Maker of the un-sari


Maker of the un-sari

From the costume departments of Deepa Mehta’s films, such as Heaven On Earth and Cooking With Stella (co-written by Mehta), to a fashion studio in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat; it is the kind of journey, between two completely different environments, that often produces exceptional artists.

Designer Rashmi Varma may agree.

Her travels from Canada (where she was born) to Saudi Arabia (where one of her parents took up a job) as a child, with repeated trips in between to Bihar, her family’s home state, back to Canada and finally a move to Delhi in 2012 as a designer makes for a good story. But what’s even better is the way she recounts the tale, with humour, passion and a pinch of cynicism about life’s designs. After a stint in interior designing in Toronto, Varma says, she wasn’t “creatively seeing” the results of her work fast enough. So she got into designing costumes for Canadian theatre, Hollywood films and TV productions. “All the time, though, I knew I wanted to come to India,” she says.

Her accent notwithstanding, there is something strikingly Indian about Varma. It is not just the tribal nose ring she wears on her septum. Her Indianness sneaks up in her body language, which is sharp and energetic, like her sentences; her emphasis on certain ideas both in fashion and life; her desire to create her own textiles and make accessible wear for women of different shapes and body types; and even the manner in which she asks for chai. Or, talks about “Bihari haldi” to denote a shade of yellow. As the co-author (with Swapnaa Tamhane) of the just released book Sar: The Esssence Of Indian Design, a retelling of 200 objects Indians use every day, she keenly understands “the aesthetic movement around her” in India.

It is not incidental then that Varma is also the creator—among other garments—of the stitched sari dress, now associated with her by those who follow Indian fashion. Sari dresses are made by a bunch of Indian designers, but Varma’s version is distinct. Instead of looking like an intimidating couture garment, her sari dress has the easy contours and reassurance of a prêt piece. She makes them in a variety of fabrics and textiles—handloom cotton, Khadi and silk crêpe. Some are absolutely plain, others subtly embellished with delicate embroidery.

Within a year of moving to India, Varma had set up her studio in Shahpur Jat. “It is an exciting hub, there is a sense of community here, the ambience informs who I am,” she says of the non-elitist neighbourhood that houses dyers, tailors, embroiderers and designers of different persuasions as well as fashion and accessory stores that don’t necessarily pander to the hype and hierarchies of mainstream fashion. “I am not a designer making ‘fashion-fashion’,” says Varma, adding that she wants to make garments that appeal to women of similar viewpoints. “I want to be in fashion stores around the world that I respect with clothes that convey an ongoing dialogue between India, design, artisanship and modernity,” she says. Varma hasn’t shown at any fashion week in India yet, nor has she succumbed to the commercial frenzy of making a collection every season. Yet her sari dress has an unmissable presence in many multi-designer stores.

Her other creations—quilted coats, Kediya coats, yoked shirts, pleated pants, kaftans, minimal use of Ari embroidery on a track pant, the use of Chikan Paani embroidery on white shirts, her dalliance with dark colours and restraint with the rest (never mind that Bihari haldi)—speak of a woman on a quest. To make Varma’s style your own, you must have some relationship at least with modernity in dressing.

“Modern is old, we must find a new zeitgeist,” she says rhetorically. She feels similarly restless about the coinage of the sari dress. “I want to call it something else,” she says.

Here’s to the “un-sari” then. And as far as modernity goes, clothes can be modern, of course, but that’s hardly the only interpretation. A designer can have a modern outlook towards the realities of her surroundings. The manufacturing processes she employs can be modern. Modernity is also about the willingness to set out in search of self-realization. Like Varma has.