A breed of young Indian designers is engaging with global fashion using Indian workmanship, through an intercontinental vocabulary. Sharmi Adhikary talks to four of them, who have made a mark at the International Woolmark Prize
At the finale of the International Woolmark Prize held recently in Florence, Italy, renowned American designer Phillip Lim called the Indian fashion label Bodice “romantic, modern and relevant”. Ruchika Sachdeva, the designer behind Bodice, stood humbled and elated. But then, for this young Delhi-based designer, elation has become a routine since her brand was selected as the womenswear winner at the prestigious fashion event in January 2018. She was especially praised for her technique and manufacturing process, also winning a cash prize of AU $200,000 (approximately Rs.1 crore).
The first Indian woman to have won this coveted prize, Sachdeva is part of a new breed of Indian designers that has been able to tune into the global fashion arena without losing its Indian sensibilities. They have successfully translated their sartorial aesthetics, steeped in rich Indian crafts, embroideries and weaves, into a vocabulary that is not restricted by demography, geography or season.
Designer Suket Dhir, who was the 2015/2016 winner of the International Woolmark Prize in the menswear category, says, “My clothes do not have to be Indian, because I am Indian. When I envision a collection, I never think that it should represent India. For the winning line, I translated Indian ikat on Australian Merino wool, used Karnataka’s traditional kasuti embroidery, created ombre colour gradation through block printing, and used weaving and craft techniques from eight Indian states, to create a collection based on global silhouettes. Innately inspired by India and my childhood memories, the clothes had nothing overtly traditional about them.”
The first Asian menswear designer to bag the prize, Dhir affirms that he has always designed for himself. With irreverent comic timing and an eye for whimsical prints and motifs, he says: “The trick is to tweak the visuals so that when anyone, anywhere, sees the Indiainspired details, they react with a twinkle in their eye.”
Fashion designer Rina Singh, whose label Eka was the winner in the womenswear category of the Woolmark regional round in 2016, shares, “Fashion is somewhat saturated across the globe. Now, the new movement is to make it relevant across cultures and consumers. If global brands can make clothes that cross boundaries, Indian garments are capable of doing that as well. A label like ours has a unique design language because it brings to the fore what is intrinsically Indian, presenting it in an elegant, easy way that can be enjoyed for its comfort. Indian fashion is not only about trousseau and wedding wear. There is an India of Satyajit Ray, of Gandhiji and of Ruskin Bond. Of course, we are softer but the language of subtlety is gorgeous if denoted properly. Women across the world identify with it.”
Singh, a graduate from Wigan & Leigh College, the UK, works mostly with linen, mulmul and khadi. Her Woolmark showcase was a sublime tribute to painter Amrita Sher-Gill using jamdani and wool in soft pastel shades.
This dream run of creativity was initiated in 2014, when designer Rahul Mishra had stunned the jury at Milan Fashion Week with his exceptional showcase. The first Indian fashion designer to win the International Woolmark Prize in the womenswear category, an honour earlier bestowed upon global icons like Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, Mishra innovated with the main material through intricate embroidery, even while giving his garments a Western silhouette. Since then, the designer has been showcasing regularly at the Paris Fashion Week and has given Indian embroidery a new lease of life in the international fashion circuit.
“We mostly focus on trans-seasonal apparel. Fine and delicate embroidery is done on handwoven chanderi and other textiles to prove how India can go global,” explains Mishra, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
The foundation is, of course, intelligent design – like in a jacket that displays miniature mango prints, a reference to the ambiya or the paisley, a prominent Indian pattern. “The world has woken up to the young and quirky side of Indian design. Why suggest Indianness with a traditional paisley when you can opt for a bright mango?” asks Dhir, a graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Adds Sachdeva, who graduated from the London College of Fashion, “A Bodice customer is someone who appreciates good design. She leads a busy life, juggles multiple roles and wants effortlessly stylish clothes. She lives in every country.”
For her winning collection that emphasised sustainable innovation, Sachdeva created sharp winter coats, high-neck tops, bomber jackets and dresses combining Merino wool and traditional kantha embroidery. “It’s the goal of a good design to communicate stories of a community and its culture through clothes, and make them relevant in the present. The judges were surprised by how the garments were rooted in India but felt so relatable to international markets,” Sachdeva signs off.
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in the article are her own