In a world where the piles of polyester continue to grow, handloom connoisseurs in India are weaving a tale of pride and beauty. With a mix of drapes and silhouettes — and utter reverence for traditional fabrics, prints, embroideries and such forms of textile art seeped in Indian heritage — the country’s top designers are pooling in their creative energies to revive what was at the risk of being forgotten. We show you how...
Handlooms never go out of style; their opulence endures for generations. From the delicate Jamavars of Kashmir to the temple bordered Kanjeevaram silks of Tamil Nadu; from the classic Jamdani of Bengal to the breathtaking Bandhani of Gujarat; from the gold brocades of Banaras to the vibrant tie-dye fabrics of Rajasthan... The universe of Indian threads is vast and varied. The magic of these crafts and textiles — and the embellishments that adorn them, like the elaborate metal embroidery of Zardozi, the amalgamated Parsi Gara and gorgeous mirror work — remind us every day of the aesthetic brilliance that lives and breathes in India.
Today, having recognised the need to revive these indegenious techniques, some of the country’s top designers are spinning couture magic, pooling their creative energies to catapult the Indian aesthetic to our homes and international runways. With a passion to promote the nation’s under-appreciated artisan community and help them survive redundancy, these ace couturiers returned to their roots to bring traditional weaves, prints and embroideries to the limelight. They picked their favourites to create remarkable collections that showcase handcrafted creations in all their glory — albeit with modern nuances and cutting-edge construction.
From Rahul Mishra, Manish Malhotra and Gaurang Shah, to Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Ashdeen Lilaowala and KH Radharaman of The House of Angadi, HELLO! gets an insight into how intrinsic traditional Indian techniques are to the world of haute couture — and beyond!
The House of Angadi
When one thinks of the young women of today inheriting their mother’s wardrobe of sarees, we can’t help but picture them in beautiful, colourful Kanjeevarams. Made even more popular by their exquisite gold borders and use of superior dyeing practices, these silks are regal in their look and feel and may even render an Indian’s woman’s closet incomplete without them.
“The fact that our indigenous textiles and garments have weathered the test of time and come to be passed on from one generation to the next as heirlooms, without limitations of seasonality, age or body type, is proof of their versatility, wearability and relevance,” says KH Radharaman, Founder, CEO & Principal Designer of The House of Angadi, pioneers of Kanjeevaram silks in India.
It’s often said that the Kanjeevaram saree, as a genre, evolved into its recent silk version after the Padmasaliyas, the traditional silk-weaving community of South India, migrated to the Tamil region from the Vijayanagar empire. While they are credited with introducing silk weaving to Kanchipuram, “the Angadi family and its many branches contributed in no small measure to its evolution”, Radharaman emphasises.
In fact, the ancestral lineage of the Angadi family is intertwined with the evolution of the genre. They’ve been at the forefront of promoting the weave for centuries and today, revive these silks through contemporisation. An advocate for tradition but a modernist in outlook, Radharaman stresses that through Advaya, a luxury
design label from The House Of Angadi, they revive the silk, evident from their modern, elite Indian clientele.
With its origins in the eponymous Madhya Pradesh town, the light-weight Chanderi — its transparency glossy and texture sheer — is just one of the many handwoven fabrics that are central to India’s heritage but exported to varied consumers overseas.
“I quite enjoy the lightness of the fabric, the sensuality of its sheer, diaphanous drape and the delicacy,” says fashion designer Rahul Mishra, who is known for experimenting with Chanderi for his couture creations. “It’s almost inspiring in the way it instigates a feeling of luxury and comfort to the wearer.”
Mishra’s work heavily revolves around indigenous weaves and traditional fabrics. He was first introduced to Chanderi while filming a documentary in 2010. Since then, master weaver Hukum Koli, who specialises in producing a variety of weaves with the Chanderi fabric, became an integral part of the Rahul Mishra design language. Today, his collections take birth in Indian villages and head directly to international runways and are displayed and loved at the world’s biggest multi-designer stores.
