Trend Tracker | The Aam Fabric Party


Trend Tracker | The Aam Fabric Party

In a small studio near Mehrauli in Delhi, 31-year-old Rohtak-born and London-trained designer Gaurav Jai Gupta sits purposefully near the loom, the centrepiece of his workspace. Unless you interrupt, Jai Gupta’s gentle soliloquy on handlooms that range from fine-count Khadi in Phulia, West Bengal, to ordinary cotton, goes on like a song of devotion.

The same persistence has helped Jai Gupta craft his brand Akaaro since his 2010 debut at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in Delhi. He describes his work as “craft couture”—his men’s shirts and saris involve dexterous weaving techniques, including three-yarn fabrics (made using steel yarn, cotton and silk). But in simpler terms, he is a cotton picker—an urbane designer working to scale up India’s most ordinary fabrics, Khadi and plain cotton. “Cotton is the most important yarn for me because of the human skill that goes into weaving it. Even when I weave with the finest yarn, the fabric tones itself down, turning into an equalizer that anyone can wear,” he says.

In a market ruled by embroidered crêpes and chiffons, light lycra, soft velvets and luxurious silks, where wedding finery is a raging industry, fashion is often confused with lavish clothes, and where no Bollywood star has ever endorsed an unembellished cotton garment, designers like Jai Gupta represent an alternative movement.

In an industrial neighbourhood in Delhi’s Okhla area, 33-year-old Shani Himanshu stands outside an old iron gate in Khadi denim trousers in brick red and a Khadi jacket dyed in natural indigo. Inside his workshop-cum-studio, an array of modern, stylistic separates—slim and loose trousers, tops, jackets and tunics, shirts for men and women, some with Bandhini and block printing but all created from mill-made cotton, Khadi and Kala Cotton (see below)—hang on stands. With quiet assurance, Himanshu says everything his label 11:11 Celldsgn creates is with “consciousness”.

Next week, his first line of Khadi Denim, with the fabric created in collaboration with Arvind Mills Ltd, Ahmedabad, one of the largest denim manufacturers in the world, will be in in his store Grey Garden in Hauz Khas Village in the Capital. Khadi denim is made from authentic Khadi sourced from Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan—Khadi yarn is woven with the thickness of the denim twill. It is “100% handmade,” says Himanshu. The fabric is hand-spun and handwoven and the final garment is hand-stitched by a village artisan.

Mumbai designer Vaishali Shadangule too has extensively worked with plain cotton and Khadi weaves since her 2011 debut at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. “Cotton is a better canvas because of its design flexibility. It is easier to adapt to trends and experiments and suits my sensibility. As an artist and designer, I find a lot of potential in these fabrics. Also, there is a great satisfaction in being a part of the larger effort of serving an old tradition and culture,” adds Shadangule, known for her lovely, loose and long drape silhouettes.

As you tread the road less taken in glitzy Indian fashion, you meet a bunch of designers committed to turning cotton garments into a fashion statement. They belong to the growing handloom brigade who emphasize their work with pure cotton even though they may work with other local fabrics, like silk and wool.

A molecular breakdown of the term “cotton” may be pertinent here. For this story, we only sought some among those designers who work with hand-spun, handwoven Khadi, mill-made cotton, or a mix of Khadi and ordinary cotton.

In her book India Contemporary Design: Fashion, Graphics, Interiors (Roli), to be launched soon in India, Divia Patel, curator in the Asian department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK, has several theories about why contemporary designers use Khadi from time to time. “They do this for historic reasons, for the ‘romance of the handmade’, and for the way in which its unique nature becomes a means of expressing Indianness in their work,” she says.

Many of us may be familiar with the fine-count Khadi garments created by Rajesh Pratap Singh, the extraordinary way in which Sabyasachi popularized Khadi by embroidering it to create wedding garments, and Rohit Bal’s use of mulmul, making it an aspirational fabric, but the cotton movement among younger designers takes the story forward.

