“Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in Indian cloth,” French merchant François Pyrard de Laval was quoted as saying, in the early 17th century. It’s incredible that a worldly seaman, who travelled from the East Indies to Brazilin the 1600s, realised then that Indian textiles had a global currency.
Today, houses from Chanel to Alexander McQueen rely on the crafts of India. However, until recently India’s contribution to fashion was little known. If a journalist called one of the great embroidery houses of India to speak to them about their work for their “phirang” clients they would not speak, fearful of upsetting their European clients, all of whose clothing labels read “Made in Italy”, or “Made in France”. That has since changed. What’s more, discussions around inclusivity and diversity have changed perceptions of what mainstream fashion should be about.
At the recently concluded Paris couture week, Dior Couture’s textile backdrop made global headlines. A large-scale tapestry was created using 400 shades and a combination of 150 embroidery techniques. It took the artisans three months to bring the artwork to life. Made by Indian hands, it was produced in Chanakya Atelier and by the students of the Chanakya School of Craft. It is not the first time since the pandemic that Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, has put their work center stage in her shows. In 2018, Chiuri came to India to attend a fashion show by JADE by Monica and Karishma, a label started by sisters-in-law Karishma Swali and Monica Shah who also run the Chanakya Atelier. In subsequent seasons, Chiuri often also spoke of Dior’s close relationship with the atelier. That a major luxury house was now speaking of India’s contribution to Parisian couture, added a new lustre to our craft heritages in the minds of consumers, here and abroad. Dior is not alone, Tory Birch, Isabel Marant and Hermes have spoken of their Indian connections in recent years.
“Such moves have given a new pride to Indian crafts,” says Anaita Shroff Adajania, a veteran fashion stylist. “There is a new sense of pride and a realisation that India produces world-class products. It has changed the perception of Indian fashion both globally and within the country”. Today’s consumer, she notes, values craft and is willing to spend on new-age homegrown brands.
Now, Swali and her daughter Avantika have launched a conscious clothing label, Moonray, which has a studio in Mumbai and its own e-commerce platform. Using organic cottons and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)-certified fabrics, its collection of everyday essentials draws from the craft heritage of Chanakya. Swalisays, “Moonray is an expression that combines our love for design and craft with our passion for inclusion.” The collection includes a ready-to-wear line of garments, handcrafted vegan leather shoes and bags, and a limited edition of 22 karat gold plated jewellery. With 50% ofall profits going back to a charitable trust, Moonray aims to be a product with a purpose. “Production houses that have been founded on a culture that fuels creativity, purpose and excellence should certainly look at having a label,” Swali believes.
A few weeks ago, Nitai Mehta and Sumanagali Gada, the directors of Adity, a design house born in 1967 that has worked with Gucci, Vera Wang and Jimmy Choo, announced they would open the first location for their label, Forest of Chintz, in Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi.
Gada says, “Over the years many production houses from India supplied all high fashion houses across the world with hand embroidery. Over a period of time, designers started using the designs submitted by the production houses and further started giving the full ‘package’ by offering to make and finish the products for the client. This has slowly encouraged the production houses to start their own lines.” The brand is accessory-driven, with beautiful beaded necklaces, cuffs and a capsule collection of clothing. Gada says, “India has, in the last few years, been slowly becoming the innovation hub of the world in software, hardware and other scientific developments, so why not in design and fashion?”
Forward integration led to the start of one of India’s most successful contemporary textile labels 10 years ago, Ekaya Benares. Founded by Palak Shah, whose family has a legacy of 120 years in creating textiles in Varanasi, Ekaya has stores in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. Shah says these retail endeavours are also about keeping the crafts of Indian alive and kicking. “One of the biggest reasons why we started Ekaya Banaras was to create, innovate and evolve the vast wealth of Indian textiles,” she says. “With our impeccable knowledge of textiles and a team of highly skilled craftsmen, we attempted to craft a new textile vocabulary, revive our weaving techniques and present them with a contemporary touch.”
This is not a trend that is exclusive to India, though.
Joseph Duclos, a heritage leather good brand (whose creative director is Ramesh Nair, previously the artistic director of the 19th-century French trunkmaking maison, Moynat) is the newest resident of Paris’ Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one of the world’s most luxurious shopping streets. It may be a new entrant to retail but it’s a brand founded in the 1700s. Known for its use of natural tanning, Joseph Duclos had royal warrants, with their leathers mainly used for furnishings. Its artisanal savoir-faire is now being used to create a slow fashion brand that will have its own digital platform to offer handbags, jewellery and candles. Backed by financier and art collector Franck Dahan, CEO of Monolith Investments and the fact he made such a bold investment and that Nair agreed to be its creative head show how both investors and creatives believe that forward integration is the way forward for artisanal based workshops, traditionally known for their production excellence.
As Sawli says, “Today more than ever, the fashion industry is ready for an evolution, one that is mindful, kind, transparent and digital.” With India having such a rich culture of arts and crafts, it is time for our manufacturing houses to come out and talk about their work, and what better way to do than by launching their own India-proud brand?
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate