Humble? Coarse? Beige? Not any more. Reincarnated in gossamer-fine, supple and coloured avatars, India’s freedom fabric is having a fashion moment all over again.

Danish textile designer Bess Nielsen’s store in Paris is named after it. It has made it to the Star Wars films. Designer Christina Kim’s haute label Dosa stocks it. And what is it? Nothing but our humble freedom fighter, khadi. Yes, khadi is now on its third fashion outing and, boy, is it in the limelight.

Life for this handspun fabric certainly didn’t start on the ramp. On the contrary, if Mahatma Gandhi, the noble promoter of the cloth, were alive today, he might well go on a satyagraha to protest its takeover by the fashionistas! Or, shrewd politician that he was, he might just approve of this peculiarly Indian conquest of the fashion world.

Let’s go into the back story a bit. Khadi is handspun cloth found in India and Pakistan. It’s a warp-weft mix of cotton, silk or wool, spun into thread on the charkha which, of course, became a political symbol of its own.

Khadi.01 wasn’t just about a bolt of coarse, rough-spun cloth. It was a movement. Launched in the late 1940s by the Mahatma, the khadi statement was more economical than sartorial, all about giving Western goods the cold shoulder and wearing only Indian-made cloth. The Mahatma spinning khadi on his charkha became the visible icon of the Swadesi movement, symbolising self-employment, self-reliance and self-pride. It was khadi versus British mill cloth.

Thus infused with a strong touch of politics, khadi was and continues to be the Indian and sometimes South Asian politician’s sartorial statement. Of course, it’s a far finer cloth with a higher thread count today. It enjoys another political distinction: the Indian flag is allowed to be made only of khadi.

When the fierce fire of nationalism had run its course, the fabric of independence was relegated to the back shelves of government-run textile emporiums and Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavans, where the bales gathered a fine patina of dust and drabness.

Many years down the line, we find that khadi is one fabric that refuses to go gently into the night. Unfazed by the fact that it hasn’t got its just dues from the country of its origin, it keeps coming back. For which India should be truly thankful.

Khadi.02 was, ironically enough, set in motion by a politician. Vasundhara Raje, Minister of Small Scale Industries in 2001, decided it was time for the national fabric to reveal its cool quotient. She brought designers such as Rohit Bal and Malini Ramani on board to give it a new look. The new designs first upped the glamour quotient of the dreary Udyog Bhavans, and then came standalone spaces like Khadi Store in Delhi’s tony Khan Market. Suddenly, it was all the rage to wear khadi. Kurtas, kurtis, jackets, dhotis, saris… every designer in the country worth his or her structured silhouette was doing stuff with khadi. Amazing things, for the most part.

Of course, one set of designers has always worked with khadi, the classicists rather than trend-tweakers. Neeru Kumar, Ritu Kumar, Pranavi Kapur and Madhu Jain knew the nature of khadi, and worked closely with the weavers. Says Ritu Kumar, “Khadi dyes beautifully, is more eco-friendly than any other Indian textile, and its matte texture looks fabulous with subtle embellishment.”

Designer Agnimitra Paul talks about the fabric’s versatility: “Khadi allows you to create an ethnic look with ease. If worn with proper accessories and carried with grace, it makes a distinct fashion statement.” Kapur has been working with khadi and handlooms for many years now and says, “Khadi is in my DNA. The fabric has been an intrinsic part of my growing, as an individual and as a designer. My line of soft pastels done by Ansari artisans in Bihar is such a big hit.”

In the early 2000s, Rajkot-based Saurashtra Rachnatmak Samiti (SRS) introduced khadi denim in the market. SRS Chairman Davendra Desai admitted that khadi sales were slumping and this was a move to counter the slide. Meanwhile back at the Gram Udyogs, the stats were dismal. According to the 2009-2010 report of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the value of khadi produced in the country fell from Rs.585.25 crore in 2008 to Rs.484.45 crore by December 2009; sales plummeted by Rs.40 crore. The Khadi Commission has more than one million workers, with an astounding 80 per cent being women. The welfare of this large industry, therefore, is no small matter for the authorities.