“The interdependent relationship between a designer and a weaver is key to a thriving handloom industry,” adds Mishra, a champion of slow fashion, traditional hand-weaving and hand- embroidery. “At an initial stage of my career, my weaver became my first investor, and with his trust, I was allowed the freedom of creative expression through my work.”
Synonymous with textiles in India, the versatile ‘Khadi’ refers to any cloth woven on handloom from cotton, silk or wool that’s spun into yarn on a spinning wheel or from a mixture of any two or all of such yarn. Here, ace couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee deserves a special mention, for he adopts a pan- India approach when it comes to preserving handloom textiles, with a special focus on Bengali crafts.
The man behind many a gorgeous saree and lehenga we’ve seen celebrity brides sport — think Anushka Sharma’s stunning red reception saree — the designer has always been a proponent of Khadi. He started his ‘Save the Sari’ campaign over a decade ago, through which he began to support weavers from Bengal and Andhra Pradesh and commission them with projects.
Sabyasachi is also widely recognised for his handloom sarees made with Khadi, cotton and Banarsi textiles — as is evident in each of his rich collections befitting royalty. In fact, he’s created entire collections in the handloom weave. Think organic Khadi, vegetable-dyed and Zardozi- embellished. They’ve been instant sellouts. Besides the ‘Bollywood favourite’ tag, even years after he arrived on the fashion scene as the brilliant Bengali designer with a penchant for Indian textiles, it was Sabyasachi’s dedication towards the revival of Khadi that emerged as the strongest base of his work. “It’s a myth that Khadi cannot be considered a luxe or expensive fabric,” he says. “Since the perception about Khadi has been changing over the years, it’s being revived and fine-tuned to become a top-class fabric.”
“Mekhela Chador was one of the first precious Indian weaves I worked on, but many more came after it,” says designer Vaishali Shadangule on her love for the traditional Assamese cloth. Her recent showcase at Milan Fashion Week, ‘Ancestral Threads’, created waves for highlighting the Indian weaves dear to her, “the real treasures of the world, so appreciated in the past, yet forgotten in today’s age of fast fashion”. Popularly known as Assam silk, Mekhela Chador is woven with silk and is indigenous to the Brahmaputra Valley. It comprises the three major types of indigenous wild silks produced in Assam: golden muga, white paat and warm eri silk. Woven in nearly every second household of villages in Assam, the weave was the star of one of Shadangule’s recent, uber vibrant collections, wherein she championed the silk to make it look extremely stylish, with the aim to popularise it beyond the state and country borders. “I realised that only by lending a more modern design language to our weaves will they be appreciated by global markets and younger generations,” she says. “Everyone looks to India when talking about embroideries and rare textures. I’d say it’s high time Indian brands and designers showcase this treasure to the world of luxury beyond design houses. When I showcase at fashion weeks abroad, my aim is to rigorously focus only on Indian hand weaves and textures.”
Like a number of traditional art, the craft of mirror work, too, made its way to India from Persia during the Mughal era. Also known as sheesha and abhala bharat embroidery, it’s a type of hand embroidery that includes attaching small pieces of mirror onto fabric, bringing the entire ensemble to life and often doing away with the need for much accessorising. This ancient art form has made its way into millennial wardrobes — thanks in part to designers like Arpita Mehta who modernised it. Her work is widely popular for its use of mirror work, whether it be in her quintessentially Indian wear or more modern attires that draw patrons from all age groups. “I’ve been a fan of traditional mirror embroidery since I was a child. It’s a craft that was always on my mind, and now you see it in my collections,” says the designer, who hails from a Gujarati household and was exposed to this craft during her teens. A proponent of speaking for the artisan community, Mehta finds herself drawn to the technique for its versatility, as well as the traditional and cool elements that it brings to outfits. “Ancient arts and crafts have something legendary about them. They’re a phenomenon that cannot be replaced, and due to their originality and lower availability in today’s day and age, they inherently become couture,” she adds.
