Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 17:58 UK

Indian designer champions homespun

By Catriona Luke

A Sabyasachi creation
Sabyasachi uses a lot of hand-woven fabrics

In a mission that recalls Gandhian ideals, one fashion designer wants India to boost its rural industries and return to homespun - and even Bollywood is heeding his call.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee is a young, hip, Bengali designer who has taken India's chattering classes by storm.

He is insisting that to be well-dressed at Delhi and Mumbai's best cocktail parties, you have to be wearing not glittery Western-inspired tube dresses and leggings, but khadi - the simple homespun weave that was championed by Gandhi in the 1930s to boost the rural economy and give India a sense of nationalist pride during the fight for independence.

Apart from the beauty of the fabric, whose history in India goes back well over 5,000 years, Mukherjee's reasoning is simple.

He finds it odd that Indian designers tend to steer clear of local hand-woven fabrics.

Khadi, he says, is refined, sophisticated, eco-friendly and comfortable, and has too long been regarded as the poor man's fabric.

To wear it is a sign of being well-dressed and cultured.

Best of all, in his view, it should help India's rural craftsmen and women to share in the country's growing wealth and economy.

Wooing Bollywood

Given that the fashionable elite will spend thousands of rupees on his homespun saris, and that new collections leave the shop shelves in minutes flat, it's a trickle-down effect that he thinks may actually work.

Mukherjee is also aware that celebrating the timeless appeal of India's national cloth means getting the message across to India's biggest media outlet - Bollywood.

Increasingly, 2009 looks like the "year of khadi".

Sabyasachi Mukherjee
Sabyasachi Mukherjee is inspired by traditional Indian designs

He has dressed superstar Aishwarya Rai in homespun for two films currently in production - Ravana and Guzaarish - and the actress Vidya Balan in Paa which is due to be released in November.

He maintains that Bollywood has to be prised away from its fixation with polyester bling - a 30-year habit which has trickled down into street wear for ordinary Indians - and back into the cool simplicity of clothing that is healthier for the body and that film stars of the 50s and 60s enjoyed.

The nostalgia may be part of the style, but Mukherjee is very much in the new wave of Indian designers - a graduate of India's National Institute of Technology and recipient of the Femina British Council/Times of India prize.

He spent an internship with Georgina von Etzdorf in London and in 2004 showed at Milan Fashion Week.


He's now 32 and lives in Calcutta, where he grew up. He says he has been influenced by the beauty of Bengali textiles, the films of Satyajit Ray, the writings of Nobel prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore, the vibrancy of Calcutta theatre and the city's on-off love affair with communism.

Fashion writers have labelled him "intellectual", but he describes himself as a modern, practical and a socially aware businessman.

Sabyasachi's chhotu sari
His surprise hit earlier this year was the ankle-length chhotu sari

It's vital to him that the rural poor share India's growing economy - a Gandhian concept and one that puts India right at the centre of being Indian.

In 2008 he set up cooperatives of rural craftswomen across India, starting with Rajasthan, Gujarat and Barasat in West Bengal.

Inspired by the workers' co-operative models of the Nobel prize-winning Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, Mukherjee has aimed to cut out the middlemen.

Half of the money that the co-operatives earn they take home, and the other half is ploughed back into the community bank account for development.

"I am capable of taking their craft to the international level and getting them the money they deserve."

Meanwhile at the glitzy end of the market, things couldn't be going better.

Film stars and society hostesses wear his clothes.

Naomi Campbell is a fan, walking the catwalk in a Sabyasachi sari in March this year for a charity show at the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai and then purchasing two saris for the auction.


But he has attracted criticism as well. For simple homespun, the prices are astronomical. Sabyasachi collections of khadi, cotton saris and dresses start at 6,500 rupees (£80) and rise to 100,000 rupees (£1,230) for bridal and special wear.

Bollywood actress Raima Sen in a Sabyasachi creation
His creations are popular with many Bollywood stars

High prices in a national fashion industry that the Indian Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry expects to be worth 7.5bn rupees (£93 million) by 2012 don't stop Mukherjee's shops being cleared out when new collections arrive.

He is big enough and interesting enough to the fashion press to forgo the shows at Mumbai, Delhi or New York fashion weeks this autumn.

He's not showing and is more likely to be found in the wild parts of Orissa or Madhya Pradesh.

Time is deliberately spent off the beaten track in India, looking at traditional designs and working out how he can translate them into modern catwalk clothes.

His surprise hit earlier this year was the chhotu sari - the sari worn for hundreds of generations by women in the tribal areas that are woven to calf length for freedom of movement.

It was, he decided, the perfect metropolitan sari for young women - long enough to give them the flowing shape, but short enough to differentiate them from their mothers and to allow them to show off their ankles and shoes.

Saris, Aligarh pajamas, gharara pants, lehengas - it's a long way from the Western designer gear that has flooded into the wealthier parts of Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta.

As he told Indian Vogue last year: "I wish Indo-Western was never explored. It almost sounds like a pathetic attempt to woo your insecure Indian woman to try her hand at Western clothing. She's better off in her sari!"

Catriona Luke is a London-based writer and editor.

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