TrendsRitu Kumar: the doyenne of Indian fashion

Ritu Kumar: the doyenne of Indian fashion

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The designer talks about her constant fascination with textiles, the changing customer, and her new book



From the elegance of her living room, where textures and prints blend seamlessly, to her favourite book—Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, which she has read 16-17 times—classic is is the word that best describes Ritu Kumar’s taste. It reflects in everything she does.

Her recent India Couture Week showcase, which marked her return to the Delhi runway after close to a decade, was a reminder of what she represents in the world of fashion: clothes that are classic as well as timeless. Beneath the oversized bows and sheer capes, the septuagenarian designer showcased favourite silhouettes of the lehnga and salwar-kurta that were attractive enough for both the loyalist and the new customer.

“I enjoy doing things that I do with textiles. I just like working on prints and handblocks,” says Kumar, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013.

Over six decades, Kumar’s designs have retained their identity, in prints, handblocks and embroidery rooted in India’s weaving and design traditions. Ritu Kumar, arguably India’s first fashion house, now includes Label Ritu Kumar (boho-chic Indo-Western), Ri-Ritu Kumar (bridal couture), aarké Ritu Kumar (everyday clothing), Ritu Kumar Home (home furnishings) and Ritu Kumar (daily and semi-formal ethnic wear). In 2021, Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd acquired a 52% stake in the Ritu Kumar brand; the size of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

The Ritu Kumar brands have over 100 stores in India. “We are growing, for sure, but I don’t have the details. I am on the creative side of things,” says Kumar. “You can ask my team.” The team declined to share numbers.

What Kumar does talk about is her desire to slow down and finish her book. “It’s about the journey I have taken over these 60 years. From Assam to Rajasthan, Kashmir to Chennai, it’s a travelogue on the villages that are home to India’s well-known and lesser-known textiles…how you can reach these places, where you can stay, what you can eat. I want the world to know about the textiles of the country and the people who make them,” she says. “That’s all I can tell you about the book for now.” Edited excerpts from an interview:

There was a lot of ‘zardozi’ in your India Couture Week collection.

I wanted to highlight the story of zardozi. It was a technique chosen by India’s royalty, particularly the Muslim royalty. … These karkhanas (factories for embroidery) were subsidised, particularly during the Mughal era, when the most elegant embroidery evolved. A lot of it came from Iran. During the start of my design journey, when I first went to the villages in Bengal in the 1960s—I was in my 20s—I couldn’t understand where the embroidery was coming from. In Bengal, they don’t like embroidery; they wear woven saris, white with red borders. Yet they were doing this ugly embroidery to earn money. The more it weighed, the more money they earned. It was a complete disaster; the aesthetics had been lost….

I got some samples from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, found jodas (salwar-suits) from Lucknow, clothes of the nawabs of Bengal, and that’s when it clicked. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Kolkata (in 1856, by the British) and he was a big shaukeen (enthusiast). He started zardozi in those areas…

As with most crafts in India, it’s exciting when you discover them. There’s so much depth. All you need to do is be a catalyst. …

You can’t just take a khakha (outline) and put some crystals on it. You have to design the fabric, understand the fabric, the design. Now, a third layer has come, with styling…. Indian fabrics were never meant to be cut so much. They were just layered.

Cutting fabric in India is considered a waste. Imagine if you cut brocade, that’s gold you are wasting. You had a sari, you could drape it 100 ways. But cutting a cloth for modern silhouettes and designs, so that today’s buyer could easily wear it, was something I, we, had to learn.

Today’s shopper wants easy-to-wear clothes…

Exactly. The next generation doesn’t want to wear saris only the way they are supposed to be worn. They want them to be fitted, asymmetrical. They don’t want to get into something that requires a lot of effort. And the modern way of making garments is exactly that, it has brought ease and comfort into wearing clothes.

You have to adapt. But it’s not a problem. India has been customising clothing since the second century. This is the country that gave the world fabrics. We customised clothes for Africa, Europe, China, Japan…. India and its textiles have never been static. So, it has not been challenging.

I am used to doing two collections a year for our export company, which was mostly meant for American clients (while building her label, she also worked with her husband’s textile exports business). It’s like cooking pizza one day and biryani the next. It all has a method. Trends come and go and come back again, like quiet luxury was a thing last year.

It still is. Do you believe Indian couture and quiet luxury go together?

(Laughs). Of course. Study textiles from the Mughal era. If there is quiet luxury, those men in the miniature paintings (exemplified it).

Three hundred years ago in Benaras (now Varanasi), they had 10 rooms set up just to make garments for the maharaja of Jaipur, a very, very large man. In one room, a weaver made the front of his garment, in another, the back—all laid out according to his size. That was bespoke, quiet luxury.

Today’s vocabulary might be fun but India has been doing it forever. That’s why it has been easier for me to navigate the changes in the fashion ecosystem over these past six decades.

How did you get interested in textiles?

By accident. I got a scholarship to study the history of Western art in the US. I felt terrible; I did not know a thing about Indian art. I took a job in the library and read every book (I could find) on Indian art and craft. When I came back to India, I got married, and my husband suggested a course in museology in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the Ashutosh Museum. That’s where I started learning about Indian textiles.

I got very nationalistic after that experience in America. I realised how ignorant we are about what we have.

I didn’t realise (the existence of the rich traditions of) rural India till I went for a dig outside Kolkata, in Chandraketugarh…. I discovered these hamlets involved in traditional crafts…and decided to start a handblock printing unit (in Kolkata)… with my savings.

What was the response to your clothes in India?

Terrible. People didn’t want to wear Indian-looking clothes or saris. They wanted chiffon from Europe. I was printing on Khadi.

Someone had come to one of my exhibitions and said, “Itna mota kapda kaun pehnega (who will wear such heavy material)?”

So, I switched to chiffon and everyone loved it, then everyone else copied it, from Benaras to Surat. This was the 1970s-80s.

There was no social media, no influencers or no fashion media then. How did you build your brand?

Thank God. I can’t tell you how much work I got done. There was thankfully no concept of mass market then, so you had time to do a lot of innovation.

Once, an international client requested for saris to be turned into scarves, and it was a hit…. I was just doing my thing, having fun…. We stopped losing money only 20-30 years back.

We were supported by my husband’s export business. I had told my husband I will do the export collection but you let me do this on the side. At that point, it made no economic sense, honestly (laughs). It was more like a passion, a hobby.

Yet you have sustained the brand for 60 years.

I think the brand had an identity…it was something a person was comfortable in (yet) sophisticated enough to be able to stand on its own. And most of our country connects with textiles—we can tell a bad colour from a good colour….

Above all, it’s not really Ritu Kumar. It’s the textile design. I was just a catalyst. I do take credit for discovering it by joining the dots and putting it out there. But I don’t take credit for the richness of the design. I never have…

You know, the thing is, you have to stay true to what you want and what you are good at. I love seeing the diversity (of design talent) that’s coming out right now. Most of the really talented kids are my friends or protégés. Truly, I feel that this country is coming back…

We were the most important country in the world for textiles and it’s returning to that. It doesn’t happen with just one designer. You have to have multitudes of designers for the multitudes of textiles…. It’s a full circle and it’s a great achievement, considering the fashion industry, as we know it today, is only 20 years old….

Gaurav (Gupta) is very talented and I think he has bridged the gap (between East and West). So has Rahul (Mishra). They have put India on the global map and you can’t deny that…

(The Indian fashion landscape) has become very, very, very varied. There’s a niche for everyone. There’s space for everyone. There’s a demand for everyone, well, almost everyone.

 

 

 

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