“To me, a Jamdani saree is a nine-yard canvas. The number of design concepts I can imagine and implement on this weave is limitless. I can weave any pattern, interlace any colour, texture and yarn with Jamdani,” says designer Gaurang Shah, who’s widely known for adding unique spins to traditional weaves and reviving the Jamdani weaver community. Despite its Persian origin with hints of Mughal influence, Jamdani flourished in undivided Bengal. In fact, its Bengali name, Dhakai, comes from its place of origin, Dhaka, one of many ancient textile weaving centres in the region. In modern times, it’s the imaginative interpretation of fabrics, texture and colour that’s led to the rise in popularity of Jamdani sarees and salwar kameez, propagated further by designers like Shah. “I adore the growing enthusiasm toward this art form. This technique has given me the opportunity to put together even the most complicated designs and defy conventions...Nobody sought handloom sarees at first, but modern patterns and vivid colours made available by Jamdani rekindled interest in handlooms among all age groups. Jamdani celebrates what each one of us loves most about fashion: taking tradition and making it your own,” the textile revivalist sums up his innate love for the weave.
Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla
A Delicate and artful hand embroidery, Chikan work is an ode to the magnificent artisans of India and ultimately to the spirit of India at her impossibly beautiful best. Popularised in India by Nur Jehan, wife of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, and brought to India by Persian nobles who would visit the Mughal courts, the regal craft was a lost art post independence, only to be revived in the 1980s as a crude, mass market, casual wear. Designers today work with skilled craftspeople who specialise in Chikankari, intricate embroidery that’s done on a variety of fabrics like muslin, silk, chiffon,organza, net, etc, drawing the eye as a result of its detailing and sheer beauty. “A visit to Lucknow became an artistic raison d’etre for us. Chikankari seduced our senses and set fire to our imagination,” says designer duo Abu Jani-SandeepKhosla, credited with making this work of art high fashion. “We were compelled to follow our hearts and elevate it not merely back to its original avatar, but to set a new standard and make it the most coveted of couture.” “Chikankari occupies pride of place as our most coveted couture. It’s now bridal wear and features in the work of other couturiers in the industry, decades after we put it on the couture map. Thirty years of working with Chikan has been a passionate romance, one that will be eternal,” the designers conclude.
Saaksha & Kinni
HELLO! cover girl Kiara Advani dressed in a flowing Saaksha & Kinni dress with a gorgeous Ikat print will forever be etched in our memory. So much so that it made us dig deeper into the origins of this resist dyeing technique, popularised through modern garments today. While Telangana, Gujarat and Odisha are considered ancient Ikat weaving centres, it’s believed to have arrived in India as a result of trade ties with China and Indonesia. There’s something unique about Ikat: the patterns are neither applied to the surface of a finished fabric, nor are they woven into it, unlike bandhani and batik; instead, parts of the yarns for the warp and/or weft are protected with a resist before they are dyed. “We’ve always been fascinated by the traditional Ikat, having seen our grandmothers, mothers and so many others around us donning the famous print,” says Saaksha Bhat of designer duo Saaksha & Kinni. “It’s a beautiful ancient handloom textile art that requires skilled weavers and artisans to create, which in itself makes it a prized tradition.” “Beyond sarees and kurtas, we wanted to bring a modern version of the Ikat to the global woman. So we started creating bustiers, dresses and shirts, for the women of today to easily incorporate an Ikat-influenced print into her everyday wardrobe.”
Born out of an art of storytelling, Kalamkari work features motifs of flowers, peacocks, paisleys and also divine characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata, hand printed or hand- block printed onto cotton textiles. Literally translating to craftsmanship with the use of a pen, it’s indidenous to the Andhra Pradesh region and has been modernised by artisans and designers with new ideas and themes. “My aspiration to keep the authenticity of Indian crafts alive prompted me to work with Kalamkari, a generational artform that’s come a long way right from 17th-century temples to clothing,” says designer Archana Jaju, who experiments with a variety of silhouettes to take Kalamkari beyond sarees and dupattas, blending traditional and modern aesthetics. “I wanted to break age barriers and spread awareness of the beauty of this craft among all age groups.” Kalamkari garments come to life after 23 rigorous steps — from dyeing, bleaching, hand- and block-printing, to starching, cleaning, fixation and more. The print comes in the Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti styles. Jaju works with the latter, but tweaks it with her creativite touches. “The beauty of this craft is that each piece is one of a kind and can never be duplicated since they are hand-painted by skilled artisans,” she explains. “My workshop is in Srikalahasti, the ancient and traditional hub of this craft, where artisans have been practising this art form for generations. Collaborating with them and providing a source of livelihood to them made me want to revive this print.”
