven like a ‘chatai’ (mat) for Banaras brocades, with Lurex instead of ‘zari’. Another collection used Eri, Muga and Tussar silks from the North-East that were woven in Andhra Pradesh with Ikat patterns and temple borders, while Tussar was woven with brocade in Varanasi, with leopard-print patterns achieved through digital printing and embroidery.

Vision: “Handloom must be promoted and understood as affordable luxury. India has the most diverse handwoven textile tradition and we must ensure that the weaver benefits economically to continue it. With competition from cheaper, mass-produced, mill-made textiles, handwoven fabrics need a premium value and aggressive marketing,” says Abraham.

Ritu Kumar, Delhi

Why: With her pioneering work in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Serampore and Murshidabad in West Bengal, Kumar was the first designer to initiate the handloom revival in Indian fashion. She initially worked with handblock printing and craft techniques, as well as Ahimsa silk (Matka silk) and handwoven Bhagalpur fabrics for garments and saris. Her most recent work is the Banaras Revival Project, a corporate social responsibility initiative. The first saris and garments from it, which have just arrived in stores, took two years to make in Varanasi.

Vision: “Handlooms are not glamorous, they do not adapt to ramp shows. But sustaining handlooms is about enabling women, who traditionally did peripheral jobs in the sector but are now turning weavers. This is an intrinsic industry, hard to sustain, like growing cotton or silk itself, but as the world moves towards industrial fashion, only India can nurture, through handlooms, the most natural lifestyle, given the environmental situation in the globe,” says Kumar.

Wendell Rodricks, Goa

Why: An early proponent of eco-friendly, minimal design aesthetic, Rodricks started working with organic fabrics in the early 1990s. He is known for his efforts to revive the long-forgotten tribal Goan Kunbi sari. The Eco Goa Room in his design space showcases clothes made with all-organic elements and natural dyes sourced from the Western Ghats.

‘The Prodigal Collection’ for women, showcased in 1993, was a defining moment for Rodricks. He wove silk with banana fibre, cotton with pineapple fibre, coarse unbleached cotton in dull olive, dusty brown and pale grey for sarongs, overshirts, tunics, palm-leaf inspired pleated organza, trellis coconut palm effects and tree-bark inspired crinkled ‘cholis’/blouses. The models walked barefoot on the ramp, with coconut shell and rice straw accessories designed by Goan artisans.

Vision: “We are entering a phase where the handwoven commodity is being appreciated by discerning clients. We should move away from the initial Gandhian ideal of spinning at low cost and treat artisanship of the loom as a luxury commodity today,” says Rodricks.

Madhu Jain, Delhi

Why: Jain was among the first to retail from India’s first fashion store, Ensemble, in the early 1990s. She remains synonymous with Ikat and Kalamkari in Indian fashion. Her Ikat work (including explorations with Ikat from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan) dominates her design signature. For the 7th World Bamboo Congress in 2003, Jain wove bamboo with silk, Khadi and Chanderi in collaboration with model Milind Soman. She revived a handspun and handwoven Khadi sari (she calls it a “piece of history”) woven by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1941; Maneka Gandhi wore it for her son Varun’s wedding in 2012.

Vision: “I want to revolutionize and give a new concept to bamboo as a textile. I am keen to get rid of middlemen so that the weavers get their due,” says Jain.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Kolkata

Why: Sabyasachi uses cotton, Khadi, Banarasi weaves and handwoven fabrics in a luxe-bohemian way for prêt and bridal wear. He employs several craftsmen in different clusters across the country. For his ‘Save The Saree’ campaign, he curated woven saris from craftsmen across India, packaged them in memorable tall tins and priced them without the “designer” mark-up.

Vision: “As our Prime Minister has expressed, ‘Handlooms are ‘diwan-e-khas’ and power-loom is ‘diwan-e-aam’. Handlooms are going to be the strongest foundation for future luxury. Eventually, luxury is going to boil down to slow, organic production, community-building and marketing stories around the power of the human hand. Nothing will remain tantamount to luxury other than handlooms,” says Sabyasachi.

Rohit Bal, Delhi

Why: India’s most charismatic and famous couturier, who loves embellishment, embroidery and grandeur in his clothes and silhouettes, has been working with Varanasi looms for years and was one of the first group of designers chosen by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) to create affordable, ready-to-wear Khadi garments. The KVIC project didn’t last but Bal’s love for, and commitment to, Khadi, ‘mulmul’ and Banarasi brocades has remained steady. His Banarasi and Khadi saris, stocked at his stores, are never advertised, yet they’re picked up rapidly by a loyal clientele before the word spreads.

