Secret couture


Trend Tracker | Secret couture

Far from the razzmatazz of couture weeks is the closet of Malvika Singh, publisher of Seminar magazine. Collected with passion over more than 40 years, her 700-odd saris include cotton Jamdanis, many of them in patterns no longer woven on the looms of Varanasi, Upadas and Venkatagiris from Andhra Pradesh, the rare Bomkais of Orissa, Kanjeevarams from Chennai’s Kalakshetra and Maheshwaris that she says are “very special”.

Her first sari, an off-white Chanderi with a red and gold real zari border, was gifted to her when she was just nine years old; among recent additions is an aubergine Bengal cotton with a resplendent silver border that Singh says is a show-stopper whenever she wears it. Singh only shops now at exhibitions curated by handloom designers.

“I call it my regeneration collection,” says Singh. Her passion for textiles blossomed during the handloom revival in post-independence India; She was a part of the first art and crafts movement under freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, cultural activist Pupul Jayakar (who Singh calls her guru) and textile maestro Martand Singh.

If Singh’s saris have grown alongside independent India, there are other collections that go back a few hundred years. Like those of Ahmedabad royal Umang Hutheesing, often called the czar of private couture. “How do I describe it?” he asks about the artisanal textiles, gold-threaded Mughal costumes, Persian carpets, art from early Indus Valley terracotta to Buddhist period sculptures, Oriental ceramics, Lockwood De Forest and Tiffany furniture, Madhubani and Tagore paintings and old jewels—some of which go as far back as 1,800 years in his Jain family.

Today there are, on the one hand, India’s multiplying couture weeks, which shrink the fascinating word “couture” to a commercial wedding bonanza. They misrepresent the uniqueness associated with bespoke clothing, diluting everything into an exhausting sea of crystals and glitter. On the other, is the unexplored terrain of India’s private closets. It is bespoke in some form or the other yet, quite distinct from mainstream fashion. It is secret because the owners usually don’t wear these clothes for design and fashion magazines, nor do they loan them out for fashion shoots to be worn by models—or for any form of public display. For instance, the Deepak and Daksha Hutheesing Collection assembled over four generations of the Hutheesing family includes garments worn by people—commoners to royals—from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. This collection is not open for public viewing.

Umang Hutheesing could then be considered a likely private collector. He is from a royal family focused on art and crafts and is related to two families in Ahmedabad that are recognized collectors in their own right—the Lalbhais (who patronize the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum of art and archaeology) and the Sarabhais (who run The Calico Museum of Textiles).

But there are others. Some are fascinated by modern couture, like the long-standing clients of veteran designer Suneet Varma, who turned up at his silver jubilee celebrations last year wearing garments from his first couture range. Others have converted the preservation of family heirlooms into an art, while still others have only just turned collectors.

Like mother-daughter duo Raman and Sunaina Khera, loyal customers of designer Gaurav Gupta. The Kheras have about 70-odd modern couture pieces by Gupta, collected over the last seven years. “Some ensembles are totally bespoke, never seen in any of Gaurav’s collections,” says Raman, as Gupta explains how he tweaks existing pieces for them or creates entirely new ones if they aren’t happy with the samples. Raman confesses that she can’t imagine a season without shopping from him. The clothes are stored in closets all over their large house, including the guest bedrooms.

Couture needs nurturing, says Singh. Her saris are hung apiece with at least one blouse option each in her walk-in wardrobe, a small room inside her south Delhi home. “I have a catalogue in my head. Nothing is forgotten. I take all of them out and select batches depending on what I want in a particular year or season,” she explains.

“‘I call it my regeneration collection,’ says Malvika Singh. Her passion for textiles blossomed during the handloom revival in post-Independence India.”

She has worn saris since she was 16 and her granddaughter will inherit them. Singh, the daughter of Raj and Romesh Thapar, the founders of Seminar, was raised in a left of centre Mumbai family that favoured handlooms, not mill-made saris. Though her grandmother had Caroche chiffons (considered the epitome of elitist luxury in post-independence Bombay), and she inherited one, it has remained practically unworn.

