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Where is India's fashion archive?

Recording the past can determine the future of a label and help showcase the history of Indian fashion, but most designers have not archived their collections 

An exhibit at the Amrapali Museum in Jaipur.
An exhibit at the Amrapali Museum in Jaipur. (Courtesy Amrapali Jewels)

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The uncertainty of the past two years has made us want to reflect more, something the fashion world has done more than most other creative industries. This season, for instance, Y2K made a comeback globally in the form of slip dresses and graphic tees, and in India specifically, designers re-imagined sequined shimmer saris. There is one certainty in fashion, and that is comebacks. The 1990s was a time when Indian contemporary fashion was just finding its feet, making that decade ever so important for inspiration and record-keeping for today’s creations. The problem is that most designers in India have not archived their collections.

As India increasingly becomes part of global fashion conversations, archiving is more important than ever, says Divia Patel, the senior curator (Asian department), at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.“No archives mean that it is difficult to trace the development of a designer, their trajectory over time and their place in the history of fashion. In broader terms, no archives mean that it is more difficult to build-up a history of fashion for India, which means Indian fashion will remain underrepresented in global histories of fashion.” Patel was a co-curator for The Fabric of India,a landmark show held at the museum that had a section dedicated to Indian contemporary fashion. She recalls, “I found many Indian designers did not have an archive of their work, no sketchbooks or notebooks, no library of designs.”

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Coming of age: The fact that archiving is not given such emphasis is a consequence of the fact that fashion is still a young industry in India. Among the first French designers to archive was Yves Saint Laurent. If you have ever attended any of his retrospectives you will see how rich they are in content and, of course, there is the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Plus it has helped keep the brand alive after his demise. Creative directors do come to inject new vision to a brand, but it is the archive that helps them understand the vision better.Creating an archive is certainly a costly business, in terms of time, real estate space and cost. Even a great legacy brand like Christian Dior Couture first created its archive in the 1980s when it was preparing for a landmark exhibition at Paris’s Musée des Arts Decoratifs.

As fashion brands mature in India, they are realizing that it is imperative for the future viability of a brand, which is why Tarun Tahiliani is among the Indian designers putting efforts into building his own archive.

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A Tarun Tahiliani creation in the archive room of the designer's office. 
A Tarun Tahiliani creation in the archive room of the designer's office.  (Courtesy Tarun Tahiliani)

“It is an important physical record of the journey, should the label outlive its founding designer; it is what keeps the spirit of and soul of the label alive for future generations,” says the designer. An archive includes more than just actual designs. “Keep everything—sketches, notes, swatches, look-books, source of fabrics, names of artisans, names of clients—everything. And, importantly, take advice from professional archivists and conservators on how to organize and preserve their works,” Patel advises. With fashion being young, there are few curatorial experts in the country, so many designers have to put their own efforts into building their archives, making the task more cumbersome.

Tahiliani points out that with bespoke being such a driver of fashion in the country, you cannot keep records of every couture piece. He suggests you keep a panel or swatch of such special orders. “Indian designers do everything from the dying, embroidery to meeting the clients, so till you get to a certain critical mass it is hard for designers to give time to archiving. Plus who has the storage space?” Tahiliani, one of the country’s more established brands, admits he is still trying to figure the balance out.

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Nimish Shah, creative director of Bhaane adds, “At Shift (the label Shah founded in 2011), I managed a good deal, but again not enough resources were applied, studios were moved, samples loaned in good faith (like a book) often don’t come back.” Young brands may feel that keeping an archive is being a little presumptuous. “Calling yourself a designer is a big leap of faith, most of us suffer from imposter syndrome, even with a successful business,” says Shah.

Archiving is important it not only helps in preserving the history and cultural heritage and to study the past but also for the impact knowledge about the past, has on the present and the future. “Archives are valuable sources of information for research. It helps in making information resources readily available to support and to meet the research needs of scholars and the general public,” says Tarang Arora, CEO-creative director of Amrapali Jewels, a brand which, among other things, has a jewellery museum in Jaipur.

“My father and uncle did not start out imagining that their journey would lead to a ‘collection’, or even a museum. However, along the way, as they interacted with other jewellery enthusiasts and expert silversmiths, they began to understand the value of their pursuit. They observed common pieces becoming rarer over the years and the appreciation for indigenous design and craftsmanship began to wane. One way of addressing this was through Amrapali Jewels, however they felt that they could do more," says Arora on the creation of the museum.

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Enter the corporates: The recent entry of corporate India into fashion, with Reliance (which recently added a majority stake in the Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla label to their Indian label acquisition list) and Birla (where the repertoire of labels includes a 33.5% stake in Tahiliani’s demi couture business), may help change this. As Tahiliani says, “For a business who takes a longer term venue, they can see the success of international conglomerates like LVMH and Kering, where archives have played an important role. They are an ongoing research and development source.”

Corporate India understands the value and has the resources for archive development and maintenance. “Archives will become a significant part of that institutionalization process and will certainly require state of the art infrastructure because these archives can get destroyed easily, both hard copy and soft copies—physical samples, tracings, paper sketches. Hence, we will clearly support all our partnerships in doing the same,” says Darshan Mehta, President and CEO, Reliance Brands Ltd.

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Fashion archiving could lead to more museums that look at costume and fashion, something that is lacking in India. Considering India’s rich textile heritage, barring exceptions like Gujarat’s Calico Museum of Textile, there are very few institutions that document this subject. This could soon change, as there are a few corporations looking into this; none of them have officially stated their plans though. “Who knows if a museum of that archive may happen? People may want to visit them. Look at Jaipur, museums are being built, whether it is Sunita Shekhawat who is building the Garden of Eternal Spring Museum,” Mehta says.

“Museums should maintain an active and professional archive to systematically collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to organizational records of enduring value associated with the museum. By archiving, a museum not only promotes its own history but ensures that its records are preserved and that information resources are readily available to support the work of its staff as well as to meet the research needs of scholars and the general public,” adds Arora. It’s a side benefit of archiving, something the world can enjoy and get a glimpse of the treasure trove India has.

Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what it means to us.

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.

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