Split at the seams


Split at the seams

New Delhi : Why can’t the world of fashion and the world of handloom come together?

Last week exposed the tear between fashion and the handloom and craft industries of India. The

14th edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WLIFW) took off with 141 participating designers. The usual flurry surrounded it — more aspirations than sales, more spectacle than originality. Certainly a lot of hype — some good too.

On the other hand, Jiyo, created by cultural expert Rajeev Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation celebrated its first anniversary. Jiyo is defined as “a design-led, cultural industries brand for the 21st century to create new livelihoods amongst skilled but economically vulnerable communities of India.” Sari Shringar Studio, a dialogue demonstration, was followed by a design show inaugurated by Gursharan Kaur.

In another relevant development, a group of handloom weavers from Andhra Pradesh came to Delhi to meet the political powers, to narrate the tragedy of weavers’ suicides in their state and ask why privileges have been diverted to power-loom workers while the handloom weavers starved.

If you look closely at the Indian design and craft ecosystem which comprises handloom and khadi weavers, textile conservationists, revivalists, craftspeople, designers, fashion week sponsors and the new merchants of Indian luxe, the divide will stump you. Organised fashion weeks are more than a decade old, but the handloom lobby has been unable to repose any “creative trust” in it. A couple of people from the ministry of textiles are occasionally spotted in front rows at WLIFW, but there is no substantial collaborative work between fashion and textile leading to a new kind of annual event. There was talk of a Handloom Fashion Week late last year but nothing has materialised yet.

In my past interviews with the purists of Indian handlooms and crafts, whether Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar or Rta Kapur Chishti textile researcher, William Bissell, managing director of FabIndia, or Rajeev Sethi, I noticed their cynicism about the fashion industry. “Imitative and mediocre,” says Sethi of Indian fashion. “There is such a paradox between poverty and culture. The richer we are, the less culture we seem to have,” he adds.

The last memorable year-long khadi exhibition Fabric of Freedom that travelled to many Indian cities in 2002-2003 was curated by textile expert Martand Singh and his team. It reflected the past and future of khadi — for weavers and wearers.

Singh invited some Indian designers to showcase. But none has so far managed to mount an exhibition of that nature and calibre. Not even with the big sponsorship monies many of them are now flooded with. “Most designers do not have the ability to work with craftspeople in rural conditions. They prefer to work in city studios. It takes time, work and know-how to deal with crafts,” says Tyabji. Whereas, Chishti once told me she would only pass khadi garments sold by designers after she had examined the fabric herself, not just because someone told her.

Paradoxically, the designer lobby now uses weaves and textiles like a self-congratulatory flag. Eco-fashion, green clothing, natural fabrics, organic chic — these words often dot press releases. Yet, unlike FabIndia’s Craft Mark label that clarifies and authenticates the provenance of the product, there is no such parameter available in fashion.

The ministry of textiles, we are told, wants to contemporarise itself. Then why can’t the two sides join hands given that both are inherently co-dependent?

Unfortunately, for the fashion industry, despite all the work and innovation, its sceptics remain icy towards it. You will seldom see William Bissell, Sally Holkar of Rehwa or Faith Singh of Anokhi at a fashion show. Tyabji attends sometimes but only for her friend Ritu Kumar. Rajeev Sethi? I do not even ask him that question.

Let’s ask a similar question in another way. Would Sonia Gandhi or Gursharan Kaur, both committed handloom sari enthusiasts, agree to inaugurate a fashion week? The answer is an easy no. But when the Central Cottage Industries Emporium showed an exhibition of heritage saris last month, Mrs Kaur gladly inaugurated it. There is something about the fashion industry that keeps a certain section of people away. What is it? Lack of credibility or lack of commitment? This raises a similar question about the handloom lobby. What does it lack? The will to modernise from within or the ability to do so?

I suggest a round table hosted by Rajeev Sethi over gobhi pakodas and green tea where the new guard of fashion thrash out these issues and participate in the next Jiyo design show. William Bissell could consider a FabIndia luxury division headed by a talented fashion designer. And perhaps Sunil Sethi of Fashion Design Council of India could convince Mrs Kaur to be a front-row guest for a fashion show.