Collectors are of different persuasions. Some want to preserve a slice of history. Like the spectacular TAPI collection—more than 4,000-odd pieces collected from the mid-1970s—of Mumbai-based Shilpa Shah and her husband Praful Shah, the chairman of Surat’s Garden Silk Mills Ltd.

“It preserves fine, representative examples of textiles produced in India over the past several hundred years,” says Shilpa, emphasizing rare Kashmiri shawls, Pichhwais (temple hangings), silk brocades, folk costumes, 16th-17th century embroidered textiles commissioned in Bengal by the Portuguese, flowery chintz from the Coromandel coast for the Dutch, British and French markets, Gujarati cotton block-printed fragments picked from Fustat near modern Cairo, Egypt, painted and printed textiles found in Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and Sri Lanka. These don’t include her personal Paithanis, Patola stoles, Jamdani scarves or palledar Kashmiri pashminas.

While the collection is housed in Surat and open to viewing for researchers by appointment, it is displayed from time to time through theme-based exhibitions announced on the TAPI website.

Senior designer and author Wendell Rodricks falls into the same genre. “I am collecting clothes and accessories for a museum on Goan clothing which include a gold embroidered Bishop’s mitre, a gold coin pendant that dates back to the Knights of Malta circa 1500s, many garments from the last century and jewellery,” he says.

Fashion designers have many insider accounts.

Varma talks about Issey Miyake couture that art expert Lekha Poddar has been fondly preserving for “the love of art”, or how fashion entrepreneur Pernia Qureshi scours flea markets internationally for old pieces by St Laurent, American designer Halston or Valentino. He himself owns a $1,200 (Rs.71,290) Armani raincoat he bought when he could ill-afford it as a young student, as well as a crystal crown from the 1920s he found in a European flea market.

It is now locked up in a cupboard in the designer’s Delhi home, seldom displayed. Varma keeps the most delicate garments in muslin covers, like a Peshawari shawl he inherited 30 years back when his grandmother died, and the rest of the stuff in trunks or closets.

“‘We need our own methods of preserving our costumes. Western museum methodologies are not the answer. We need cultural and weather- based solutions.’”

Couture goes around—and comes around. A former client recently visited couturier JJ Valaya after more than two decades, bringing her Valaya-made wedding lehnga to be altered into her daughter’s bridal dress.

Hints of all kinds of treasures pop up in conversations—striking Jean Paul Gaultier gowns owned by a dancer who wears them with old temple jewellery, the gossamer ombre saris of the Nepal royals, designer Raghavendra Rathore’s wedding ensemble (a gold brocade bandhgala passed down six generations)—Orissa Ikats collected by classical dance guru Sonal Mansingh, politician and crafts promoter Jaya Jaitley’s textile pieces and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley’s rare Jamavar shawls. In these accounts, there is frequent mention of ensembles by couturiers Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla, and the intricate garments by Pallavi Jaikishan.

A 1986 vintage angarkha by Rohit Bal from Prasad Bidapa’s collection, worn by model Karan Medappa with an Abraham &Thakore stole, Nike sports leggings and Zara shoes. Photo: Asha Thadani

These details stitch together history, memory and personal whimsy. Like Bangalore-based choreographer and model trainer Prasad Bidapa, whose private collection, preserved in a house in Coorg, includes a mulmul angarkha from designer Rohit Bal’s 1986 collection, while his wife treasures an ensemble from the 1980s made by the late designer Rohit Khosla, who died in 1994. “Why haven’t fashion and couture been elevated to the realm of art, literature, dance and music? In many ways a society is defined by what it wears,” says Bidapa. Besides vintage Bal, he owns many old and new pieces by designers Rajesh Pratap Singh, Suneet Varma, Abraham & Thakore.