One, it doesn’t rely on elitist appeal, A-list consumers or Bollywood endorsements. Two, there is no jingoism. There is cause and consciousness but these designers don’t expect customers to convert to their ideology as long as they find buyers. “It is a conscious effort to be a part of the ethical and socially relevant cause of creating classic fashion that stands the test of time and ever-changing fashion trends, but not for symbolism. I never force it upon my customers,” says Kolkata’s Paromita Banerjee, whose Spring/Summer 2014 collection Safed Rang Part 2 celebrates cotton vividly through easy and elegant prêt. So the buyer is not burdened with patriotic obligation.

Three, these designers create garments from mill-made cotton or hand-spun Khadi, with their entire concentration, time and design innovation going into the weave and tailoring, not decoration. That’s why they will help tweak the baseline definition of “modern” Indian fashion, which hinges on surface embellishments and “lehnga culture”.

Some cotton pickers prefer to work far from the madding crowd of fashion weeks, public relations and media. Like Chandrashekar and Ravikiran of Metaphor Racha in Bangalore, who sell from select stores in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. They create attractive and wearable ready-to-wear garments, home décor pieces and accessories in hand-spun Khadi, (all grown and spun in Karnataka), within a price range of Rs.4,000.

Chandrashekhar, a reluctant interviewee, says they would rather stay away from events which have made Indian fashion a platform without alternative movements. “Without sounding socialist, communist or capitalist, let’s not forget that there is a parallel economy which needs sustenance. Simple cotton and Khadi are important because of people’s involvement in producing them, the feel and texture of these fabrics, and the dimensions that open up about the Indian way of life when you speak of cotton,” he says.

Whatever the ideological reasoning, he adds, cotton garments too need to be fashioned with an aesthetic of beauty; not for one minute should designers lose sight of the fact that people respond visually to fashion. He doesn’t believe that buyers of cotton must convert to the cause of weaver and farmer sustenance. “As long as it sells, that’s all that matters,” he adds.

What emerges from all this is not just new and wearable fashion, but compelling social stories. While Banerjee, like Jai Gupta, favours the West Bengal belt for sourcing fine-count Khadi and cotton to support the weaver groups in that region, Chandrashekhar does the same in Karnataka. Their attempt, he says, is “to create a horizontal market with staunchly local craft, connecting weavers to buyers, instead of a hierarchical one”.

In a different way, that’s exactly what Arvind Mills is doing through its collaboration with Himanshu for Khadi denim. The manufacturing process rooted in Gujarat’s Gondal and Surendranagar districts also involves Ahmedabad’s Apang Manav Mandal, a group of physically challenged people being trained as craftsmen. While the technical know-how of weaving Khadi denim, like the traditional thick and tight denim twill, is contributed by Arvind Mills, including teaching village artisans how to dye the fabric in natural indigo, the work is assigned to locals.

“A hundred hands go into each garment, with farmers, spinners, dyers and tailors but the artisan who stitches the garment autographs his name on the garment,” says Himanshu. The creative head of denim design at Arvind Mills, Rajesh Gupta, says: “We have collaborated on this because we believe in taking the idea of Indian design forward. The Khadi denim route is our way of working towards sustainability of artisan livelihoods, to retain an authentic Indian product and prevent weavers from migrating to cities.” He adds that the final product does not necessarily need the Arvind Mills label on it.

Khadi denim separates set to hit 11:11’s retail store will be limited-edition and priced at Rs.25,000 a piece because the production of hand-stitched garments isn’t yet feasible in large consignments. In addition, as Gupta says, “It has taken us three years to get this stage of fabric ready but we are working continuously to take it to the next level and make it of international, artisanal quality where it competes with other denims in global markets.”

