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Abraham & Thakore: The masters of minimalism

A&T’s David Abraham, Rakesh Thakore and Kevin Nigli talk about expansion plans, Satya Paul, and what keeps them going

(from left) Thakore, Abraham and Nigli in their archives room in Noida
(from left) Thakore, Abraham and Nigli in their archives room in Noida (Pradeep Gaur)

While sifting through the thousands of garments that make up the archives of Abraham & Thakore (A&T) at their atelier in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, you realise that many of these would not be out of place in today’s trend-hungry market. Whether it is a double ikat cotton scarf from their first collection in 1992, a black handloom sari that opened their debut runway show in 2010, or a robe from 2017 printed with the Devanagari script, each item tells a story of a rare breed of fashion designers who create garments that never grow old.

Since launching their brand in 1992, David Abraham, Rakesh Thakore and Kevin Nigli have kept their design language simple: modern, clutter-free and far away from the highly ornate embroideries that have become synonymous with Indian fashion. They have based their design vocabulary in the textile heritage of India, while reimagining it in a contemporary way (they have reinvented ikat, jamdani and fine cottons by engineering the weaves). The trio has played an instrumental role in introducing the Indian customer to couture-ready textiles that are easy to wear, and relatively accessible (a sari starts from 17,000, and a blouse, 4,000).

“A&T has always had a steady conversation on craft; they never screamed,” says Nonita Kalra, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar. “They brought effortlessness to clothes, that’s something that you can’t use with a lot of designers. And they have been consistent, collection after collection. They are not changing with trends.”

A&T has also taken the modern Indian fashion story to the world—their houndstooth double ikat silk sari from the 2011 collection was part of a Victoria & Albert Museum show, The Fabric Of India, from 2015-16 in London.

The 1995 Liberty Christmas catalogue, showcasing the A&T collection
The 1995 Liberty Christmas catalogue, showcasing the A&T collection

I am meeting the three creative heads at their atelier two weeks after the announcement that they are the new creative directors of Satya Paul, a label well known for its bright prints, replacing designer Rajesh Pratap Singh. The three are also busy preparing for the expansion of A&T’s footprint across India—they are launching six stores in Metro cities this year. They currently have one store each in Delhi and Mumbai. A&T has been in an expansion mode since Reliance Brands Ltd (RBL) acquired a majority stake in 2022. RBL, the retail arm of the conglomerate Reliance Industries, acquired Satya Paul in 2018.

Also read: ‘The Other is us,’ say Abraham & Thakore

In an interview with Lounge, Abraham, Thakore and Nigli talk about working as creative directors for Satya Paul, expansion of their A&T brand and what keeps them going. Edited excerpts:

What’s your vision for Satya Paul?

David Abraham (DA): We have started conceptualising on the design; it’s just been two weeks. By autumn, hopefully, we will do our first drop. Satya Paul was one of the first brands that focused more on prints at a time when designers were working with embroideries. We are going to continue with that language. Satya Paul and A&T are similar in a way.

How?

Rakesh Thakore (RT): Breaking the mould by looking at something traditional, deconstructing it and making a different design language.

DA: It’s quite liberating to do another brand. For 30 years, we have worked within the confines of our design philosophy—trying to do maximalism with minimalism. Like, why use 20 colours, when one is enough—that’s us and we like it that way. With Satya Paul, the parameters are different. It’s a big challenge, but a nice change after three decades of A&T.

How will you maintain the work balance between the two brands?

DA: After Reliance, we have time now to do more creative things. There’s a lot of relief in terms of not being too worried about taking care of logistics, payments, social media, accounts, marketing.

RT: Like David said, the parameters are different. We are going to work with a lot more colour than we do with A&T.

How did you zero in on your A&T design vocabulary?

DA: Rakesh and I came from a contemporary space. We were always into minimalism. I think we were among the early designers who were interested in questioning the use of traditional textiles. Like, why should ikat be used in the same traditional way? This kind of thinking took shape at NID (National Institute of Design), where we met in the 1970s. That place was a culture shock. I came from a privileged family and seeing people in their Khadi kurtas walking barefoot, carrying jhola, it was a different world. There was so much freedom there.

RT: Many designers passed out from there and are doing wedding wear and heavy embroideries. Our takeaway was very different. We took a path that was complicated for us but honestly, we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Kevin Nigli: A&T could have done shaadi clothes, and bought a fleet of Rolls-Royce. But we don’t relate to it. We are offering clothes that you wear when you are not going to a wedding…clothes that you wear when you are out and about, going for work, lunches, dinners.

What made you stick with this philosophy for three decades?

DA: We like balance. Balance in colours, motifs, shapes. When you work with the West for long, it shapes your thinking.

You first launched your brand abroad. Why not India?

DA: There was no market in India as such. There was no business plan, to be honest. It was just random; we started the brand on a whim. We had some ideas that we thought were good and made some samples of scarves and kimonos, and started the business in 1992 with our little savings. When you don’t have much to lose, you are willing to take more risks.

