The Kashmir Valley, its landscape and crafts are stitched into couturier Rohit Bal’s design DNA. His new collection Guldastah isn’t any different, abounding in roses and peonies on his signature palette of white, ivory and black. What makes it one-of-its-kind is the fact that the garments have been stitched by nine women from Kashmir. The collection, showcased during the Lakmé Fashion Week in January, has now launched at Bal’s flagship store in Delhi.
The women are part of Usha Silai, a community-driven fashion label launched by Usha International in 2018 under which artisans chosen from the organization’s stitching schools (there are 20,350 Silai schools across India run in partnership with NGOs and other organizations) create collections under the mentorship of designers. Mentors for the first two seasons have included designers and Indian brands like Soham Dave, Shaila Khubchandani, founder of the fashion label Crow, and Kerala-based label Rouka’s Sreejith Jeevan.
The collaboration with Bal is Usha Silai’s third collection and first venture into couture. “We wanted to work in Kashmir for its inherent strength in craft and artisanship," says Chhaya Shriram, director of Usha International>>please replace with Dr Priya Somaiya, Executive Director, Usha Social Services, who, like Bal, is also from Kashmir. “We opened 20 Silai schools for urban, under-privileged women in Srinagar and Krishna Sriram (executive chairman and CMO, Usha International Ltd) asked if we would be able to ramp up for a collection with Bal."
Shriram said yes but ensuring impeccable quality while navigating Kashmir’s intense winter and sociopolitical environment proved to be challenging. “But the women showed resilience—they turned up in Kashmir University (which loaned space for the project). Towards the last 10 days, when there was also no electricity, we flew eight women to work from our office in Gurugram.”
Despite the challenges, one of the most impressive aspects of the collection is its effortless similarity to Bal’s earlier collections—unless one looks at the labels, the difference is impossible to tell. “I was strict about quality”, says Bal, during the launch. “There was a lot of editing and the workshops were very intense—the women spent three days in our office and it was a very proactive process.”
Bal and Usha Silai are already working on a second collection that will build on the women’s skills.