When Zendaya wore a sari gown, and Priyanka Chopra-Jonas a deconstructed sari, to the recent opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in Mumbai, it gave the contemporary interpretation of the traditional six yards a red carpet seal of approval.
From Tarun Tahiliani’s iconic concept sari (it came attached with a blouse to look like a dress) in 2013 to Rohit + Rahul sari dresses, homegrown designers have been reimagining the sari to meet the ever-changing demands of the consumer who wants to experiment, without compro- mising on style and comfort. Now, the play with silhouettes and drapes is becoming even more experimental. Think a jump-suit, a pant-suit, a gown, a dhoti-dress, and, of course, a pre-stitched ensemble.
“The sari is a virgin piece of cloth, like a passage of water that can take any shape,” says Amit Aggarwal, who created Chopra-Jonas’ NMACC look: “an ensemble that was made in India but spoke an international language—much like the wearer. When you add the structural elements of a gown to it, you are essentially offering the history of India as well as the West.” At present, pre-draped saris in different styles make up 30% of his brand offerings. Soon, it will be 40%, he hopes.
“There was a lot of fuss and seriousness around the sari. Today’s customer wants to wear a sari without any baggage...like a quick, comfy dress that makes them feel closer to their traditions and roots without fussing over the draping,” says Shalini Gupta, general manager of Taneira, a sari brand from the Tata group. In September, Taneira launched the JAM (Just A Minute) collection of pre-styled/draped saris (starting at ₹8,000), an attempt at “revibe”.
“Let’s not forget how covid-19 changed our approach towards dressing up. We want instant fashion without compromising on style and comfort. A pre-draped sari or a pre-stitched sari makes the garment fun. There’s no shame attached to wearing it any more, unlike how earlier people used to judge if someone didn’t know how to drape a sari,” explains Gupta, adding that the brand is planning to expand the JAM range. “And why should you only wear a sari to a function, a wedding, or to the office or a meeting? Why can’t you wear it to a regular brunch date without someone saying, ‘Oh wow, you are wearing a sari!’”
Vaishali S., who's known for playing with the structure of the sari, showcasing it on the global runway, says it's the fluidity of the garment that makes it a designer's dream. “Its versatility makes it such a big hit among consumers. I always wear sari when I'm showcasing, in India and abroad," says Vaishali, who was the first Indian woman to present at the Paris couture week, in 2021. "Sari offers freedom like no other.”
It was in 2010 that a bride-to-be asked Mohammed Ansari to pre-stitch her sari so she could wear it like a dress, without worrying about the opening of the pleats.
The concept was new then but not unheard of. “I knew what it was but didn’t know how to do it,” recalls Ansari, 58, who sits with his sewing machine outside a shop in Old Delhi’s Kinari Bazaar—his workplace for over three decades. So, the customer, one of his regulars, draped the sari and gave the measurements for pre-stitching. “She even wanted the pallu stitched...to make it look like a stole.”
I show Ansari the photograph of Chopra-Jonas at the NMACC event and ask, “Was the pallu like this?” He replies, in Hindi, “Yes, but a little more spread out. Since then (2010), I have made many pre-stitched saris...but now the whole Chandni Chowk market (in Old Delhi) is full of saris that don’t even look like saris.”
That’s their prime draw, especially for millennials and post-millennials, says Udita Bansal, founder of the trueBrowns brand. Looking at expanding her ready- to-wear sari section, she says it’s one of their hottest selling products, with most buyers in the 30-35 age group.
Her sari ensembles offer a clash of prints, pant-suit style and dhoti saris. “The sari is the central piece of the Indian woman’s wardrobe. Time and again, international designers (from YSL to Ellie Saab) have taken the sari as an inspiration for their designs. It’s the most loved category in terms of sales in the market. That’s why you are seeing so many brands experimenting with it; after a point, the customer wants something new from an existing garment,” she says. “The sari is no longer something only ‘adults’ wear, even a lot of young celebs you see now are wearing pre-stitched saris.”
Celebrities, particularly those from Bollywood, have long played a role in influencing ensembles, including saris. “The pre-draped sari is a favourite among actors, especially the young ones (from Ananya Pandey to Janhvi Kapoor). It’s so on-the-go kind of an attire,” says stylist Ami Patel, who put together the Chopra-Jonas look with Aggarwal.
The biggest plus point of a stitched sari is that it makes a person feel less overwhelmed by the fluid textile, believes Anavila Misra, founder of the sari brand Anavila. Though Misra doesn’t offer pre-stitched saris, she adds: “If you look at it the other way, such a concept could be a step towards learning how to drape a sari. Both for young people and NRIs (non-res- ident Indians).”
Dolly J. initially started making pre-draped saris for NRI clients 15 years ago. Most of them used to tell her they couldn’t deal with the pleats and the pallu. “Now most people don’t want to deal with the draping. They want to dance at weddings or parties without worrying about the sari falling apart,” says Dolly, who makes four-five sari dresses every season compared to two just four years ago. “Fashion trends keep changing but the sari is one timeless piece nobody wants to part with. There was a time (in the 1990s) when lehngas became more popular but then the sari became hot again. Now, with all these experimentations in the market, it has become hot and cool. Some people want their grandmother’s saris to be stitched to make a sari dress,” says Dolly.
Agrees Rahul Khanna of Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna: “The draped sari is here to stay and it's actually been here for quite some time now. You can dress it up or dress it down very easily.”
Ansari gets requests for prestitching saris once in two-three months. “They were not so common before covid but now people show me a photo (on Instagram or Pinterest) and ask me to make a lehnga-choli out of a sari or coat-jacket with (attached) chunni. It’s a good thing, at least people are appreciating what they have always had.”