India has gone through numerous changes and developments in the past few years, especially when it comes to the fashion industry. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of India’s finest in fashion. From a small traditional outlet on the crowded lanes of Kolkata to high-street fashion boutiques on the by-lanes of Paris, London and New York, fashion extraordinaire and maestro Ritu Kumar hasn’t just evolved as a designer but also has done her bit in transforming the fashion industry of India.
It all started when she returned to India from America, with a desire to learn more about India and its heritage. She took up a course dealing with histology which provided her the exposure to museology and this became the genesis of her interest in the various craft forms. As and when she progressed, she also got introduced to hand block printing and eventually started interacting with a cross-section of artisans across Kolkata. According to her, there was undocumented repertoire of knowledge and skills and this was the foundation of her continued association with Indian designs and hand-woven textiles.
Last year in March, a wide range of the founder’s designs, photographs and paintings were exhibited at a show entitled Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar, at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. The exhibition marked her 50th year in the world of fashion, and one of its underlying themes was travel.
Here’s how she talks about documenting her travels - “As soon as I embarked on my quest to become a designer in the 1960s, I pursued my habit of making notes, taking timely pictures and creating artistic impressions on canvas of the places I visited. Along the way, I documented the crafts of artisans. Now all these visual elements were brought to life for the public through this exhibition at the India Habitat Centre.”
She adds, “Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar traced my almost 50 years of travels across South Asia and Europe. Part-professional memoirs, part-musings of an art enthusiast, part-personal reflections on the historical regions I visited—the show was, perhaps, the only known example of a multiform travelogue authored by a designer in post-Independence India.
I feel we have a rich culture of textiles. This exhibition was proof of that. I hope we can still retain it. However, due to commercialization, mechanization and not enough encouragement and patronage, I feel we are at a crossroads in India. Hence the name of the exhibition. As in the rest of the world, in India too we may lose our crafts and textiles because the next generation may not take any interest in them. This has happened in most cultures.”
Her design philosophy is based on the premise that everything founded on a good aesthetic cuts across all borders-be they geographical, cultural or otherwise. This very aesthetic is the factor central to the Indian handwriting which underlies her creations. As the world truly becomes a global village, more and more of the elements that make up modern culture are taking on rich hues and ethnic tones. Pluralism is the mantra, while tastes are fast becoming eclectic, be it in music, arts, food or fashion. Within fashion, Indian techniques have increasingly commanded a premium for their creativity, style and finish.
The team’s philosophy of working with India’s rich textiles and craft natural led them to explore ethical and sustainable fashion as well. They have also used banana and soybean fibers to create their signature sarees and, along with creating natural pigments for over 35 years as they are also committed to reducing carbon footprint by using such methods.
The designer believes that design and textile in India are products of skills and wisdom passed down across generations. Ritu Kumar, the brand, has always embraced this heritage. This is the USP of all their lines. Her work is constantly evolving within an aesthetic which is sophisticated both in the Eastern and the Western sense. Each of her collections makes a contemporary statement in a fast-changing modern India.
She strongly believes in preserving the legacy of art forms, and to believe in heritage. India has a rich textile tradition with multiple dimensions, such as embroideries, weaving, printing and dyeing. So, a typical Ritu Kumar design would have pure textiles, traditional embroideries, highlighting the craft heritage of our country.
Ritu Kumar feels the need to keep it going with as much Indian talent as we can get since this is going to be the critical part of keeping an Indian fashion element alive. Many designers in the fashion industry are now working towards bringing sustainable fashion back on the fashion map, and with great success. Their projects are not only putting the spotlight on the craftsmanship, but also on the craftspeople and on their places of origin. By highlighting an important aspect of our heritage, they are making people around them more conscious while also helping the art stay alive. Beauty should never die for the sake of convenience, and that’s the idea these designers are preserving and taking forward.
Ritu Kumar says, “You know, when I started, there was no fashion in the country and all. There was no indigenous or organic fashion. Also, there were no choices, options or retail, of course today upcoming designers have much more options, they have access to schools, a great access to a variety of fabrics, to the media like yours and I think that’s an advantage. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons why India still has indigenous fashion while the rest of the world doesn’t.”
The designer believes that the need of the hour is to keep these traditions (weavers, craft, textiles and techniques) alive by using them or the basic technique in a contemporary manner. As a brand they are sensitive to this treasure of the textile world. With them being the inheritors of the world’s richest textile crafts, it is a responsibility to treasure them. The age-old skills of growing, spinning, weaving, dying and patterning of cotton have been a primary focus for them. Every collection is rooted in Indian traditions, the inspiration itself comes from our Indian heritage.
Ms. Kumar says that her journey has been overwhelming. She was in her twenties when they started working on the aboriginal textiles resourced from many villages in the country, which at that time were least admired or accepted. They spent all their energies and creativity in the revival of all the magnificent indigenous art and brought back the Indian textiles and Handloom art back to life and limelight. The fashion landscape has been ever evolving. The contemporary styling is now an amalgamation of western silhouettes with an influence of native presence. They started with crafts, then came in saris which lead to retail.
Under Ritu Kumar, they now have Label – Ritu Kumar for the young ladies, RK – contemporary Indian and RI – dedicated to couture. They are always working on creating fascinating fashion trends for women from different walks of life and likings. Even today, she feels that she’s nowhere near done. She wishes to spend all the time unearthing organic fashion based on indigenous skills and she thinks there would always be more to explore. Continue exploring and learning is the message she would give to upcoming designers.
Many well-known figures have donned Ritu Kumar clothes including Princess Diana, Jemima Goldsmith and Madhur Jaffrey. In 2013, Ritu Kumar was awarded by the Indian Government with the Padma Shri award. She has also been featured in a project run by the Harvard Business School called ‘Creating Emerging Markets’. As of today, her clothes are retailed in 27 stores across India. In addition to these she has opened branches in London (which closed after three years), Paris and New York. In 1999 the company’s annual turnover was estimated as the highest of any Indian fashion outlet. Till date, Ritu Kumar holds the status of a revivalist in the Indian fashion industry!