Making wool relevant


Making wool relevant

Some might find it cheesy to describe the current story of wool in Indian fashion as warm and fuzzy. But that’s exactly what it is. It is lyrical too, with good commercial potential.

But let’s do this one strand at a time. Indian designers continue to win the International Woolmark Prize (IWP). Last week, Nachiket Barve won the regional round for womenswear and Bounipun, a label by designers Zubair and Renni Kirmani, the one for menswear.

A popular and meaningful platform for decades, the IWP has been rewarding Indian designers in the past few years. Pankaj & Nidhi won the regional round in 2012-13; Rahul Mishra won the international prize in 2013-14, as did Suket Dhir in 2015-16. Now, Barve and the Kirmanis—who carry back a cash prize of A$50,000 (around Rs.25 lakh) each—are poised to stretch this story further. They will represent India, Pakistan and the Middle East in the IWP finals, which will be held in Paris in January.

Woolmark’s Cool Wool campaigns, which began in India in 2014, have included fashion collaborations with designers such as Rajesh Pratap Singh, Gaurav Jai Gupta, Dhir, Mishra and Barve. Cool wool is a trans-seasonal, lightweight and versatile variety of wool, literally cool enough to wear round the year. For brands, this yarn enables a relevant entry point into the Indian market where, unless you are a chief executive officer working in an air-conditioned environment, wearing wool, however cool and blended with elastane or silk, would be a punishment for most months of the year. That’s why, though wool blends have been offered by companies such as Raymond, ColorPlus and Louis Philippe (the brand’s Luxure collection uses cool wool) for years, these are noticed only through shows where celebrities and designers join hands.

Broadly, it is the fashion-ization of wool that’s creating a flutter. The IWP is a “beautiful platform”, says Dhir. Winners land instant orders from coveted international retailers, and even shortlisted nominees catch the attention of the world’s best-known fashion stores. But for regular buyers in India, wool is hardly like cotton or mulmul (fine cotton), which they can buy off the rack without any questions about wearability or utility. How can wool be fashionable except in deep winter, or among people who frequently travel to cold countries? And if someone wanted a shawl or a stole, wouldn’t they opt for pashmina?

This became the prism of questioning while exploring the relevance of wool in India. It becomes clear that there are wool blends being produced that suit our climate, so there is a lot of untapped commercial potential. At the heart of wool’s new story in India, then, is extraordinary fabric development. That some of it is done in collaboration with village artisans, or developed in some of the country’s oldest mills, makes it a well-grounded tale.

Mishra’s use of Merino wool for zardozi embroidery by Kolkata’s craftsmen, Dhir’s work on trans-seasonal Merino wool with Telangana’s Ikat weavers, Rajesh Pratap’s hand-dyed indigo wool, Jai Gupta’s blend of Merino wool, stainless steel and monofilament silk, Barve’s work on turning the shawls from Ludhiana and Amritsar into “3D” accessories, or Ekà’s Rina Singh’s wool-silk blends, woven on the Jamdani loom, are attention-worthy design stories.

“Working with Merino is challenging as it lets me break away from preconceived ideas of wool as a winter/menswear/formal wear fabric and make it sensual, surprising and dressy. It lends itself beautifully to techniques, drapes, colour and yet is crease-free, lightweight, luxurious and biodegradable,” says Barve. The ensemble he presented at the IWP (each contestant presents one complete look) was a form-fitted dress with a jacket that was multi-textured, with Merino wool, silk and silk twill fabric. It also used hand-punched and dyed felt. The fabric was developed in mills in Kolkata and Amritsar. Merino yarn was used for embroidery too.

On the other hand, the Kirmanis, who take immense pride in luxury wool woven in their home state, Kashmir, showed trousers, a pullover and a bomber jacket created with a blend of Merino wool, elastane and silk. Their garments used 3D laser cutwork on wool jersey.

Rina—also a contestant at the IWP—used a range of techniques and textures: silk-wool blends achieved through Jamdani weaving, Banarasi cutwork jacquard, faded block print and, as embellishment, embroidery in unspun wool. Her layered look included a dress, an overlay and a pea coat. “The idea is of being inspired by an aged textile, so my rendering is of an unfinished, washed and worn garment,” she says.

The act of working with wool is going through a compelling creative churn. Clearly, there is a fertile global market out there, but the familiarity and love for wool as a fibre is nothing new in India. Both Rina and Dhir argue this persuasively. “Working with wool widens the creative berth for a designer, especially one rooted in India, as pashmina is our dharohar (legacy) and we have grown up seeing our grandparents own beautiful woollen shawls and jackets,” says Dhir. While he agrees that it cannot become the primary yarn, he does believe that the hand-me-down value of woollen pieces gives them rare vintage and dignity.

Rina says wool is “the finest” of all fibres. “It is high value, it falls as beautifully as rayon, silk or polyester and it is easy to blend with other fibres.” India has always been a wool-friendly country, she says. We are just reacting more now thanks to fashion events. “Kashmiri kanis and pashminas were part of a bride’s conventional trousseau; there are wool factories in Jamnagar and a flourishing wool industry in Punjab. Some of India’s biggest mills, such as OCM, have done wool experiments for years, while in the north, the woollen bandhgala has remained the most sought after garment in menswear,” says Rina. Her company Eon Clothing Co. has been exporting woollen garments since 2011.

Wool has other design devotees. Jai Gupta, born and raised in Rohtak, the Haryana town known for its blankets and carpet-weaving industry, says his career began with wool. Jai Gupta links it to Sufism, adding that the word Sufi is derived from suf, Arabic for wool. But he does admit that a designer cannot do number-crunching (read, ensure profitability) with wool, however romantic or creative the fibre may be.

That brings us full circle to currently available wool fashion in the Indian market. While there are some popular cool wool products by menswear brands, the few evocative ready-to-wear garments in modern silhouettes for women are a part of niche fashion, and expensively priced. Effectively out of reach for a majority, they cannot flag off a mass “trend”.

Commercial heft and strategy remain crucial concerns. As fashion curator Gautam Vazirani, one of the mentors for the 2016-17 IWP, says, “It was important to see these exceptional creations and fabric development by designers through the lens of how they would relate in a store like Harvey Nichols, where fashion products from brands like Gucci or Dior are sold. Where would they stand in that mix? I kept that filter in mind.”

That question should be angled towards India now. Quite simply, it may involve giving wool-blended garments separate shelves in fashion stores for easy identification and labelling them correctly to identify weaving styles and embellishment techniques.

Most importantly, designers could be enabled to take the new design impetus back to weavers in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and Kutch, where working with wool remains an integral part of skill sets. Only then would the design chain become complete, even formidable. And cool.