Palak Shah, Ekaya Banaras
No Indian wedding is complete without the mention of a Banarasi saree, or with the bride and even guests dressed in a drape of this rich weave from Uttar Pradesh. A traditional handloom woven with an additional weft of gold or silver (zari), the Banarasi can be traced back to the 1600s, when weavers in Gujarat migrated to Varanasi during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar, whose love for fine silks and fabrics led to the birth of the iconic silk saree with its classic motifs. Today, we have brands like Ekaya Banaras that champion these fine works of art and the repertoire of Indian craftspeople. “Our association with the classic Banarasi goes back generations, when around 120 years ago, my great-grandfather moved to Banaras and began to work with handweavers. For us, it’s a passion to uplift the industry. It’s even more special because it’s our family business,” says Palak Shah, who co-founded Ekaya Banaras with her father Bharat, from a family renowned for preserving the tradition of Banarasi textiles for over four generations. “Indian traditional weaves are so versatile! They’re so beautiful and malleable that they can be used in any form,” Shah adds. “I want to see Indian handlooms and artisans being promoted and celebrated in other countries as much as they are in India. I wish to highlight them in a way that puts India on the global luxury map.They are made with painstaking effort and take hours and hours to produce. They really do deserve to be centre stage!”
In the context of Indian textiles, the subject of intricacy would be incomplete without the mention of Zardozi. Beautiful metal embroidery used to embellish the attires of the kings and queens of India, Zardozi is as royal as it can get in the sartorial world. The details, exquisite designs and hundreds of hours of handcrafted threads embroidered into traditional pieces, made on breezy fabrics like organza, tulle and raw silk, represent couture and Indian craftsmanship in the most accurate form. While the technique originated in Persia, today, it’s the process of using metal-bound threads to sew embellishments on an array of fabrics. Hours and hours of painstaking work gets devoted to embellish fabrics with complex patterns in Zardozi, with craftsmen working closely with designers to bring their creative vision to life. “Zardozi illuminates the vintage romance of the overall attire. The timeless craft represents royalty and has permanently preserved its presence in my collections,” says Manish Malhotra, the designer to all celebs who carries forward the legacy as an intrinsic part of many of his collections, including his recent bridal edit, Nooraniyat. “Zardozi is one of my signatures that I plan to revive every year and highlight the Indian craft and its artisans globally.”
Fashion designer Ashdeen Lilaowala has always been enamoured by the Gara. Strongly influenced by his mother, he’s one of the few creative minds carrying the legacy of the Parsi embroidery forward, having honed his interest in textile at NID and worked with the UNESCO Parzor Foundation to document the Gara across the world. “The Parsi Gara embroidery is a unique amalgamation of Persian, Chinese, European and Indian traditions, and in that lies its appeal,” he says. “And being from the Parsi community, it’s my pride and joy to be able to give a contemporary spin to the craft while staying true to its essence.” The motifs we see in Gara garments come with quirky names — there’s ‘Cheena Cheeni’, which shows a Chinese man and a Chinese woman against a variety of patterns; the narrow borders of ‘Kor’; the polka-dotted motif of ‘kanda papeta’; the spin wheel motif of ‘Karoliya’, the ‘Marga Margi’ rooster and hen pattern; as well as the ‘Chakla Chakli’ male and female sparrow.
“There’s definitely a renewed interest in traditional textiles and techniques among consumers, and people like me, who are primarily textile designers and researchers, are more than happy to service this trend. Social media has allowed us to educate customers on our traditional textiles, on karigars, on how long something takes and what its intrinsic value is. I’m thrilled to be living and creating these exciting times,” Lilaowala concludes.
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in HELLO! India’s October 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!
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