Interestingly, personalized methods of preservation spike these anecdotes. “After internships at the National Costume Museum in Lisbon and The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, US, I learnt how to maintain museum quality garments. For now, my pieces are preserved in a climate-controlled room at our Panjim house,” says Rodricks.

Pramod Kumar K.G., founder and managing director of Eka Cultural Resources and Research, India’s only museum consulting company, has a different point of view. “We need our own methods of preserving our costumes. Western museum methodologies are not the answer. We need cultural and weather-based solutions,” he says. In India, he explains, air conditioning for old textiles is not the norm; even in museums or other places where old textiles are stored. Which is why air circulation, rolling out, turning around, ventilation, a dust-free environment and refolding of old clothes especially textiles, is imperative.

Mumbai-based Anjana Sharma, Rodricks’ muse and the chief operating officer and fashion director of, admired for her quirky boldness in dressing, has found a system to manage her “ever-expanding wardrobe”. Besides dozens of Rodricks’ garments, a biggish collection of Prada shoes and unusual Khadi saris by Rohit Bal, she treasures a kurta set in lovely shades of maroon made in the late 1980s by Rohit Khosla. “I have an organized walk-in wardrobe,” says Sharma.

“Wendell’s clothes are scattered all across as they range from dresses to bottoms, saris and kurtas—my clothes are hung with silhouettes in mind. Expensive saris are kept in muslin bags and heavier Indian wear hangs in suiters. Shoes are in labelled boxes, making them easy to grab. But I am planning to create a subsection for Wendell’s clothes now as I want to document them and take pictures,” she adds.

Private collections are not just a sum total of designer couture. Mumbai’s well-known jewellery designer Jamini Ahluwalia, a monochromatic dresser, prizes vintage necklaces collected from antique markets across the world. “I have a collection of tribal silver started several years ago, including nomadic pieces from Gujarat and Rajasthan. One of my favourites is a horse tikka used for royal outings. There is also the family jewellery passed down from my mother with one-of-a-kind pieces,” she says, adding that she treasures two Parsi gara saris gifted by her father to her mother in the 1940s. “I never polish my silver because I love the tarnished look that gives it age and history,” adds Ahluwalia.

“The Kheras have about 70-odd modern couture pieces by Gaurav Gupta, collected over the last seven years. ‘Some ensembles are totally bespoke, never seen in any of Gaurav’s collections.’”

Many miles away, Kolkata-based designer and collector of handicrafts Neelanjana Ghose, who also designs for films—including the recent Chittagong—has been working with Kanthas for two decades. “I infuse both Indian and Western designs into my Kanthas, a vastly malleable, absorbing and ever-evolving craft that I want to expand beyond its sociocultural boundaries without losing its authenticity. My collection has silk and Tussar Kantha saris given by my mother Srilata Sarkar, who pioneered its revival. I have some Muga weaves from Assam as well as white Bengali Dhakais. A 1940s Kashmiri jacket is also very dear,” adds Ghose, who stores her pieces in soft linen bags.

Irrefutably, most collectors have a background of privilege, if not wealth. But raised with aesthetic sensitivity they soon realize that inheriting a fortune and a few thousand glitzy costumes leaves them with a greater responsibility for keeping the story organic and alive. Many are driven by a personal passion, their personalities and their upbringing driving them.

Take these similarities in life scripts. “I was born to be a custodian of art, it is in my DNA as a descendant of a temple-building Jain family who were financiers during the Mughal rule,” says Hutheesing.

“I grew up in Santiniketan, which honed my aesthetic understanding,” explains Ghose.

“We lived in a joint family where my grandfather painted watercolours and my father collected traditional arts and crafts much before collecting became fashionable and about commerce. This shaped my personality and my eye to find things I enjoy living with,” says Ahluwalia.

“I grew up taking cues from a mother who was steeped in ancient Indian history while she played the wife and travelling companion to a husband who was medical director of an American petroleum company. The die was cast when I married Praful Shah from Surat. My visits to Surat led me to explore its old Gaji, Tanchhoi and zari makers, discovering faint trail marks of a fascinating past when the town was an emporium of East-West trade,” says Shilpa.

