Fabric of India: at the cutting edge of fashion

Wall hanging (detail), cotton appliqué, Gujarat
Attention to detail: textiles are a huge part of Indian culture Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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“Indian women love to dress up like princesses. In India, people still go to the market to buy fabrics, garments are made to order, and friends come with you to the fittings.”

Indian actress Sonam Kapoor understands textiles as a part of her country’s culture, lived at every level. Arguably the birthplace of textile craft, the sub-continent’s ability to produce superb goods isn’t a surprise.

Over centuries, India has been a beehive of creative activity in weaving, dyeing, design and fine manufacturing.

Famous for mordant dyeing – a process used by Indian textile artisans since the second millennium BC that creates vivid, unfading colours, as well as the incredible glowing intensity of red madder dye, India earned a glorious reputation for superior fabrics.

With superb material dating back at least 6,000 years, India produced quality goods that outstripped those found in 1700s Europe.

Indian fashion exploded onto the scene in the Nineties, with designers making exciting use of traditional methods, both hand and machine-wrought

Now, India is building a new history by incorporating this rich textile culture into novel and nuanced areas. A fresh wave of innovative artists, designers and craftspeople are making Indian textiles incredibly relevant in the global marketplace.

As a major part of the V&A’s India Festival, The Fabric of India is the first significant exhibition to showcase the enormous variety and dynamism found in the handmade textiles from India’s 3rd century to today.

Curated from the best of the V&A’s world famous textile collection along with superb examples from international partners, leading designers and other leading collectors, the exhibition contains more than 200 masterpieces, many of which are being displayed for the first time.

Along with the exhibition’s cutting-edge fashion, contemporary textile art and home furnishing is also highlighted. Designer Spandana Gopal makes innovative cushions and floor coverings using a traditional weaving community.

“What’s exciting is that [Indian] design evolves from having a lack of something rather than an excess. India doesn’t have a concept of waste; everything is turned into something else… The world doesn’t need designers to design objects for the sake of it. Instead we need to think about what design means today.”

Indian fashion exploded onto the global scene in the Nineties, with many designers making exciting use of traditional methods, both hand and machine-wrought.

Designers such as French-trained Suneet Varma created a revolutionary “corset blouse” that replaced the Indian woman’s traditional choli, a blouse worn with a sari.

A sari night: India’s fashion designers have reimagined the Indian woman’s traditional dress Credit: Abraham & Thakore

Manish Arora and Monisha Jaising popularised Indian themes with cunning twists on traditional garments. Rajesh Pratap Singh is renowned for Indian minimalist, his understated aesthetics emphasising texture and a trademark use of pin tucks. Indian fashion was so strong back then that Arora became the first Indian designer to showcase at Paris Fashion Week.

The craft of the human hand combined with India’s culture of elegance and beauty continues to provide a foundation of fresh yet lasting inspiration for many designers, including Arora.

Initially known as a “kitsch designer”, Arora uses bright colours, street posters and fun images of Indian gods and goddess to inform and decorate his fashions. His confident understanding of colour, he says, is his strong point.

Being Indian, he says, is something he takes with him wherever he goes in the world. So no matter if he’s inspired by the circus or outer space, the throbbing life of Indian colour will always be there.

Reflecting a previous shift from sari to salwar kameez (trouser and tunic), India’s fashion designers have reimagined the Indian woman’s traditional dress. Bollywood costume designer Manish Malhotra reimagined it as a “cocktail sari” crafted in pastel shades, chiffon and net.

The modern sari is almost futuristic, with innovative use of fabric and contemporary flare, such as 2015’s Moon sari, designed and made by brothers Aziz and Suleman Khatri using NorBlack NorWhite, clamp-dyed tasar silk.

From the brightly elegant Jamdani dress designed by Aneeth Arora for Péro in 2010, woven in West Bengal and tailored in Delhi to the funky street style of the ordinary Indian citizen as photographed by Manou, India’s national passion for fabric, drape, colour, structure, function and proportion will dazzle the most experienced fashion lover as it will delight the total newcomer.

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