Sanjay Garg | Bringing new light to lime


Sanjay Garg | Bringing new light to lime

When Sanjay Garg, then just 16, left his hometown Mubarakpur in Uttar Pradesh for the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design (IICD) in Jaipur , he had no idea what words like “huge”, “success” or “taste” meant. He didn’t understand a word of English.

“I had no idea what was going on. No one was willing to modify the teaching method and there was just no equation between the institute and me,” says Garg. Plagued by an inferiority complex and the constant burden of having to prove his worth, he quit the institute within a year.

Sixteen years later, Garg’s Raw Mango, a design label of Chanderi saris and handwoven textiles, has become a metaphor for ethnic elegance in Indian style with its distinct visual signature. Commercially too, it is a “huge” success: Garg’s annual turnover in 2008, the year he launched, was Rs.90,000; it is estimated to have crossed Rs.10 crore in the 2012-13 financial year.

“Simplicity, my dear, that’s all there is to it. I am a compulsive purist,” says Garg. Simplicity is Garg’s favourite word; it is also his business mantra. Consider this: “Women wear too many things all at once, dragging embroidery, embellishment and jewellery into their looks. I offer elegance through simplicity. Nobody believes that handwoven saris can be so stunningly simple and light—I have simply made Chanderis easy to wear. It is quite simple really: I am rescuing handloom from the patronizing attitude it evokes and bringing dignity and money to craftsmen.”

Born and raised in a well-to-do business family of Mubarakpur, Garg calls himself a 15th-generation businessman who left home to learn design. After quitting the IICD, he took the entrance exams for the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in New Delhi. Still uncomfortable with English, he passed on the basis of the creative ability test, his aptitude for mathematics (“I am just too good at math,” he says) and shone in the personal interview. “For other tests in English, I ticked answer boxes randomly,” he says.

The designer’s relationship with English is a colourful one, while his relationship with colour can barely be explained in English. There is always a Holi going on his mind. But more on that later.

Through his graduation years, and during a job with Shades of India, a design and décor store, he began to speak “fluent, intense, broken English”. He still does that—his rapidity is both surprising and amusing. He has engaging conversations in a mix of cross-cultural references, oscillating from Picasso to Alexander McQueen, telling you he is a designer like the latter, not an artist like the former. The next sentence is about cow motifs on Banarasi silks.

Garg is small-built and fit-looking, earnest and passionate about his work. He is always smiling. “It is terrible, isn’t it, this mix of English and Hindi that I do?” he asks, laughing loudly. “But I am beginning to fold my wings on this. I don’t give a damn now and am just going to speak Hindi, the language I think in,” he says.

For Garg, not giving a damn has come after giving too much of a damn. The fashion world seemed intimidating from far, he had little idea how he would break into the glamour circus without losing his convictions. So he sat down and solved it like a fuzzy mathematical equation. He was fired by Indian textile and craft and was clear that would be his calling card—but through inverse snobbery, by making simplicity a brand statement. He started by working with Chanderi weavers in the Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh, introducing design interventions at the weaving stage to make the diaphanous textile soft and easy to drape. He then took old-style motifs like house sparrows, parrots, trees, lotuses, marigolds, cows, coins (traditionally called asharfis) and created saris in heavenly colours.

“IN PARENTHESIS: Every sari has a name derived from the designer’s fascination with mythology and every collection is inspired from an era gone by or Indian folk stories. So you have saris called Sakhi, Nanki, Gurjari, Khalida, Sultana, Hemlata, Gowshala, Murari, Barsana and Radha Rangeeli. A special Holi collection was put out in March but really, every day is Holi at Raw Mango. Garg recently tranquillized his colour schizophrenia for a limited-edited collection of saris called Berang (colourless) to promote the block-printing of Akola, only done on charcoal and blue combinations. Berang sold out.”

A landslide of responses greeted the rise of Raw Mango in Indian fashion retail. Garg started by revitalizing Chanderi but now works with 500 weavers in clusters across the country, on Banarasi silks, Gujarat’s mashru, and Akola block printing; Garhwali textiles loom on the horizon. Five of his saris are displayed in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK.

Fashion magazines generally ignore him but the mainstream media pursues him relentlessly. Handloom lovers adore his wares, as do fashionistas and celebrities, rich housewives, women in powerful corporate and political jobs and young girls turning to traditional wear for reassurance. He has also been bristling at the apparent plagiarism of his motifs and use of colour in Chanderi saris.

Inverse snobbery by itself is no longer enough, so Garg is exploring its dimensions. He never advertises in a fashion magazine or a mainstream paper. His only advertisements have been in a magazine called Motherland—“just because I like it, I think they need the money more”. He doesn’t have a public relations agency, doesn’t show at fashion weeks, despite having been offered the finale at a recent one, only retails from Good Earth outlets in some cities and select displays like the one with Tina Tahiliani Parikh at Mumbai’s Ensemble last year.

No photo shoot done for his brochures or website has models: He works with real women of different age groups. You can meet him only by appointment at his Chhattarpur studio in Delhi—it has no signboard announcing the label or his name.

“I moved to a rented farmhouse because I love the quiet, the trees, the free space and the privacy it gives me,” he says. Pubs and clubs were a craze some years back but distress him now. Far from the madding crowd, his phone constantly buzzes with calls from his clientele, which is fast becoming a crowd. A team of 20 works with Garg at the farmhouse studio and office; he stays on the premises, often cooking his own dal-chawal.

For someone who gave a new vocabulary to the handloom shade card, his studio is a stark space. Off-white Malkha silk curtains, low, wooden furniture, bare walls and four wooden cupboards make up the studio. The cupboards have glass doors but the beautiful Raw Mango saris neatly folded inside are shielded by off-white curtains. There are no displays, not even a poster. When a customer walks in, white lights go on inside the cupboards before their doors are thrown open. The white noise fades out as colour blinds you.

Garg’s colours aren’t a Hindi translation of the Pantone shade card. They are about nuanced hues of traditional colours, used in unabashed combinations. Here’s a sample: Phalsa (wild blueberries), Sharbati (a mix of orange and hot pink), Rani (Indian fuchsia), Anandi (bluish), Haldi (turmeric), Nimbu (lime), Totaiyi (parrot green), Dhaniya (coriander green), Ramagreen (a green inspired by the Hindu god Ram, not the English tea, okay? he says) and Ferozi (Indian blue). Lime green, though, is his signature colour; it is both queen and king at Raw Mango.

Design quirks have been tucked into what seems ostensibly a traditional buffet of handloom saris: a hot pink sari with a parrot green pallu, for instance, would have a bright orange under-border, and while all its parrot motifs would be in green, there would be one silver parrot thrown in somewhere like a lovely surprise. When you buy a sari, it is packed in off-white, logo-less, cloth bags.

But the “nervous optimist” is fidgety. When we met for this interview, he was packing his bags for an exhibition in Sri Lanka. Most people believe they can spot a Raw Mango sari from a mile away—exactly the truism that Garg wants to dispel. He is busy planning a rescue operation to free his label from a prescriptive definition while keeping the signature intact.

“It will be huge,” he promises.–Bringing-new-light-to-lime.html