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Palak Shah: I want to take the Indian Banarasi brand out of its traditional shell

Textile maker Ekaya collaborates with French designers to craft Parisian wedding gowns with Banarasi fabrics

Palak Shah at the Ekaya store in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Palak Shah at the Ekaya store in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The Banarasi silks, tissue, organza, even Chikankari are somewhat unrecognizable in the corseted ball gowns and A-line dresses with veils and capes crafted by 14 French designers. It’s the result of a collaboration between Ekaya, a Varanasi-based textile company and La Fédération Française de la Création Couture Sur Mesure—Paris (The French Federation of Custom Couture Creation—Paris) that works in the French wedding and couture industry. Titled Cousu d’Or—Magical Weaving, the ongoing exhibition demonstrates the potential of traditional Banarasi textiles for meeting the requirements of a contemporary, global palate. “I saw the photographs of final designs this morning (last week) and I was surprised to see how international our fabrics can look. We’re so hung up on using them only in salwar-kameez and saris that we don’t see them otherwise. But when you hand them over to a person who has no background on how the fabrics have been traditionally used, they come up with something so new," says Palak Shah, the 26-year-old chief executive officer of Ekaya, on the phone.

The collection includes brocades, silks, cottons, georgettes, chiffons, Tussar, organza, Mashru silks and Chikankari hand-embroidery, all in an ivory palette. French designer Isabelle Beaumenay-Joannet, who is known for her glamorous use of organza silks, satin, tulle and lace in wedding gowns, has used a handwoven Banarasi zari metallic fabric combined with Banarasi tissue to create an asymmetric gown with a low plunging back and a rippling effect. Another French designer duo, Pierre Letz and Daniel Martin of the label LetzMartin, have used Chikankari to craft an elegant gown, and Aurélie Dillon, known to work with historical silhouettes and corsetry, has used Ekaya’s Banarasi silks woven with the kadwa technique, a laborious method of independently weaving motifs on fabrics so that it leaves no loose threads on the reverse of the fabric. “A lot of fabrics have been used inside out. They seemed to love how it looks reversed," says Shah.

Since 2013, the French Fédération has been organizing an annual collaborative event to celebrate the know-how of its members and showcase the skills of weavers from around the world. This year, they decided to tap into the rich heritage of Varanasi. “This project began two years ago, when I met Véronique Poles from Poles Luxe Consulting in India," says Shah. Poles works with the French Federation and also represents French designers in India, seeking collaborations. The fit was ideal for Shah, who is determined to redefine traditional Banarasi textiles as objects of contemporary luxury.

(from left) French wedding gowns by Aurélie Dillon, LetzMartin and Isabelle Beaumenay-Joannet using Banarasi fabrics.

As the fourth generation of a family running the 70-year-old textile manufacturing unit based in Varanasi, Shah has taken the brand to three retail stores—Delhi in 2012, Ahmedabad in 2013 and Hyderabad in 2017—plus Ekaya Thaan, which is attached to the Delhi store and is designed as a gallery of textiles for fashion and interiors, in 2017. “I want to show consumers what Benares is capable of," she says—and she depends on “textile innovation" to do that.

“In 2015, we collaborated with Archana Rao, a designer from Hyderabad and winner of the Vogue India Fashion Fund (an annual competition of emerging designers), and she pushed the limits of textiles by re-looking at blank space and reversing motifs. In 2015, we collaborated with Play Clan to create a collection called Nritya that combined motifs of Indian classical dance in the graphic and illustrative style of Play Clan on handwoven Banarasi saris by Ekaya. I want to take the Indian Banarasi brand out of its traditional shell," says Shah.

The collaboration with the French Federation is part of that intent, and Shah is quite thrilled with the result. “I’m wearing a sari made of organza kora for the opening event of the exhibition (29 January). In our minds, we think of it as being too fluffy, that one will look fat in it, that it gets crushed easily. But one of the designers has created beautiful pleatings with it and played around with its fluffiness. It works nicely as a bustier top and cape. I love the fresh take on Banarasis that this collaboration has brought about," says Shah.

Cousu d’Or—Magical Weaving is on till 25 February at Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg, 15, rue Boissy d’Anglas. The travelling exhibition is scheduled to come to India next.

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