Vision: “There is no Rohit Bal when I am sitting with a weaver. It is a conversation between two artists. Handloom is a labour of love, it needs to survive since this country belongs to handloom,” says Bal

Rajesh Pratap Singh, Delhi

Why: Pratap’s design philosophy is rooted in Indian textiles and modern silhouettes—two concepts that many find alluring, even though it is hard to synchronize them in such a fashion that each retains its significance. His dedication to textile innovation, R&D approach to fashion, and resistance to bling and embellishment as a short-cut to commercial value put Pratap in a league of his own. He gave the world a classic pintucked white shirt from India, made in pure cotton, for both men and women. He is also known for his experiments in indigo dyeing with Ikat, wool, handspun, handwoven Khadi (some of it woven at his own unit in Faridabad), his dexterous use of silk and unusual weaving of ‘zari’. He was the first Indian ambassador for wool for The Woolmark Company.

Vision: “For the future, we hope to do something really sensible. In my opinion, whatever we have done so far is very average,” says Pratap.

Neeru Kumar, Delhi

Why: A senior textile conservationist, Kumar’s design-based, inventive intervention in handwoven Tussar took this Indian fabric—in the form of various products—to global stores and museum shops, from Japan to the US. She was one of the first designer minds to set up a successful handloom export business. She created ready-to-wear garments and unstitched drapes from multihued, softened and contemporary Khadi, getting handspun wool woven way back in 1980, and giving Kantha embroidery on handloom fabrics a design language.

Vision: “We need to preserve, sharpen our skills, including hand-spinning, which is lapsing even in Khadi. The only way to keep handlooms differentiated from power-loom products and coveted across the world is by textural and design distinction,” says Kumar.

Sanjay Garg, Delhi

Why: He made the sari fashionable once again with his Raw Mango designs. Not by “fashionizing” it, but by giving it a design distinction and turning it into a dream drape with inputs at the weaving stage, keeping its handwoven characteristic intact, enhanced even. He brought a compelling colour vocabulary from fables and folklore to Indian garments. His lemon-coloured Chanderis with golden or fuchsia sparrows herald spring round the year. A ready-to-wear Banarasi brocade collection with slim pants, long jackets, ‘lehngas’ and structured blouses was woven on the loom, not tailored on sewing machines. It was a museum-worthy, exemplary project. He has led the revolutionary transformation of the Chanderi village, guiding it towards a success story template—designs, development, weaver confidence—while benefiting from existing weaver skills that needed a smart, contemporary tweak.

Vision: “Our aim is to connect sari connoisseurs and handloom enthusiasts from Lucknow to Kottayam. While trying to reach a larger audience, I want my work to retain the relevance of craft and culture, keep evolving in design innovation and technology. (The aim is) to make handloom a necessity instead of a decorative piece of art,” says Garg.

Aneeth Arora, Delhi

Why: Arora is a leader when it comes to encouraging fashion-handloom synergy among younger designers. Her artistically constructed soft jackets, tunics, dresses and pyjamas, from organically developed and handwoven fabrics from West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Varanasi, come with little quirks that include péro’s signature red hearts. The layered “péro” look has become a milestone—inspiring many, driving some to blatant copying. She has opened a meaningful bridge of work ethics with weavers, realizing that for weavers, their craft is their lifestyle, the festivals they celebrate, the gods they worship, the food they eat—and designers must adapt to them instead of forcing them into fashion cycles, delivery deadlines and “trends”.

Vision: “A day will come when the fashion and handloom industry will walk hand in hand without fighting for credit. The younger generation of designers seem to believe that they are generating livelihoods or helping weavers become self-sufficient, whereas we are co-dependent,” says Arora.

Rahul Mishra, Delhi

Why: A textile engineer and the poster boy of handloom fashion among young designers, Mishra understands the strengths and weaknesses of the sector and the gaps in the industry that lead to missed opportunities for weaving communities. He has enabled reverse migration of artisans, from cities back to their villages, with a guarantee of work. He’s known for his 2006 reversible collection (one side was woven with Banarasi brocade, the other in Kerala cotton) and his award-winning Woolmark International line for 2015, for which he engineered wool into a trans-seasonal fabric.

Vision: “I want to generate employment across villages to ensure that ‘karigars’ can work from their homes, enjoy home food and see their kids grow. My dream is to employ over one million people in the largest crafts revival and sustenance effort ever initiated.”

Paromita Banerjee, Kolkata

Why: Her street-style clothes reference Japanese minimalism, have trans-seasonal heft and celebrate local textiles like Jamdani, Khadi and linen. She uses fabric leftovers to develop a range that includes patchwork on kimonos and bags; handmade ‘khaata’ (notebooks), buttons, tassels and appliqué ‘kangri’ borders. She has been working with handloom clusters, especially Jamdani ones, in West Bengal since 2009 and has developed Bengal handlooms of colour-blocked fine cottons.

