Arguably the biggest name in the fashion circuit in India, Padma Shri awardee Ritu Kumar who is a textile revivalist apart from being a designer who has clothed a bevy of celebrities right from Aishwarya Rai to Lady Diana, tells Manju Ramanan why she respects traditional weavers and craftsmen and how she is still passionate about a bandhni, zardozi or a chikankari
You have a store in Dubai now. How do you see the Middle East colour palette?
The colour palette is a bright toned one for the months after October when the weather cools down and a pastel hued one during the hotter months. We are creating very little black, brown and grey for the Middle East, and only keeping them as accents or co-ordinates in an otherwise exotic colour range.
Is the collection specific to the region?
Yes, it is part of the main line which is designed for the Indian and the international fashion scene, but modified for the climate and occasion wear for the Middle East keeping its style preferences in mind.
What are the Middle Eastern accents and traditional craft that can be seen in your designs?
The craft of embroidery, in thread and gold is the major influence on the line. The level of taste is very much the same as the cultural roots are strong in the East , and the same crafts travel over the centuries and geography in the region.
In the last 45 years, what are the highlights of Indian fashion making a mark worldwide?
The Indian fashion industry has undergone a sea of change since I started out 45 years ago. Weddings these days are much more flamboyant than those of yester years which gives room to designers today to make oneof- a-kind bridal outfits. At the same time, there is a need for ready-to-wear bridal lines that are royal and regal in every way possible as every modern bride wants to wear the very best on her special day. In today’s day and age, a new India is dictating its fashion preferences and celebrating a freedom of choice and budget. The modern bride’s wardrobe has expanded to encompass traditional saris, cocktail saris, a bridal lehenga, suits ranging from traditional salwar-kameez to fancy anarkalis and finally a number of contemporary western outfits for day-to-day wear.
What are the traditional Indian crafts that need urgent revival? And how are you working with craftsmen and artisans to revive them?
India has been bestowed with many rich cultural treasures of which the heritage derived through; handloom being the most exquisite. This tradition has been celebrated over 100’s of years, however, the future sadly looks uncertain. The natural beauty that lies in the finest handloom weave is threatened by modernity that has unfortunately aligned itself with mass production. Poor remuneration and lack of market support has forced livelihood, even though these are hard to come by. The weavers find their traditional profession and rich cultural legacy to be unworthy of being passed on to future generations.
I have great respect for our traditional weavers and craftsmen. Our design team over the years has developed a unique style of my own, reflecting the ancient traditions of Indian craftsmanship blended harmoniously with a contemporary sensibility. This understanding of ancient designs and the innovative use of traditional crafts has successfully led us to bridge the gap between traditionalism and modernity. We are constantly evolving and trying to maintain a fine balance between the two to adapt to a fast changing modern India.
For me the biggest drive has always been to highlight the rich Indian cultural identity woven into the classicism of textile. It’s been a never-ending process over years to redefine the term “fashion” in the Indian context. We have demonstrated that Indian fashion is more than capable of holding its own in the international arena of haute couture. And it is my endeavor to continue to do that.
How has fashion in Indian cinema changed over the years in terms of apparel?
Indian cinema had changed over years but now there is a comeback. I am interested in several mediums and films are definitely one of them. I have done films for two directors, my son’s films as well as two films for Deepa Mehta, Hollywood – Bollywood, and Midnights Children. What has been of interest in all of them is the story line and the challenge to step out of a role of a runway designer and become involved in the historic and human aspect of the very diverse story lines that all these films had. Hollywood Bollywood was a comedy — a social comedy with a family who lived in affluent Toronto, a spoof on the NRIs living there now. Midnight’s Children is comparatively a period film. I did the costumes for the four weddings that took place well before the independence. It required immense research as well as some amount of licence had to be taken due to the fact that there was not much reference material available for the time.
I enjoy doing projects where there is something that i can bring to the table from the experience I have of
Indian textiles and its crafts and the way people relate to fabrics and clothes in an indigenous setting, whether it is in Kutch, like the little terrorist, or the Kashmir wedding of Midnight’s Children. it is always interesting to take on these challenges.
What have been the traditional Indian textiles and silhouettes that have moved the west?
Chiffon dresses and tops, jersey tunics and leggings make up the casual look which can take one from day to evening dressing, specially great as a wardrobe essential for corporate wear are the dressy silk tops and scarfs, kurtis too.
Tell us about your accessories line and how has it been accepted wordwide?
We have expanded our accessories line and that has been accepted very well worldwide, from leather bags to bridal festive bags and potlis. We also do a small line of our prêt, label line which has every day’s sling bags, satchels etc.
When you go shopping, which are the designers you watch out for?
There is no one specific. I appreciate the work of all my fellow designers as each one works on their own aesthetics.
From the wealth of Indian designers, who do you think is a revivalist like you?
There are many designers in India who work on revival. The numbers are now really diverse and too many to mention individually. The craft area itself is very rich is propagating its own hand work, so sometimes the need of the revivalist is met by the younger family members of say a bandhini, chikan or zardozi worker. This is particularly true of the weaving areas and communities.