I Was A Sari bomber (left); and an Anavila Misra sari that involved experimentation with linen and khadi.
Bomber jackets made from Ikat fabrics; pantsuits from sarees; easy breezy tunics and breathable separates cut from handwoven cotton and linen; even a linen saree weaved with age-old motifs.
What was seen as a stodgy garment, printed with overused traditional motifs or just over-embroidered, that you bought for a few hundred rupees from a dusty handloom shop, is transformed into a contemporary statement of your Indianness. The silhouettes are modern — jackets, trousers, pants, dresses, deconstructed garments, frocks, even dhoti pants.
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New-age brands, fashion start-ups, and established designers are introducing Indians to their heritage in ways we rarely thought of before.
There is a sort of a timeline that captures how this happened.
India’s artisanal heritage
Designer Rahul Mishra contends you cannot talk about a handloom revival without understanding the position India had in the world textile trade.
“The Silk Route couldn’t have been possible without having India as a large part of this trade network. Indian chintz was so sought after by the European elite in the 17th century that France had to ban it. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s politics and freedom movement put textiles at its core when he gave a call to ban videshi kapda (imported cloth) like Manchester cotton, for which our farmers were forced to grow cotton and indigo and which killed our artisanal heritage to a large degree,” Mishra says.
But we are living in modern times and anyone who loves fashion does not buy clothes based on traditions alone. This is where Indian handmade stumbled. You bought a woven garment because you wanted that one handloom thing in your wardrobe or needed handwoven sarees for festivals and weddings.
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Things have changed, and how. Jade’s Monica Shah says, “We’re approaching our artisanal legacy separate from its traditional notions, and reshaping it into globally relevant forms, thus giving these techniques a whole new flavour.”
A dress by JADE.
Luxury fashion and bridal couture showed the way
Indian luxury and bridal couture have led the way. Designers such as Rohit Bal, Abu Sandeep, Tarun Tahiliani, and not to forget, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, sourced some of the most beautiful fabrics, and revived dying embroideries and techniques for one-of-a-kind pieces and bridal couture. Textiles such as brocade, Banarasi, Kanjeevaram, and all kinds of silk kept some of the heritage traditions alive.
Apioneer of the contemporary Indian fashion industry, the late Rohit Khosla was the first to cut voluminous kurtas in crinkled cotton and used jute rope as embroidery. He had artist Gopika Nath paint on lengths of tussar silk. Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, inspired by costumes of Mughal courtesans, introduced the floor-length Anarkali-style of churidaar-kurta, which soon became the Indian version of the ball gown. They have created masterpieces in textiles such as Khadi, Bandhani and Ajrak, and reinvented embroideries such as Chikankari and Zardozi. Bal used extravagant brocade textiles to create his signature Indo-Western look and lehengas.
It was all aspirational but beyond the reach of most Indians. Unfortunately, many textiles, embroideries, and techniques continued to slide into anonymity.
An Abu Sandeep anarkali
Evolution of Western silhouettes with an Indian soul
The next generation of fashion superstars transformed our perception of how we can wear Indian.
Mainstream fashion leaders have reinterpreted handcrafted luxury with minimal embroidery. The trousers may be low-slung but are cut from linen or cotton, the reversible jacket may be something you wear with a kurta or shirt, but the fabric could be an ikat or the embroidery may be aari work.
Rahul Mishra, for his debut collection at Lakme Fashion Week, used brocade and Kerala set mundu fabric to hew reversible dresses. He has continued to use intricate embroidery and textiles from clusters far apart as Kerala, Banaras, Chandheri and Maheshwari, on gowns, saris, dresses, and sequined bodices, in his craft-forward brand.
Anavila Misra remoulded the sari space, first with her linen saris that were oh-so-breathable and then with experimentations involving linen and khadi.
“To make a sari contemporary, I had to disrupt the space by adding an element of simplicity and universality,” Misra says. She collaborated with artisans from the Phulia region in West Bengal, known for its cotton tant saris and fine work with khadi and muslin, to create a new linen yarn, considered a foreign yarn.
An Anavila Misra sari
Amit Aggarwal uses traditional embroideries and techniques, such as aari and zardozi, on new-age fabrics. “In our new collection Pedesis, we have used handlooms with polymer by first converting it into yarn,” he says.
For their label, Jade, Monica Shah and Karishma Swali have used Ek Taar (a single strand of thin metal) on skirts and jackets and Kasab embroidery using pure silver thread on heirloom-worthy belts and jackets. “The only way to ensure the sustenance of our artisanal heritage is by taking it out of their traditional templates.”