Vision: “I would like to make handloom and weaves more approachable. Handloom products sometimes do not get their worth and value in India as (they do) overseas, where they are treated with respect. I would like to try and change that through our brand and take them beyond the arty few,” says Banerjee.

Anita Dongre, Mumbai

Why: Grassroot, officially launched by Dongre in 2015, has emerged as a noticeable sub-brand. She has worked behind the scenes with the Sewa Trade Facilitation Centre of Gujarat, the Umeed Foundation in Punjab, weavers’ cooperatives in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, Sewa Lucknow and Kashmir Box. Grassroot has provided guaranteed employment to 100 ‘gota patti’ workers in Nyla village, near Jaipur, 10 handloom weavers in Varanasi and several other artisans.

Vision: “Our country has rich resources of age-old handloom, the understanding and the craftsmen to sustain, adapt and continue these art forms…. Recognizing these master-craftsmen, both monetarily and for their artistic ability, is the need of the hour. It is the responsibility of us designers to revive, promote and sustain the handloom industry.”

Gaurav Jai Gupta of Akaaro, Delhi

Why: A purist of sorts, he first conceptualizes prototypes of the fabrics in his Delhi studio with design and hand-weaving maps before identifying weaving clusters to create them. Jai Gupta goes beyond surface embellishments, creating structured, fusion wear in silk, cotton, ‘zari’ and Merino wool and weaving stainless steel with silk, cotton, wool and lycra. This is a demonstration of how handloom and woven techniques can be ‘engineered’ with the juxtaposition of different materials and techniques. The real effort, however, lies in how this fabric is fashioned into a garment.

Vision: “I feel like we are in a time warp when it comes to design. We need to step away from the Gandhian ideologies of handloom and incorporate technology to match our skill set with international design standards while increasing the wages of the weavers,” says Jai Gupta.

Suket Dhir, Delhi

Why: Dhir uses a blend of natural fibres that include cool wool and worsted wool for his menswear range of unstructured shirts and jackets. He won the International Woolmark Prize earlier this year for menswear. Dhir has worked with Ikat weavers in Telangana to incorporate Merino wool into what is traditionally created in cotton or silk yarn. While he used the traditional hand-tied, circular Ikat weave, he stayed away from typical motifs, instead creating an ombré pattern in 11 colour variations.

Vision: “If we want to save our heritage and craft, we must protect the talent of our master-craftsmen and make things relevant by teaching this skill to the next generation. We must also figure out ways to pay the master-craftsmen, who are the real artists. Cost-cutting doesn’t mean not paying the craftsmen their due wages,” says Dhir.

Rina Singh of Eka, Delhi

Why: Singh weaves natural fibres (cotton, silk, linen, wool and Khadi) to create minimal, modern clothing. Her presentation at the regional round of the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize for India, Pakistan and the Middle East showed handwoven Jamdani in silk and wool, blending mill-made yarn with nylon filament that was twisted with a silk and wool yarn before dyeing. The motifs were achieved by drawing overlapping block prints in watercolours that penetrated the wool yarns to make them look washed out. Delicate embroidery with wool and unspun silk yarns gave it a painterly effect.

Vision: “I want to add more dexterity to my craft by adding a design identity to handloom. This business is also about sustaining the weaving clusters. That comes by adding merit to the weavers’ skill sets and giving them avenues to develop their own talent,” says Singh.

Anavila Misra, Mumbai

Why: Misra uses handwoven linen to create her version of Indian fashion. While Neeru Kumar and Soumitra Mondal also make linen saris, Misra’s grainy, textile-like linen is fused from the cellulose fibres of the flax plant. Her saris, in muted tones and subtle patterns, have seen this traditional garb return to the wardrobes of fashion seekers. She has improvised the linen loom setting to get a looser weave which wrinkles less and has worked with finishes at the yarn level to guarantee a languid drape.

Vision: “I want to continue working with craft clusters; I am focusing on bringing handloom to home linen, along with a line of tunics, trousers and ‘kurtas’ that carry the same aesthetic as my saris. We want to build a holistic lifestyle around the brand,” says Misra.

11.11/eleven eleven, Delhi

Why: Designer duo Mia Morikawa and Shani Himanshu engage with rural artisans in Gujarat (Kutch) and West Bengal (Phulia) to create clothes as essential solutions to modern living. These include layered, naturally dyed clothes in marble silk, Kala cotton and Khadi denim that are 100% handmade. Kala cotton, a rain-fed, short-staple organic cotton indigenous to Kutch, is woven with a thick denim twill weave for the label’s Khadi denim line, naturally dyed in indigo and finally hand-stitched by local artisans, who sign each piece.

Vision: “11.11/eleven eleven’s vision is to build a lifestyle brand with a focus on ‘the Khadi way’,” say the duo.