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An artisanal boom in the Northeast

A growing breed of designers in the Northeast is trying to bridge the gap between traditional and trendy clothing with an artisanal touch

The traditional womenswear dress-set of the 'Karbi' tribe, from Choi
The traditional womenswear dress-set of the 'Karbi' tribe, from Choi (Choi)

An innate pride in traditions and a knack for fashion-forward trends meld beautifully in the Northeast of India; from K-Pop-inspired wardrobes, edgy streetwear to Assamese mekhela-sadors and Mizo puans.

A young generation of designers from this region, whose loyalties lean towards weaves and indigenous motifs, are seeking to find newer ways to create contemporary fashion wear replete with traditional touches. In the last two years, such designers have carved a niche for themselves with their fresh take. Lounge reached out to three designers, 29-year-old Serleen Ingtipi Kathar of Choi from Assam, 35-year-old Iba Mallai of Kiniho from Meghalaya, and 29-year-old Patricia Zadeng of Lapar Clothing from Mizoram, to know more about their design approach and what makes them stand out.

Serleen Ingtipi Kathar, Choi

The traditional womenswear dress-set of the 'Karbi' tribe, consisting of a 'pini', 'pekok', 'vamkok', from Choi
The traditional womenswear dress-set of the 'Karbi' tribe, consisting of a 'pini', 'pekok', 'vamkok', from Choi (Choi)

Founded in 2018, the fashion label Choi highlights handcrafted designs, inspired by the Karbi community of the Karbi Anglong district in Assam. It's founder by Serleen Ingtipi Kathar belongs to this community. The traditional womenswear comprises a wrap-around skirt called pini (it’s a shorter version of the mekhela), a single-shoulder wrap-around dress, pekok, and a belt, vamkok. This is worn with a blouse. Kathar makes men’s shirts, bandi jackets and unisex stoles as well. The clothes, however, are strikingly different to the vibrant colour palette of red, blue, yellow, and black — dyed naturally — which are more traditionally used by the various tribal communities for such garments. Instead, Kathar uses natural dyes or natural shades of the eri and muga silk yarns, which she uses extensively.

“The textiles inspired me. I realized that people want to wear such fabrics but are moving away from the more traditional colour palette. In Assam, the traditional eri and muga silks face stiff competition from acrylic alternatives. That's why I wanted to start the label from a sustainable perspective as well,” Kathar says. She prefers to use these materials in their natural shades of beiges and browns. She explains, “As much as we try to make dyes sustainable, the process still uses a lot of water. I want to keep my approach as responsible as possible and reduce waste, while creating a product that’s durable and has great aesthetic value.”

When it comes to motifs—which have their own inherent meanings in each tribe—Kathar uses a mix of the old standard ones and the new ones that she creates. “For example, I have used hijab amang (hand-fan motif), a motif that’s old and traditionally popular, as well as translating other motifs of other objects into the weave, such as the nothengpi (traditional earring motif) and mir athong (a bunch of flowers)”, she says.

Iba Mallai, Kiniho

A striped 'eri' silk shawl from Kiniho
A striped 'eri' silk shawl from Kiniho (Kiniho)

In the process of launching her label, Mallai realized that apart from her interest in fashion, textile, and craft, she was drawn to helping the weavers of her community, the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. Eri silki is at the centre of her work and Mallai founded her label in 2016 in Meghalaya’s Nongpoh area. She says, “There’s a growing demand for organic and sustainable textile, and I feel that I should stick to something contemporary, without leaving behind my culture’s aesthetic roots.”

Along with creating separates, dresses, and neckties, Mallai’s recent collection features shawls, stoles and jainsem sets (the traditional dress of Khasi women). The garment is a piece of cloth worn with a blouse and skirt, over one shoulder. She says the demand for local products increased during the pandemic.

In the community Mallai is from, thohbah (tartans) and thohriaw (plaids) are the traditional motifs, usually available in shades of red, maroon, black, yellow, and green. “Now, since I have been trying to blend these motifs into something contemporary and modern, I am trying to experiment with more colour palettes which are available naturally, by blending them rather than keep them in their original, loud shades,” Mallai explains. She uses flower, plant and root-based dyes to obtain such shades of colours, such as turmeric for yellow and indigo for blue. The beauty of these motifs is that the weavers have the freedom to experiment and play around with the motifs.

Patricia Zadeng, Lapar

A 'chawngvungi' 'puan' woven from eco-friendly modal yarn by Lapar Clothing
A 'chawngvungi' 'puan' woven from eco-friendly modal yarn by Lapar Clothing (Lapar Clothing)

When Mizoram-based Zadeng founded her label in 2017, she was intent on making western-inspired womenswear from traditional textiles, but soon realized that there was a need for good quality puans (loosely translating to cloth in Mizo). She started making the puan, a garment that’s worn as a wrap-around skirt.

Traditionally, puans are in black, white, red, and yellow colours, with nature-inspired motifs like flowers and stars, but Zedang did not intend to replicate these styles. “I am trying to draw inspiration from these motifs and colours to create something new; something that has some traditional aspects, but also youthful enough for the younger generations to wear it”, she says.

Lapar’s puans are woven with an extra-weft weaving technique, and the motifs are woven on the loom. Apart from traditional checks and stripes, they are also woven with modern geometric motifs in a variety of colours and from fabrics such as cottons, eri silk as well as modal yarn. Zadeng's usage of the patterns and motifs is an experiment in design, and is what makes them so youthful.

Zadeng tries to research motifs that were popular in Mizo culture, but aren’t commonly seen anymore, to incorporate them in her puans. “There's sanghmamu (diamonds), which are inspired by the shape of cucumber seeds and kawkpui zikzia (twisting vines) which I use in my puans.”

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