Bodice, a winner of the Woolmark International Prize, has used a Kantha running stitch as a technique on their minimal Western garments to help build an illusion of a linear pattern in the past. Aggarwal’s craft collaboration with Sugandha Kedia’s Dusala resulted in reversible metallic draped capes made with handwoven Pashmina.
Ujjwal Dubey’s label Antar Agni collaborates with craftsmen to create unique Indian fabrics “such as handwoven cotton, cotton with silk, and handspun-handwoven cotton, woven by weavers in Meerut, Bhagalpur, and Maheshwar,” for his menswear. “We are also constantly trying to innovate with embroideries. Even though it is not spoken about much, tailoring is another Indian skill that needs to be acknowledged.”
Antar Agni’s collection includes tailored jackets of handspun fabrics that offer an interesting juxtaposition of silhouette and textile.
Flutter by Antar Agni
And yet, it was not enough. It is all aspirational for most Indians and confined to the upper echelons who can pay upwards of Rs 30,000 for a simple separate like a kurta or shirt or a skirt.
The younger labels and brands redefining the Indian handcrafted industry
Audacious younger brands, startups, and labels (many less than 10 years old) are the ones truly disrupting the handloom space, creating premium collections that don’t cost a fortune and can be part of your wardrobe.
Aggarwal says, “Our culture is too rich and diverse to not be preserved. It's an uphill battle, but we're getting there. The number of design studios that are tirelessly working to preserve their crafts is simply humbling.”
He mentions Mizoram-based Lapâr who are preserving the work of Mizo women weavers. “In Nagaland, Woven Threads is also preserving the lost craft of weaving and using local motifs. In Gujarat, Jeevan Indigo is reinventing the art of dyeing, in which the Vankar community has taken centre stage. Some state governments have provided subsidies to such initiatives and design studios.”
I Was a Sari, which claims to be a ‘Mumbai-meets-Milan’ brand, is rooted in a circular economy. They source their raw materials from colourful Mumbai markets or use old saris and dead stocks to craft beautiful fashion products such as bags, shoes, dresses, kaftans, kimonos, and shirts for as little as Rs 2,000.
Black ikat bomber
One of the more exciting brands to come out of India is filmmaker and actor Kamal Hassan’s House of Khaddar. You can buy a buttoned shirt for Rs 2,900, a cropped jacket with a buttoned mini skirt for Rs 6,000, and a double-breasted blazer with wide-legged trousers for Rs 7,600.
Amritha Ram, creative director of House of Khaddar, says, “At House of Khaddar we work with old weaving techniques. One of our upcoming collections is an eclectic mix of handlooms and denim for which we have woven denim strands into khaddar to create The Khaddar Denim, which is entirely handmade, hand dyed, and waste-free. We have bought Kutch embroideries from women in Gujarat to use as patches on types of denim, skirts, and jackets, and will be soon working with Ikat and Kalamkari.”
Some high street brands or stores like Westside are stocking clothes made from Ikat, Bandhej and Kalamkari kurtas. However, that is where we need a lot more movement, says Misra. “Traditions stay alive only if they go to a much larger group of people. The little infusion of handloom aesthetics in high street brands will help sensitise younger consumers to the beauty of the handmade.”
Instagram has played a rather large role in connecting brands with no distribution network or standalone stores to consumers. Social media has also helped weavers’ next generation to keep up with the trends. “Once they had limited exposure and needed the guidance of designers and organisations,” says Dubey. “Now, with social media on a high, there is no limit to the exposure, and that is evident in the way they have grown in their aesthetics as well.”
Indian craftsmanship has always had an inherent element of flexibility. “Why just clothes? They can as seamlessly be adapted into architecture, interior design, and even museum exhibits. They can be chic when you want them to, by just cutting those textiles in a certain way,” says Aggarwal.
What designers are concerned about is not the survival of the heritage; that can be taken for granted now. It is about the quality. “There are many weavers, embroiderers, hand-block printers, and designers who work with textiles, motifs, and embroideries with a passion for excellence. Unfortunately, there need to be many more who are focused on excellence, rather than shoddy and crude work. To deal with such transgressions, we need to empower artisans and weavers to create the finest and then reward them for their skills and contribution. We need to stop exploiting and treating them as cheap labour,” says Abu Jani of Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla label.