The Kohima Collection


The Kohima Collection

Nagas are a fashionable people,but there is no market for fashion in the state.

I deliberately make some unwearable garments to show my creativity,” says Naga designer Roshu Rhi. That expression becomes clear as the story clambers on.

It’s winter in Nagaland. Kohima is buzzy,busy. It is Hornbill festival time,the town is full of visitors. The evenings are amethyst. There are no street lights but Christmas decorations illuminate a speck here,a corner there.

Hornbill,which derives its name from a native bird with black-and-white feathers,turned 10 this month. A cultural regalia with tribal song and dance,indigenous cuisine and shopping,it is set in the Heritage Village on Kisama hills,beyond Kohima. The seven-day fest,which showcases the Naga way of life,overflows with pungent rice beer,the ambrosia of all celebrations in a state where alcohol is prohibited (but available). Throw in zarda paan,a few smokes,snail masala and sticky rice cakes,and you have a happy,languid crowd.

I met Roshu at the rehearsals of the Miss Nagaland contest. Raised in a family of the Chakhesang tribe in Zhavame village,he would sew his clothes when he was in school,and later sell hand-stitched garments to classmates for pocket money. Unable to afford a fashion course at a reputed institute,he settled for a polytechnic degree in fashion design.

The Hornbill Designers Contest invites designers from all over the Northeast to show collections. Its tagline,“Traditional Fashions of North East India”,encourages participants to interpret traditional textiles as fashion. But Roshu displayed everything he knew how to make: fabric flowers on gowns and headgear,applique and laces,frills,flounces and sheathing. Never mind the theme.

Thematic harmony is what gives Keds Krome her clientele,she says. The designer who makes western wear with “Indian embroidery” showed a collection of garments inspired by the military deployment in the state. Unusually tall for a Naga,Keds,a NIFT Bangalore product,walked like a model in her high-heeled red booties,camouflage jeggings,leather earrings,black nailpolish and eye shadow,red streaks in her hair and a pierced eyebrow.

The dominant strains of Naga fashion are hard to pin down. Nagas are a fashionable people. Yet there is no market for fashion. It is caught in a crossfire between tribal loyalties (you can’t use a red-and-black Ao men’s shawl to make a women’s garment),Christian decorum in dressing,a nascent fashion movement,Korean goods and the detrimental effects of insurgency on local business.

On the streets,everyone is stylish. Naga girls pair jeans or leggings with boots,long tops,belted jackets,mufflers and caps. Schoolgirls wear eyeliner to school with ribbed black stockings under frocks. But on the ramp,fashion is a casualty. Some designers show local textiles worn traditionally; others Vera Wang-inspired gowns,made from Korean material. Those who attempt fusion — western wear with textile trimmings or ethnic beading —like Akala Pongsen and Bambi Kevichusa don’t find a clientele (who wants a gown made from a mekhla?). Most survive by making bridal wear that ranges between Rs 6,000 and Rs 60,000. “Most of us work from home and design clothes only on private orders,” says Keds.

Naga brides,who used to wear traditional mekhlas (wrapped like sarongs) with silken tops and white veils,now want strapless and corseted gowns with long trains. The mekhlas,symbols of tribal identity,are made from an acrylic fabric called Thai,imported from Thailand. Only a select few are handwoven cotton by tribal artisans. “Even if we make clothes that are not bridal wear,who will buy them? Our competition is the Hong Kong market which is impossible to beat in price and variety,” says Bambi.

Hong Kong markets are flush with goods from China,Thailand,Tibet and Myanmar. They fill wardrobes of Naga youth and fuel the Koreanisation in dressing,music,language and sensibility. CDs and posters of Korean films,rock chic paraphernalia and coloured sneakers sit cheek by jowl with knock-offs of western luxury brands. “We identify with Korean fashion,not mainland fashion,” a young girl at the Hornbill told me. India is mainland; Nagaland is home. A truism that can’t be negotiated.

Yet,the only way that Naga fashion may get a life of its own would be to retail it at “mainland” fashion stores. Its identity —Naga garments made in India — might become its USP.