Is The Indian Fashion Industry Facing The Handloom Hangover?
First, the good news. Handloom is the new buzzword of mainstream Indian fashion. The recently concluded Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) allotted a whole day exclusively to it, calling it Indian Textile Day.
The upcoming Amazon India Fashion Week kicks off on March 15 with 13 designers, including Neeru Kumar, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Rohit Bal, Akaaro and Sanjay Garg, who are expected to interlock textile statements into their Fall/Winter 2017 narrative.
To make inroads into the supermarket of choices, dictated by international trends that trickle into India via fast fashion giants Zara and H&M, the Indian fashion industry is looking to rekindle its romance with the indigenous.
But some fashion folks are against this love story. “It’s horrible and scary, at once,” says Garg, who ironically is considered one of today’s most successful champions of Indian textile craft, having in a short span captured the modern Indian buyer’s imagination by contemporarising the Chanderi and Benarasi. “Textiles are going through what embroideries experienced a few years ago. They are becoming victim of a herd mentality.”
Rajesh Pratap Singh (Lakmé Fashion Week Summer Resort 2017)
Thing About Fashion Cycles
But flippancy and transience lie at the very heart of the trend theory. Not so long ago, alternative ruled Indian fashion after all. “It’s a cop out rather than a trend,” argues Kolkata designer Kallol Datta. “Suddenly, everyone wants to prove they love India. It’s a quick fix; nobody is thinking long-term anymore. There is overall fatigue [in the industry]. It would be a good idea for us to take a gap year, examine our priorities, and come back re-energised.”
In 2012, Gautam Vazirani took on the title of Fashion Curator: Sustainable & Handloom Initiative with IMG-Reliance LFW, with noble intentions — to delink handloom from trends. He started out with the belief that handloom and high fashion don’t go together. But 9 seasons into the role, he finds himself bemused by how a large chunk of the fashion frat is training its focus on handloom as the on-point trend.
“Applications from both, GenNext and fairly known names, are increasingly handloom driven. It’s okay to be wide-eyed about handmade fashion if you are browsing through London’s Dover Street Market, but it’s shameful when Indians get excited. Isn’t handloom part of our heritage?” he wonders.
Garg tells you he will lose it if handloom and trend is uttered in the same sentence. He is worried that the pace of consumption will kill our 1,000-year-old heritage. “I have to follow the pace of the loom, not the biannual fashion cycle. We have to think about how to sustain it forever, rather than jam it between 6 monthly fashion cycles,” he says.
He is referring to the intrinsic character of handloom — patience and practice — that places it at odds with high fashion. It’s why traditionalists like him and Paromita Banerjee Sarkar showcase only one collection a year.
The NID (National Institute of Design) alumnus who considers tangail (traditional weave from Bangladesh) and fine muslin the backbone of her collections, has stopped focusing on trends altogether. Instead, she devotes time to fabric development that helps create classics for the wardrobe, which can stay relevant from season to season.
Her design process begins not at the air-conditioned studio, but in a sun-baked loom in Bhuj, where she is spending time with the Kala Cotton craft cluster to develop fine hand-woven cotton for her Spring/Summer 2018 collection. “Innovation starts at the loom. It’s fabric first, then silhouettes,” she says.
But the bulk of the community prefers to employ the services of middlemen to source textile, and deliver the bales at city workshops. “Designers who indulge in fast sourcing to feed fast fashion stand to suffer in the long run. A majority of them are unmindful of the methodology involved,” says Vazirani.
Sanjay Garg (Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2016)
Innovators Or Reinventors?
Some consider the handloom copout a product of sloth. Weaving does the talking. Silhouette, cut, imagination can take a backseat. Instead of being innovator, are we turning into a tribe of revivalists?
The younger lot, including International Woolmark winner Rahul Mishra, Aneeth Arora, Akaaro, and Amit Aggarwal, understand the risk of being perceived as ‘handloom-only people’.
Mishra, therefore, develops his own fabric and focusses on fresh silhouettes; Arora’s unique selling proposition is the delight in her detailing; Akaaro’s cutting-edge designs make it daring like no other; and Aggarwal reuses textile scrap to make handloom cool. The rest are making A-line frocks, using props like canvas totes to make a case for handloom.
Paromita Banerjee Sarkar (Lakmé Fashion Week Summer Resort 2016)
Indian fashion is often pulped down to adjectives. Take for instance, sustainable fashion. An argument for fair trade or minimal waste, which should be an unspoken pursuit for all designers, is now a USP.
“We need to do away with the notion that working with handloom is the only way you can be a sustainable label. I’ve only used repurposed cotton since the time I debuted with the GenNext show in 2007. I take it for granted that I must be ethically conscious in my practice of fashion design,” says Datta.
Artisans Of Kutch (Lakmé Fashion Week Summer Resort 2017
Too many narratives propose confusion. Specially in the millennial influencers tripping on Instagram feeds, where no single trend holds attention, much less our allegiance. Fashion week organisers could look at instituting a separate identity for handloom, keeping the focus squarely on purity rather than pomp.
“Potentially, it would make sense, since 50% of designers at LFW claim to work with handloom. But it will entail huge investments. Imagine holding a handloom week without sponsors, budgets, or the glamour that comes with being associated with a fashion week?” argues Vazirani.
We rest our case.
Shweta Shiware tracks fashion on work and leisure, and began writing on it when it wasn’t quite the opium of urban India. With a Masters degree from London’s Central Saint Martins, she has previously worked as Fashion Features Editor withGrazia India, and authored a coffee-table book titled Aharya, tracking the aesthetic attire at the Kumbh Mahaparv. Shweta is currently enjoying the liberating space of freelance writing with beloved long black by her side. Follow her on Twitter @holysoly.