In the spring of 2016, Trisha Khanna travelled from Delhi to Phulia village in West Bengal, where the 27-year-old spent several days developing custom jamdani weaves for her brand of luxury scarves, Meesha. Founded by her sister Meesha Khanna in 2011, their collection uses ultra-fine wool, cashmere and pure silk sourced from Kashmir and around India, woven in Punjab or West Bengal, shown at Paris Fashion Week, and sold through 90 stores worldwide including Le Bon Marche in Paris, Bloomingdales, Harvey Nichols, Isetan and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo, and Saks Fifth Avenue. “This season, we wanted to take jamdani to the world,” says 34-year-old Meesha, who graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York and worked with Armani Exchange and Manish Arora before launching her own label. Their scarves are refined and versatile, symbolic of both India’s textile ancestry and globally connected present. This is India without the ethnic.
Brand Meesha is representative of a new movement in the world of Indian fashion, where the aesthetic is more minimalistic than blingy, more comfort-driven and less cumbersome. Its innovation lies in its depth, not width or scale – designers are improving upon age-old craft techniques with technological know-how, discarding excessive surface ornamentation in favour of fabric development, and then applying digital marketing strategies to present a slick new package that is as contemporary as it is authentic. Its founders come from varied educational backgrounds and international experience, but all are rooted firmly in the Indian craft heritage.
Take Raul Rai. After 18 years working in investment banking in New York and London, Rai moved to Mumbai to work in private equity and to be with his wife Simran Lal, CEO of Good Earth, a homegrown luxury retailer with 10 stores across India and Turkey. Over the next few years, the MBA from Harvard Business School was gradually drawn into her family business, first as an informal advisor and then in an active role setting up Good Earth’s online business. Finally, three years ago, the couple decided to develop a whole new line of clothing and lifestyle goods with an Indian soul and a global appeal. “Good Earth meets Silicon Valley,” is how Rai describes the new range, Nicobar, which was launched in March 2016. With clothing making up almost 70 per cent of their product range, Nicobar is characterised by its neutral colours, quintessentially Indian fabrics such as cotton and mulmul, and clean silhouettes that make for versatile separates.
The affordable-luxury label has an omni-channel retail model with a high emphasis on digital integration. Experienced in-house web developers work closely with the product designers headed by Lal to ensure a consistent voice from conception to point of sale. Their interactive and highly visual social media emphasises the brand’s Indian roots, laid-back, fluid vibe and international pertinence. “We’re taking a long-term view. It’s about creating a modern Indian sensibility in a borderless world,” explains the 48-year-old Rai, who is a Baker Scholar.
With a 100-strong team and three stores across India – five more are slated for this year – the new brand is looking at creating an ecosystem around ‘India Modern’. They host free events in their stores and offices for music and art communities such as Sofar and Kommune, and run a magazine and blog Nico Journal featuring others who fit into the new sensibility. They also have design collaborations with likeminded industry leaders. Notable among them is Suket Dhir.
The winner of the prestigious Woolmark Prize 2016, Dhir is considered one of the pioneers of the new ‘chilled out’, earthy, comfort-centric vibe in Indian menswear. Born into a family of fabric traders in Punjab, he developed a love for Indian textiles at a young age, and after studying at National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), started to apply modern production techniques to old ways of weaving cotton, silk, linen and wool – fabrics that ‘breathe’. “I love variation techniques. I have been experimenting with extraction directly from fields, so that the fabric is longer, more durable and finer,” says the Delhi-based designer, whose unpretentious yet luxurious menswear now retails internationally from prestigious boutiques that specialise in handcrafted clothing.
He describes Nicobar as democratic and his own label Suketdhir (one word) as indulgent, since it is marked by ‘slow fashion’ methods, intense research and development, and investment on sustainable production processes rather than larger quantities. “My fabrics take years to develop; I cannot democratise that process. But I am glad we have a brand like Nicobar now so that the message of India can be taken to greater audiences. Both have their place.” Conversations with the 37-year-old are dotted by his appreciation for all things Indian: “I feel so blessed to be born in this country.”
