New advisor for khadi promotion, Ritu Beri shares how our ‘freedom fabric’ must be reinvented for both the millennial in India and the international buyer. By Rosella Stephen
When Ritu Beri celebrated 25 years in the industry in 2014, she hinted at wanting to write inspirational books. Not a bad idea, for the Delhi-based designer is no ordinary achiever. She was the first Asian to head a French fashion house ( Jean-Louis Scherrer), serves on the board of governors at NIFT, has received prestigious civilian awards from both the French and Spanish governments, and has designed for former US president Bill Clinton and Prince Charles, as well as Hollywood star, Nicole Kidman. Plus, she still has the most expensive book on Indian fashion (Firefly – A Fairytale, `1,00,000) to her credit. And a few days ago, she was appointed advisor to the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) for promotion of khadi in India and abroad. For someone who showed at the country’s first professional fashion show back in 2000 (and began her career with khadi), she seems to have come full circle. Having learnt much from mentor and famous embroiderer, Francois Lesage, Beri is clever with both couture and hats, and is armed with a sense of humour (she named her Labrador, Sex, on a lark, back in 2002, and had quipped during an old interview with a leading publication, “I needed a room for Sex, a toy for Sex… and Sex at work!”). She may just have the answer to making khadi the global fabric it deserves to be. Read on:
Earlier this year, at the Luxury League, you shared your plans to put India’s luxury brands on the global map.
The Luxury League is a passion. I have an illustrious board and it’s an acclaimed ‘think tank’. We have started The Luxury League Roundtables and our first roadshow was on February 15, during the Make in India Week’ in Mumbai. There is a belief that makes the world go around — ‘one must give back and thus replenish the source one receives everything from.’ I endorse that belief wholeheartedly and The Luxury League was born of that belief — to promote our heritage of culture and creativity through luxury. My desire is to open Indian doors to luxury brands from various countries. To learn from the masters. To bring them on board. To make the voice of India dependable abroad. To eventually strengthen the influence of India in the global luxury industry.
What do you make of the renewed interest in handloom, handcraft and the weavers’ story?
Khadi is one of the oldest forms of handspun fabric, widely used by generations. It’s a weaver’s delight, with credit to Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the attempt is to make khadi a global fabric beyond just India. Made well, it can adapt to many different forms of creativity. Instead of restricting khadi to look like what it did in the old days, it can be used for unstitched garments, as home furnishing and in decorative items, besides fashion.
Khadi, the world’s only handspun, hand-woven fabric is seeing many champions among the younger designers. How will you make this a bigger story with your experience and global connect?
I am planning many initiatives, including fashion shows for both children and adults. My experience of 25 years in the industry, and designing clothes for international and national celebrities, will help when I try to promote khadi both locally and globally.
You have said that giving khadi a global silhouette and a trendier treatment will attract millennials. How will you go about initiating this?
Khadi has always been associated with politicians, and youngsters have unfortunately founded it boring and unfashionable. I will take khadi to colleges and universities and design clothes in cutting edge designs, on par with global brands. I feel khadi needs a complete makeover.
Do you see khadi playing a strong role in couture?
Khadi is the most breathable and comfortable fabric to wear in summer. It will play a major role in couture because of its versatility. It can be styled in any manner. Personally, I love khadi and my first few collections launched in 1990 were in khadi. It’s a weaver’s delight and is very comfortable. I wear a lot of khadi in summers. Khadi is more than a fabric, it is a movement started by Gandhi. We must encourage national and international fashion designers to create their collections using it. It is understood that for weavers and artisans to be nurtured, mainstream designers should add handcraft and handloom to their vocabulary. Definitely. If we do not promote our handicrafts and handloom, the art will die. Our artisans are the pride of our country. We should use our local fabric and also give orders to our weavers for handloom, which will encourage them. With the renewed interest in Indian embroideries and block printing, what about our crafts excites you the most? After all, one of the great embroiderers, Francois Lesage, was your mentor. Embroideries are a passion with me. My style is intrinsically feminine, romantic, with a flamboyant twist. Being an Indian designer, embroideries and motifs have been a strong part of my collection. Today our designers are showcasing in various fashion capitals of the world. My vision for the future is that Indian designers should develop corporate fashion houses, along the lines of their successful western counterparts. This would see them establishing a strong brand identity that involves the Indian culture.
