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‘The Other is us,’ say Abraham & Thakore

The collection, 'Cocktails And Samosas', marked the Lakm Fashion Week debut for the 25-year-old design label Abraham & Thakore

’Cocktails And Samosas’ at the Lakmé Fashion Week winter/festive 2018.
’Cocktails And Samosas’ at the Lakmé Fashion Week winter/festive 2018.

There were no samosas.

But there was dull-gold brocade fashioned into capes and shorts. There were sarongs paired with diaphanous silk shirts. There were saris with delicate bow-belts. And there were skullcaps on the runway—not of the Marc Jacobs’ grunge variety.

The collection, Cocktails And Samosas, marked the Lakmé Fashion Week debut for the 25-year-old design label Abraham & Thakore. In many ways, as a Lounge cover story posited in December, the story of Abraham & Thakore is the story of the growth of the Indian fashion industry itself.

The liner notes described the collection as “sophisticated evening wear that consists of clean simple shapes and separates". The silhouettes were inspired by Eastern traditions of wrapping and tying—the baku, the kimono, the sarong. But there were also new-age salwars alongside lungis and topis, which David Abraham—who is half Chinese, half Syrian Christian—alludes to the influence of Kerala’s Mappila Muslim community. The sarongs come via his mother, a Peranakan Chinese from Malaysia, who wore them with “sheer embroidered blouses with jewelled broaches in lieu of buttons."

It is not always as easy to single out the threads of influence. The skullcap first made an appearance in one of their collections two seasons ago. When we meet two days after the show at his friend Ritu Nanda’s South Bombay home, Abraham recalls a press conference that had riled him. He had styled a scarf as a hijab on a model from the North-East. “I was asked for comment. What is there to comment on? What takes it to a special space?" he says.

“When you start overemphasizing, you move something even more to the space of The Other. And my thinking is that this is not The Other. The Other is us."

Abraham stresses on how dependant the fashion business is on multicultural craftspeople. “We certainly can’t isolate the Islamic influence. If you look at the history of menswear in India, trouser dressing begins with the Islamic entry… I’ve been asking a lot of scholars and the very idea of the stitched garment seems to have gained currency under the Mughals. So when you see a woman in Kochi wearing a salwar-kameez, she is essentially wearing an Islamic man’s garment," he says.

The textiles used in Cocktails And Samosas were woven in Varanasi. “And who is doing all the brocade work in Varanasi? The best weavers are either Muslim or lower-caste Hindus," says Abraham. “Hindu brides who wear a Banarasi for their wedding, they are carrying this syncretism with them."

How did his production staff and weavers respond to the skullcaps in the spotlight? “I think they expect it from us," says Abraham.

There is no construct of a purely Indian textile. Everything is from everywhere, and Abraham has a list he can expound on the slightest provocation. The Varanasi brocades are from China and Tibet. Chintz is from the Dutch. What led to Indians becoming the largest producers of textiles for export, is that they would create anything for anyone, Abraham argues. “In many parts of Africa they still wear lungis woven in Chennai," he says.

“As a designer, you have to make the influences part of your design language without any struggle. Once you start over-articulating, it becomes stiff. Indian weavers in the past absorbed everything and made it part of their life. They started using it in their own communities."

While Abraham helms the design end of the business, his partner Rakesh Thakore works with fabric innovation. Hailing from a generation before fashion schools took off in India, they are both alumni of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, an education that rooted their practice in politics and questions of national identity. Abraham’s graduation thesis was on Khadi, and Thakore’s on the telia rumaal. It is understandable, then, that handloom textiles have been a key component in all their collections.

Cocktails And Samosas was seeded in January while the two were walking through the exhibition A Search In Five Directions at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, Delhi—a tribute to the late textile legend Martand Singh. Thakore had worked with Singh early in his career and co-curated the Viswakarma books (and the exhibition)—bulky catalogues which sought to archive every textile weave in the country.

Topi and textile diversity aside, there were other things going on during Abraham & Thakore’s loaded cocktail hour. Two women walked out in the skullcaps, a delicate nod to homoeroticism, very different from the in-your-face expressions during the five-day fashion week (22-26 August).

Who does he visualize when he’s designing his clothes? Abraham doesn’t think for too long before admitting that he hasn’t moved far enough from the stereotype. The label’s new forays in e-commerce are pushing them to do that though. They want to develop more sizes, as a start, to fit the merchandiser working in their Noida studio. “She’s a big girl who can’t fit into our XL… so I’ve decided she’s going to do our fittings."

Though Abraham believes his present concerns stem from becoming “old and cantankerous", he is always careful to bring the conversation back to fashion itself. This is a relief as too-desperate attempts to appear politically-minded have led to disasters in the Indian fashion scene lately: a case in point being the “bullet pellet effect" make-up on male models for designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil’s Kashmiriyat collection two years ago.

Abraham is optimistic about his messaging. “India is larger than the current conversation. We will rise above a narrow vision," he says.

A tip of the topi to that.

Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose

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