Chandrashekhar (in white shirt) and Ravikiran of Metaphor Racha, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Waving the green flag from the other side is the contemporary customer of fashion, leaving behind shackles like “Oh this is only cotton, why should I pay so much?” or “How can simple cotton be fashion?” While designers understand that their cotton creations largely end up as “day wear”—no one makes couture gowns from Khadi—they say their convictions aren’t affected by market preferences. “Those who are conscious about what they eat, how they live, a sense of aesthetic in lifestyles and social responsibilities will respond to the 100% cotton movement—the reasoning stretches from the dinner plate to the garment,” says Himanshu. Banerjee agrees. “When I had started a few years back, customers questioned the prices of cotton garments and we would have to tell them the whole story of the yarn, the weaver cluster, but now clients come with an open mind. Cotton is no more ‘just cotton’ as they understand the relevance,” she says.

Shadangule believes that the market for pure-cotton fashion is only growing. “This work is significant because there is a big market waiting to be tapped. Cotton can address the needs of a variety of consumers. It will sustain as it will branch out into a separate segment,” she says.

This is why Jai Gupta’s argument of “craft as couture” is a persuasive one. “Surely, the Indian diaspora looks for paisleys and motifs. But there are no bootis on my garments, which are visually flat and plain. My work is an interplay of visual geometry. And yes, cotton may mostly end up in day-wear garments as the fabric will never have ‘glaze’, so essentially it will sell less. But brands are about commitment and conviction. I want to scale up handlooms, remain in my comfort zone yet take it further. If I wanted to make money from fashion, I would open a sari store in Delhi,” he says.

To the final clichéd question about why Bollywood doesn’t bother with plain cotton and Khadi, Himanshu has a straight-faced answer. “You can’t blame them. Indian celebrities don’t have much choice in fashion,” he says. It may be a clever marketing line to sell cotton consciousness.

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The story of kala cotton

In 2007, Khamir, a platform for the promotion of handicrafts and cultural practices, began working with Satvik, an association of organic farmers. The aim was to bring Kala Cotton, one of the few genetically pure old-world cotton species from India, to the attention of mainstream cotton manufacturers. The goals were to encourage sustainable cotton production and preserve agricultural and artisan livelihoods which had diminished drastically due to the rapid industrialization of the region after the 2001 earthquake.

Kala Cotton is an eloquent story waiting for a mainstream debut. Photo courtesy: Khamir

Khamir—which means intrinsic pride in Kutchi—is a joint initiative of the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan, a project to rebuild Kutch after the 2001 earthquake, and the Nehru Foundation for Development. Till 2010, then, when Khamir put out its first range of Kala Cotton products, India had in its backyard an eloquent yet mostly ignored story of how a fabric that once ruled our clothing can be reinstated. Indigenous to Kutch and organic by default as the farmers don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizer, Kala Cotton is a rain-fed crop dependent on minimal investment and resilient in difficult geographical conditions. “At a time when local is global and small is big, Kala Cotton’s match with old-world cotton samples retrieved as archaeological evidence from Mohenjo Daro sites is a significant narrative,” says Meera Goradia, director of Khamir.

Kala Cotton faded away during colonial rule, when hybridization of cotton was popularized as new-world cotton, which was easier to produce in the mills of Britain and later, in India. Now, Khamir and Satvik have created a supply chain between farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers to convert the raw cotton into handwoven products. At the moment, in its only store near Bhuj, Khamir sells tailored garments—jackets, tops, long and short ‘kurtas’ and men’s shirts in coarse, textured cotton, both dyed and in natural colours—besides other products in the price range of Rs.600-2,000. “We want to offer Kala Cotton as a blank slate, a canvas to mainstream fashion designers who can create the right buzz about it,” says Goradia.

Not only is this model a ready template for communities attempting similar work, there is technical learning in how the old-world cotton’s short staple length, which made it difficult to spin and weave has been developed into sturdier yarn by adjustments on the weaving looms.

To buy Kala Cotton garments or products, visit, write to or call 02832-271272.–The-Aam-Fabric-Party.html