How dependent is fashion on Bollywood and the wedding market?
These days, brides are very conscious about wearing designer outfits. The bridal line is opulent and elaborate. Bollywood has the power to influence the masses and they make a strong fashion statement.
How has the Indian buyer changed?
Indian buyers have become more conscious about their looks and wardrobe. The regular lehenga, which was a flared skirt, now sees experiments with pleats, textures and modern cuts. Different fabrics are used for dupattas, and blouses are most contemporary.
You have woven heritage into your own designs, including your flamboyant hats. How is this accessory part of fashion’s modern vocabulary?
Hats symbolise class and culture. Worn well, they make a strong individual statement. I would like to influence the use of hats more often in daily life. Both edgy and elegant, the hat is inarguably a scene stealer and sets you apart.
I love being in Paris any time of the year, but June is especially gorgeous. There are so many fun things to keep your calendar full. Like the unique White Dinner that happens on the third Thursday of June. It is the experience of a lifetime, to be a guest among 10,000 people for a super luxe picnic dinner. It is something that can happen only in Paris. I have also heard the best jazz in Paris, and I love walking down Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest neighbourhoods with cobbled streets. The boutiques and restaurants here all seem from another time. I love spending time with my family there.
In a country where khadi is often associated with politicians or now as elitist luxury, will it become the fabric of the masses? After all, the common man prefers a garment made from artificial fibres as it is often cheaper, crinkle-proof and easy to maintain. For any trend to take root, it has to be claimed by the young. This is where popular designers play a role as they create trends that the young fashionistas would want to follow. Gradually, they say, high street fashion will take note and pay attention to textiles like khadi. Beri plans to employ social media to create a buzz around khadi, borrowing a few pointers from the recent movement, #100sareepact. Meanwhile, khadi veterans like Rajesh Pratap Singh have introduced innovations like khadi denim and dresses, jackets and cropped pants that have a fan following. No longer dull, khadi now has lustre, unusual colours and revels in clean, stark lines. There are 1.42 lakh weavers and 8.62 lakh spinners in the country according to the government’s Press Information Bureau website, so employment and protection of craftsmen is imperative. That the story is gaining traction is evident from shows like Rohit Bal’s in Ahmedabad last year, titled Huts to High Street. Organised by Sunil Sethi of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), it saw Bal’s romantic silhouettes from his Gulbagh line showcased by actress Sonam Kapoor. Lifestyle store Good Earth’s label, Sustain, has unbleached khadi coordinates, named after the mogra flower. Meanwhile, Abraham & Thakore and new-age voices like Aneeth Arora from Pero are also adding to the khadi love.
Khadi is a fabric that we have an emotional connection with. Its importance and value, as have already been brought forward by the designers lately, can be pushed more aggressively in the luxury segment. Once it finds its place here, it will trickle down and be more acceptable to the masses
— Ujjawal Dubey gets most of his khadi from Meerut and lets the fabric play hero in his garments
Khadi by nature is the best form of couture. Couture signifies ‘made with hands’. Khadi is handspun and handwoven yarn which fits extremely well with the definition
— Rahul Mishra has always been interested in the story and future of the weaver
Today it is very fashionable to talk Eco, sustainable and so on. but we cannot use these artisans as a one-season trend. Which is why I stick with my weavers and dyers, and ensure they get work each season
— Wendell Rodricks, a veteran when it comes to khadi and heritage textiles, has unusual offerings at his store in Goa.
From a global point of view, khadi is already luxury. The luxury industry calls for a certain modernity and creativity. Khadi must meet certain requirements of luxury like delivery on time and consistency. About 25 years from now, people will only care for small orders, made to order and sustainable. Khadi is the future.
— Jean Francois Lesage, couture embroiderer, uses khadi as lamp shades for his tubelights