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The trench coat goes desi

Indian designers are experimenting with the classic garment to create an East-meets-West aesthetic

Kshitij Jalori’s Banarasi trench coat
Kshitij Jalori’s Banarasi trench coat

For a design that is more than a hundred years old, the trench coat has hardly seen any change. It is classic and timeless and has remained standard in design and function since it first emerged on the fashion scene around World War I. It has been a global style essential since.

Two international British clothing brands hold claims to the trench coat’s invention and heritage: Aquascutum’s waterproof wool material trench in 1853 and Burberry’s gabardine (cotton twill) coat in 1879. Their updated models continue to balance form and function, while their fabric technology has ensured durability. In 1912, the British military outfitted itself in these styles for camouflage in deep trenches—that is how the name came to be.

In India, though, despite the torrential downpour in certain regions, it never really took off: We use the umbrella or raincoats. But designers have, nonetheless, begun to give the trench coat an Indian sensibility.

Illustrations of garments from Eka’s forthcoming ‘Core’ collection, which will have an adaptation of the trench coat
Illustrations of garments from Eka’s forthcoming ‘Core’ collection, which will have an adaptation of the trench coat

The India story

A jacket or coat’s primary purpose is to offer protection against the weather. In the world’s northern and western regions, the seasons overlap; the rains carry over into winter. As Rina Singh, founder of womenswear clothing label Eka, says, “Here, we don’t receive the rains everywhere simultaneously, whereas in other, Western parts of the world, they are uniform and carry over into the winters, so the trench coat is utilitarian for them."

Péro’s upcycled and embroidered trench coat. 
Péro’s upcycled and embroidered trench coat. 

Aneeth Arora, founder of the clothing label péro, adds: “The coat’s idea in the West is to simply layer it over whatever you are already wearing. Most spaces there are centrally heated and the trench coat is seen as a part of outerwear, but in India that’s not a common case, so most thick overlayering garments are a part of winter-wear, to be worn inside and outside." There’s a difference in the way layers are viewed in India.

Kshitij Jalori’s Banarasi trench coat
Kshitij Jalori’s Banarasi trench coat

Here, the trench coat doesn’t have a functional purpose, except in the northern parts of the country during winter. For, even though the modern trench coat is lightweight, one can still feel hot or humid while wearing it. Kshitij Jalori, founder of the eponymous clothing label, explains: “The trench coat used to be a formal and smart piece of clothing that contours the body’s silhouette very well and all that is owing to its construction. The typical trench coat construction involves an outer layer, an inner lining and between them, an insulated lining to keep you warm and dry. And you don’t need that kind of construction here."

In recent times, high street brands such as Zara and H&M have created a trench coat in thin fabric layers, offering younger consumers lighter overcoats to layer their outfits. Jalori says: “You will now find trench coats in thin woollen or even jersey fabrics. Wearers are now experimenting with the silhouette and form." Arora agrees, saying: “It’s not made as sharply or worn as seriously as it is abroad because it’s made from lightweight fabrics. Any outerwear garment is a slightly tough sell in India because of how it’s perceived as part of winter-wear."

An adaptation

It’s no surprise then that designers such as Singh, Arora and Jalori have tried to reimagine the coat within an Indian context. Its streamlined silhouette has been modified for Indian customers, making it a unique style statement rather than a utilitarian one.

Singh, whose label is defined by its delicate, feminine clothes crafted from natural, local textiles, alters the coat’s design to add a sense of androgyny to her overall product, or even makes them out of a light layer of cotton, maintaining elements of the design’s large size and large pockets for comfort and movement. “I find it perfect for the weather because it’s easy to layer since the handwoven textiles don’t stick to the body," she says.

It’s all about the difference in textile for her. She says: “In an Indian textile, the garment becomes unique and individualistic to its place of origin. The essential military influences in trench coats—with the padded shoulders and straight lines—get an old-school spin in textiles such as ikat. And it’s still durable despite that change."

She substitutes the heavy-duty buttons with wooden or fabricated ones and swaps the exaggerated collars for slimmer ones. She does add feminine textile trimmings at the edges of the coat and a drawstring fastening instead of a belt for a relaxed fit.

Similarly, Arora’s label, which mostly constitutes womenswear, adds a sharp, androgynous quality to the coat’s silhouette. She too uses natural, handwoven and knitted textiles, but in a more bohemian-luxe aesthetic. “The idea of wearing an oversized trench coat over a lace negligee-like dress adds a great sense of juxtaposition," she says. “I want to make the trench so light and feasible that you don’t feel the need to take it off anywhere."

With the pure wool Arora uses, the garment does become premium: It can be painted on, embroidered or embellished into a sort of heirloom piece. “If you can make people see the coat outside of its historical context and preconceived notion, then it stops being restrictive," she says. Arora was fortunate to come upon a barn in New York that had thousands of original, beige trench coats, remnants of a manufacturing company that were going to be discarded. She ended up adopting some of them and now upcycles them every season as limited-edition designs for her collections, depending on the theme. “We don’t usually get a lot of orders for them, but the maximum we have ended up selling is around 60-80 pieces one season, especially abroad," she says.

Jalori works with handwoven textiles such as silks, brocades and Banarasi weaves, which are more structured and help him find a balance between form and function. “It’s the sweet spot between wearing something Indian but not a typical form, and that works well for occasions, especially since the designs show off the versatility of Indian textiles," he says. His designs too are aimed at the international customer.

Jalori muses on the difference in cultures: “India is a craft-centric country, but because the West didn’t have access to these crafts all the time, it also made way for pattern-making to emerge as a stronger suit there. It’s the exact reverse here because we have always been more focused on the kind of textile surfaces we were developing."

While the trench coat’s global impact has never faded, it’s becoming clearer that the take of Indian crafts has given it a more artistically unique reputation that goes beyond utilitarianism.

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