We made a small collection of kimonos and scarves in double ikat at my Defence Colony (Delhi) apartment. An American buyer in Delhi put us in touch with the buying director from the Conran Shop (a then-iconic furnishings-to-home accessories company) in London. I went with a suitcase full of our stuff to London. The director liked it and bought it all. I used to rent a place in London, and cold call buyers. At that time, people would come, see our stuff and sometimes even buy. So, the word-of-mouth marketing helped. We would buy fabrics from markets like Lajpat Nagar, get embroideries done across India. Plus, our home furnishings stuff (bed covers, tableware, cushions; A&T relaunched its home collection last year) was also selling. I had prior experience of working with international clients (Abraham used to work with an American company and export clothes; he made Dior sleepwear, nighties, etc., in Delhi’s Seelampur, Uttam Nagar, Salimpur with the help of Nigli, his then assistant).

RT: We also started making some dresses. I remember we had this pin-tucked blouse made using the Rubia, which was considered a cool fabric then. We were selling in places like Liberty, Brown, Selfridges and Conran; these were big names and it helped us get clients.

The Abraham & Thakore store in Dhan Mill, Delhi
The Abraham & Thakore store in Dhan Mill, Delhi

When did you decide to enter India?

DA: We were not completely absent from India. Tina Tahiliani’s (multi-designer store) Ensemble in Mumbai was the first place to stock us in 1993; she was very encouraging. But after doing many trade shows and extensively travelling abroad, we realised we were spending most of our money in setting up stalls and moving up and down. Also, the 2008 recession was beginning to hurt the international market. So, we decided to focus on the Indian market. The consumer here had also changed. They were willing or at least open to the idea of buying a salwar with an elastic waist, a kameez that was more like a tunic and a dupatta that was like a scarf.

RT: In 2010, we did our first runway show, in Delhi. We had opened with a black sari, which was not a common sight on the Indian ramp. The response made us more confident about the market.

Was it difficult convincing the Indian customer?

DA: In India, it’s still difficult to do a complete contemporary collection. I remember we had put a collection of very European colours (browns, greys) at our Mumbai store. It had frocks, with deep necks. The collection didn’t sell much.

KN: They wanted pants, not frocks. Of course, now it’s different. You can’t sell the same clothes that you sell abroad. That was a big learning then. We were moving slowly and steadily; had about 40 karigars in a factory in Tughlakabad, and a Delhi shop. We were doing some white labelling work (a product made by one firm and sold by other companies under different brand names) as well on the side, but we weren’t really expanding our reach.

And Reliance helped with that…

DA: Yes, we wouldn’t have ever done that on our own. None of us has children to carry forward the brand (Thakore and Abraham are in their 60s; Nigli, in his 50s). I think once we are gone, it’s nice to know there will be someone to look after it.

You have been working together for three decades. How do you manage conflict?

RT: I am the peacemaker; David and Kevin are the ones who argue (laughs). We have had our share of fights and outbursts, but we chose to stay with each other.

KN: We three have different roles. David plans the collection; he will make something and ask us for advice. We will either agree or disagree and make necessary tweaks. Rakesh takes care of textile innovation, and I look at the rest.

DA: We speak a similar language. I always want a point of view and Kevin mostly gives a contrary point of view. But it’s important because I have to fight for it. Sometimes he’s right and then I change it quietly but I don’t tell him; I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that (laughs). We spend holidays together, go for parties together, eat together. We should have been sick of each other by now, but it hasn’t happened yet.

RT: For any business to work, you need utmost honesty and trust with your co-founders. Otherwise, you can’t function, forget flourish.

You continue to put crafts at the core...

DA: We are no crafts warrior, let me be clear. But, yes, craft is part of our design DNA but change is also necessary. I think, to me, that’s been the biggest thing that I have had to think about. Never resist change.

RT: Some people are now doing things similar to what we are, like with Maheshwar silk… the handloom aesthetic. We are moving away from it. Let’s take the traditional ikat, for example. It’s always woven in a particular construction of cotton and silk. We are now working towards changing the size of the ikat (just one motif expands across the sari, instead of several repeats of the motif done traditionally). The other is that we have started doing is cotton and silk, not separately, but together. So, cotton in the warp, silk in the weft. So, it gets softer, silkier, and then we get a nicer handle and feel.

What keeps you going?

DA: We love what we do. I can sit on my desk all day long with pins and pulling out the hem of a dress. I cannot tell you the amount to joy that brings me.

KN: And when fabric comes from the weaver... I mean just looking at it and thinking of ways to turn it into an outfit, it’s such a happy sight.

RT: And seeing someone wear your creation. It’s a kind of happiness that never fades.

Also read: AI can be a force for positive change in fashion, say Abraham and Thakore

 

 

 

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