Even though selling spurious khadi is punishable under the Khaddar Act of 1950, the government had set no standardisation bar. Dubious khadi bhandars had mushroomed across the country, selling any handloom cloth under the khadi label. Simultaneously, the haute couture designers roped in for the glam makeover found the complex labyrinth of governmental red tape too tough to negotiate, and started pulling out. The sun was clearly beginning to set on khadi again.

Today, as it gets set for the runway again, the question is not so much whether it has arrived but whether it lends itself to variety and innovation. Here lies the rub or, more aptly, the nub. Khadi has not and does not really look to be crossing the invisible barrier that can catapult it into the big league. For all its versatility, detractors point to its coarse feel and propensity to wrinkle. But linen is very wrinkly too and not for a moment has its appeal declined among the sartorially evolved. In fact, Rohit Bal says that khadi is India’s answer to linen.

Khadi’s international connect has always been strong, given that John and William Bissel’s Fabindia, and Faith and John Singh’s Anokhi were early — and effective — promoters of the fabric. It was inevitable that khadi would soon cross the seas. In the Star Wars films, dyed khadi features in some of the costumes, especially for Samuel L. Jackson’s character Mace Windu. Bess Nielsen’s Paris store called Khadi & Co displays a carefully curated range of ensembles. Nielsen finds ‘great beauty’ in hand-spun khadi, saying it is versatile enough to pass that most basic textile test: that of being climate adaptable.

That high-end label Dosa stocks khadi is excellent exposure, given that designer Christina Kim is a favourite with Hollywood A-listers such as Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman. In a deliciously ironic move, Kim actually brought her khadi collection to India a while ago. Nobody mentioned coals or Newcastle!  

Last year, at both the Berlin Fashion Week and the New York Fashion Week, Gaurang Shah showcased a khadi line. This, of course, was a high thread-count khadi. Traditionally, khadi uses 60 counts of thread per inch, but Shah took the notch higher and used 80 to 100 counts of thread per inch to make the fabric more malleable, while playing with colour and floral motifs. Says Shah, “I personally love khadi. I want to preserve it for the future because it holds the true essence of India.”

Better still, khadi seems to be moving beyond garments. At London’s perennial fave, the Conran Shop, Abraham & Thakore’s khadi cushions make a lovely display. Back home, a tile company offers a khadi line of sombre-hued tiles. Khadi exhibitions offer visitors a turn at the charkha.

On its third run, khadi seems more or less completely shorn of its political and historical elements. Khadi .03 is an admittedly elitist and expensive avatar. Textile revivalist Rta Kapur Chishti, a long-time fan of the fabric (nothing drapes like khadi, she says) showcased as many as 108 different varieties woven across nine Indian states in an exhibition titled ‘Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom’.

Even Sabyasachi Mukherjee has dipped his toes with a wedding trousseau ensemble of embroidered khadi lehengas, while Bangalore’s Deepika Govind picked it up for the first time in 1999 and has not really put it down since. “It’s a fabric with an emotional connect. However, it does need innovation to stay on the timeless list,” she says. Every few seasons, she goes back to the loom, modifying, regulating, fine-tuning it for both desi and Western garments. Handcrafted with ingenuity on Govind’s watch, khadi is now a truly cosmopolitan cloth, stronger, more fluid, soft, supple, and, most important, one that drapes beautifully. Tara Aslam of Nature Alley, also in Bangalore, sees khadi as a means for community building, even as she marries the relatively humble fabric to stylish silhouettes with finesse.

Then there is the IN SYNC-Basant Anuj line, based on what designer Basant Raj considers the three aspects intrinsic to the fabric: it is eco-friendly, handspun and skin-friendly. It does not consume power or produce harmful by-products. Being a breathing fabric, it keeps the body cool in summer and warm in winter. And, of course, Raj points to its touch of patriotism. Khadi is the national fabric, he says, and it behoves us all to take up the banner.

Interestingly, Govind’s summer 2013 Khadi Kool collection is unapologetic about missing weaves, runs, slubs, et al. Truly handwoven. Which actually is not a liability at all, given Govind’s creative run on the slubs and ladders. Prints, appliqué work, zippers at strategic places, mirror work, a sparkle of sequins, all embellish the fabric in a palette of off-whites, blacks, yellows, oranges, deep pinks, reds and greens.

Clearly, khadi is not about to retire. In fact, as designers discover its strong organic and natural character, it looks like it might have many more avatars yet.