It is a phrase you will hear repeated at the Gurugram headquarters of Andamen, a bridge-to-luxury menswear brand founded in December 2015 by St Stephen’s alumni Siddharth and Satvika Suri. The scion of Impulse, a 35-year-old supply-chain management firm with several international clothing majors such as Debenhams and Paul Smith as its clients, Siddharth often wondered why India was a destination for only the ‘basic to good and better’ range of clothing production orders, not the ‘best’. “International buyers come to us for fast fashion, but not top quality,” says Siddharth, who did his MBA from Wharton Business School after his wife Satvika, herself an MBA from Indian School of Business and a national tennis champion, insisted he be as qualified as her. Together, they decided to launch a line of handwoven men’s shirts based on ‘perfection’ in production and innovation in traditional Indian forms of cloth-weaving and printing.
After rejecting over 140 textile factories, they zoomed in on one near Bengaluru that has worked for years with Italian clients and understands the need for fine fabric. Then came the difficult part: Could they build a luxury brand purely online? Unfazed by the lower price points of online retail, they focused on quality and the ambience of luxury from the website to packaging, trying to up the ante with each new collection, spending almost 10 times as much as other e-commerce brands on photography alone. With a relaxed and lightweight silhouette, their target customer is the impatient, globe-trotting millennial who seeks discreet Indian luxury he can be comfortable in and proud of. They are now experimenting with khadi fibre to make it more durable and luxe, and have come up with a range of fine block-printed shirts that at first glance appear as homogeneous as mill-made prints. “Why not?” responds 31-year-old Siddharth, when asked why make by hand what can be done on a machine. “India has a formidable textile heritage that unfortunately has not evolved and kept pace with the demands of the time. We need to invest more on innovation of traditional techniques if we want India to stay relevant in the future.”
Aneeth Arora would agree. The designer behind the award-winning label Péro, known for its ethical clothing, says, “All this while we had overlooked the potential of what we can do in India. But by working with the same set of craftspeople, it is possible to refine the product to such an extent that it is relevant to an overseas audience as well.” A textile graduate from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and a fashion graduate from NIFT, Arora specialises in conscious fashion that begins at the fabric stage. “Once all that development has gone in, you don’t feel the need to embellish it further,” the 33-year-old explains of her breezy, anti-fit women’s wear with a focus on handloom and upcycled waste cloth. Launched in 2010, Péro now retails from almost 300 outlets worldwide, a majority of them on islands and resort destinations.
In fact, most designers in this genre find themselves qualifying as resort-wear on international shores, thanks to the Indian weather that demands natural, breathable and loose clothing. A touch of craft or a burst of colour then adds a cultural element to certify its ‘Indianness’. “It appears simple but there’s a lot of thought behind it,” says Ruchika Sachdeva, who launched her label Bodice in 2011, and who follows a design philosophy that is ‘neither more nor less, but just enough’. “I don’t like trying too hard. To me, that is a sign of confusion,” avers the London School of Fashion graduate. “Let me quote Blaise Pascal: ‘I apologise for the long letter. If I had time, I would have made it shorter’,” she says by way of explanation for the monastic plainness of her garments, which can be seen as a spiritual attempt to achieve clarity of mind. She strips traditional wool, silk and cotton down to the most fundamental level, playing with the texture and thickness of the yarn, so that the wearer “may not see why the garment is special, but they can feel it”. She believes that the more designers adopt this approach to daily dressing, the easier it becomes for customers to adopt it.
Indeed, more are catching on, in fashion as well as accessories. Jewellery designer Puja Bhargava Kamath developed silver baubles with craft clusters around Jaipur and gave them a contemporary touch, winning an international clientele and several awards in the process. The NIFT graduate, now based in California, uses techniques such as rava, jali-work and meenakari in minimal proportions and clean cuts to create products that are a fusion of east and west.
Last summer, interior designer Aditi Sharma took a detour from construction projects in North India to develop a line of necklaces called Greytone. Deceptively simple in appearance, their uniqueness lies in the material they are made of – cement. The graduate from Domus Academy in Milan has developed a sort of concrete that is light to wear, amplified with traditional cord, brass, thread and a touch of steel. Little surprise that the 32-year-old lapped up an accessory award from an international fashion magazine this year.
It appears that India’s new love for a minimalist, meaningful aesthetic in fashion makes sound global business sense.