A photograph shot in 2002 by acclaimed photographer Dayanita Singh as part of work for her memorable book Privacy (2003) reflects why collectors of private couture lean beyond wealth. This one is of Mumbai’s Jhaveri sisters—Nandita, Amrita and Priya with their parents.

“We grew up with beautiful things. My parents were obsessive collectors of art, jewellery, costumes, and textiles. My father was a jewellery designer who collected art before it was fashionable and my mother collected garments, Afghani, Persian and Kashmiri carpets and shawls. We have a collection of Aabhas from Kutch, sometimes a room is required to air them all, gota-ghagras and old Patan Patola saris,” says Priya Jhaveri, gallerist at Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary, editor of 101: A Guide to 101 Modern & Contemporary Arts and co-editor of UnZipped: Women & Men in Prostitution Speak Out. She is reluctant to debate if wealth makes bespoke clothing an easy sport, saying a collector must be assessed beyond wealth.

Anjana Sharma in a maroon, crushed kurta set from one of the late designer Rohit Khosla’s first collections. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Anjana Sharma in a maroon, crushed kurta set from one of the late designer Rohit Khosla’s first collections. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Hoarders of couture learn to chisel their artistic muscles, eventually becoming pall-bearers of India’s cultural heritage. “I don’t aspire to make statements through clothing or jewellery and favour dress that’s not conspicuously branded, though I enjoy and support contemporary design and fashion,” says Priya who, with her sister Amrita, became the first Indian art collector to put up a single-owner evening sale at Sotheby’s in New York last year.

The genuinely committed add their personal signature to a decadent inheritance. Hutheesing’s ancient haveli (mansion) in Ahmedabad saw the launch of his personally designed Durbar Collection on World Heritage Day last year. “Gujarat is a strong bastion of textile culture. I have added a lot to my ancestral collections but which are not for sale. But imprinted with similar notions of bespoke and revivalism, I have created a new commercial collection,” says the royal-turned-designer-revivalist. The Hutheesing Design Co. was founded in 1881 by his ancestor Magganbhai but Umang’s Durbar Collection gives it a strategic design direction. As Raghavendra Rathore points out, “Hutheesing has tagged and catalogued each piece in an exemplary manner.”

Like Rodricks working on a museum for Goan clothing and Malvika Singh keen to initiate one for regeneration textiles, the private collector’s progress from a safe keeper to the lead player in the big archival game is crucial to sustaining lesser-seen couture.

Kumar K.G. agrees. “It is fantastic that some people have held on to these clothes, whatever the purpose or means of preservation,” he says, adding that collections like those of TAPI or Ahmedabad’s Calico museum are among the most organized, well-looked after and accessible to research scholars and students, as are the private collections of Darshan Shah of the Kolkata’s Weaver’s Studio.

Yet the all-important question remains: Why are these collections or at least parts of them, not in museums open to the public? As does the recurring lament that India doesn’t archive anything systematically—fashion and costumes are no exception. The unimaginatively curated and insipid representations of Indian costumes and weaves at Delhi’s National Museum make the question urgent and vital.

Kumar K.G. doesn’t entirely agree. “Every old Phulkari does not need a museum, it can be draped over a sofa, admired and even worn. But garments that represent materials and fabrics of a particular era and reflect the material culture and rituals of our country, need to be preserved in museums,” he says, talking about some royal collections that also historically symbolize a particular occasion or festival, where the family is the custodian not just of the garment but also of the ceremony.

It leads to the question whether there exists—across these private collections—a strong visual of pan-Indian design? If so, it may be the stuff of an ambitious, amalgamated display at international museums like the Victoria & Albert in London or the costume institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It could be a captivating representation of India interpreted through couture, without folk-lorish or kitschy melodrama.

Like nothing the world has seen so far.–Secret-couture.html