Silk Route,from Bhagalpur to Paris


Silk Route, from Bhagalpur to Paris

Designer Samant Chauhan has a single-minded agenda: put a small town in Bihar on the world fashion map.

How can a Bihari wear a pair of Levi’s?” That was one of the first questions Samant Chauhan was asked by a fellow student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi in 2002.

Chauhan’s jeans were the same shade of blue as of those from Delhi but his Hindi had a pronounced accent. He had enrolled for a postgraduate degree in knitwear design and technology and was unaware that a crash course in hauteur was essential to gain entry into the Great Indian Fashion Fraternity. He kept quiet. Not just during the jeans-versus-genes jibe,but for the first six months.

Now,as a noted designer,30-year-old Chauhan talks passionately about Bhagalpuri silk. He speaks powerful Hindi —which few can do in Indian fashion but,due to some imaginary pressure,responds in English every time you ask him a question. With a pierced eyebrow,shaven head and a beard,his membership to the Great Indian Fashion Fraternity seems confirmed.

Chauhan’s is an inspirational story,the kind we hacks love. Lauding the underdog is an overwritten draft,ready to be reused any time. Rags to Swatches,a boy from Bihar who went on to shake hands with Roberto Cavalli and Prince Charles.

But it is this silken yarn of words that Chauhan needs to flay. Instead of his work,it is his journey to the world’s fashion capital that has become the story. All his interviews are about the small-town boy making it big as he hurtles between Bihar and Paris in his own mind. Ironic,given that he is talented,focused and plans to start a factory that produces “non-violent” silk. His Facebook post says 1,500 silk worms are killed to get one metre of woven silk. As the tale goes,if anyone has brought the coarse tussar silk from Bihar to the fashion stage,it is him.

Born and raised in a modest family in Jamalpur (which had no electricity till Chauhan reached Class III),150 km from Bhagalpur ,he graduated in physics before making a career out of his passion. Woven craft is not only his inspiration,it is his inventory too. It is an uphill climb at a time when fashion stores order sherwanis and dresses in all other colours except natural. When fluid,clingy fabrics define the New Sexy. When craft is good for press releases but not for cover girls.

Chauhan showed at London,Singapore and at Ethical Fashion 2008 in Paris. But he has won more awards than retail orders. His clothes have found some buyers in Europe,the US and Australia,as his garments created from raw silk are suited to colder climes. But here,unless he finds a sponsor who enables him to sustain his USP without succumbing to the sequined dazzle of the trousseau market,the nature of the beast may leave him out in the cold. “I approached a Bhagalpuri businessman who owns a massive export factory and supplies to Giorgio Armani,but he is not willing to invest in sustaining the Bhagalpuri weave,” says Chauhan,now caught in the trap of craft without commerce.

Textile designer and stylist Ashdeen Lilaowala says,“Craft can’t be an in-your-face statement in a fashion show. Chau-han needs to style his silks imaginatively with fashion-forward thinking,imbuing them with new looks and modernity of vision. Otherwise,his collections tend to look like classroom projects,authentic but repetitive.”

In the staging of his shows,Chauhan seems impatient to become a John Galliano. In 2008,Galliano sent male models down the runway looking like Abu Ghraib prisoners—hooded,bloodied,with ropes around their necks. At the Van Heusen Men’s Fashion Week earlier this year,Chauhan’s models seemed inspired by Anthony Hopkins’ look in Silence of the Lambs. They wore crumpled,blood-stained clothes with leather masks and shredded veils on their faces.

The Indian market is not an easy terrain for designers like Chauhan who don’t do bridal wear. But he is unflinchingly single-minded. “I plan to spend the next five years in Bhagalpur and do whatever it takes to put it on the fashion map. With Nitish Kumar’s victory,convincing investors may be easy,” he says. What he could learn from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s downslide and Nitish Kumar’s victory is the difference between a caricature and a character. The former makes nativity a good story,the latter makes it good business.