May 30, 2017

First, was a wave of yoga, consumption of ancient grains, and a whole host of spiritual practices. And now, it is Indian fabric that is going through a reinvention as the garb-of-choice for a global culture inching towards a more sustainable, earthier world.

The big pull with Indian fabrics and accessories has always been its flashier aspects, so to speak. International fashion icons like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Oscar de la Renta, Mary McFadden, Yves St Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Romeo Gigli, have made sequined and jewelled embroidery from India a part of their collection in the past. But similar material is now being used by Indian designers to convey a minimalist, muted, easy-breezy chicness. This is probably thanks to a generation that has embraced an organic, work-from-the-beach attitude.

Take for example, the collection at the alternative fashion label of Nicobar. The design aesthetic here was inspired by journeys across the Indian Ocean, and the fuss-free, easy lifestyle that one connects with island living.

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” Inspired by the Indian Ocean, that’s the sentiment best captured in Nicobar’s collection.

“Soft cotton is at the core of this collection, with now-classic silhouettes that have been given new life in these fabrics. Our favourite woven checks and easy stripes reappear, alongside embroidered hearts and flowers that lend little pops of colour to this line,”  says Aparna Chandra, head of design, Nicobar.

At Chola The Label, using Indian fabric has captured designer Sohaya Misra’s ethos, perhaps like nothing else could. “All the detailing I conceived of in my designs with this fabric, from collars to sleeves to frills, not only became stunningly stylish pieces when it all came together but also easy to wear as well as pair,” says Mishra who has dressed the likes of the actors Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.

Actor Deepika Padukone sporting Chola’s Ikhat Kimono Jacket.

As any of these designers will tell you, this soul search into indigenous material is more than just a fashion statement. Sourcing handloom and promoting local artisans has a very real economic, and ecological impact as well. Few understand this better than the folks at Charaka.

Charaka was started as a women’s multipurpose industrial co-operative society by theatre veteran Prasanna in Karnataka’s Bheemanakone village in 1996. It was an attempt to pull the region out of environmental disaster. What was primarily a hilly rain forest, was losing acres of natural vegetation to clearance for agricultural land. The over dependence on farming had brought no prosperity to the village. Charaka was instituted as an experiment to promote an alternative livelihood for the villagers through handloom and weaving. Even the natural dye used in Charaka’s clothing is made from natural products found in the region.

After more than 20 years of surviving, Charaka is now thriving. It sells through 16 ‘Desi’ outlets in Karnataka, which is essentially its marketing arm. Desi has a turnover of Rs 6 crore annually, with Charaka accounting for 60% of sales.

Charaka uses dyes made from sources found in the flora of the Malnad region. Areca nuts are used to produce different shades of brown, Jackwood and pomegranate for yellow and red, and so on.

“It gives us a unique advantage to develop the weaves and keep our tradition alive. By using local fabric, we promote better livelihood for the weavers and in turn develop the local economy,” says Sharada Ganesh, head of planning and development at Desi Trust and Charaka.

Even the big boys in fashion have not ignored the Indian fabric revival. David Abraham & Rakesh Thakore’s signature ‘chatai’ or mat patterns, Madhu Jain’s beautiful use of bamboo weaved together with silk, Khadi and Chanderi, and fashion veteran Ritu Kumar’s ‘Benaras Revival’ programme, established in 2015, are all signs that the wheels of fortune are spinning in favour of Indian handloom.