Designer Atsu Sekhose, who’s now made a foray into Indian wear, tells why — even when the silhouettes are new — nothing is very un-Atsu

He’s done it. The last person who looked like he’d take a plunge into Indian wear, has. Since the time Atsu Sekhose launched his label Atsu in late 2006, people have been quick to identify signature elements — sharp tailoring bordering on the androgynous, controlled embellishment, a love of neutral colours. Tarun Tahiliani, under whom he trained after passing out of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), once said of his protégé’s aesthetic, “His is very simple, tailored... it looks Italian.” Now with the launch of his Indian wear line — comprising saris, embellished blouses, churidaar-kurtas, etc. — Atsu, though not moving completely out of his comfort zone, is finding newer ones.

He realises he’s in an industry where people are quick to yawn. For his Spring/ Summer 2012 line that he showcased last year, he took ideas from ballerina paintings — appliqué flowers on sheer fabric, a palette of yellow, nude, cobalt blue, and monochrome. Besides his brightest colour palette to date, he showcased prints for the first time. Menswear, too.

While he hails from Nagaland, Atsu’s avoided being labelled a ‘Nagaland designer’ — his clothes haven’t come with regional references. Then, collaborating with the Union Ministry of Textiles this year, he went back to his roots for his Spring/ Summer 2013 line showcased in the Capital last month. Using traditional weaves from the Seven Sisters, the line saw shawls of Angami, Lotha and Sema Naga tribes being translated to prints, shirts made of Assamese muga silk paired with Angami pencil skirts and trousers of woven Mizo fabric. It was a Summer line, so weaves that originally came in wool were made in silk and cotton.

When we meet him at Ogaan in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi during the unveiling of his Indian line, Atsu reflects, “Being a designer I don’t want to restrict myself to being just known for my tailoring. Through the years I’ve acquired a niche and also a look, that’s the DNA of my label. This time, when we started working with weaves from the North East it was new to me. But, at the same time, if you see the collection you would easily know it’s still the same — it’s got the classic look, it’s got the tailoring, it’s got simplicity. But every season I try to create a new look, a new inspiration. And I don’t want to restrict myself to doing a North East collection every season. Last season my inspiration came from the forties’ glamour…”

He adds, “A lot of people were wondering how we would interpret the fabric. People associate North Eastern fabrics with shawls… heavier fabric. Not very friendly. It was a bit of a challenge because we wanted to use fabrics from there but at the same time make it modern, more market-friendly, so that we could not just do a show at WIFW but also take it to exhibitions abroad, for the Western market too. The colours were also not easy to use because Naga colours are mostly winter colours, like black and reds… My vision is also making clothes that are wearable; it’s not about making something you put on a model or the ramp.”

Turns out, it was a lehenga he designed for a friend and client of many years — model Neha Kapur — that sparked off demand for the Indian wear line. Atsu stresses it’s not a bending to market will. “When I started off, Western wear was not a very big market in India. Right now a lot of brands have come in. At that point of time I wanted to do something I really feel for. I stuck to what I believe I do best — which is Western wear. At this point of time, I also feel there is a market for this. I’m not being forced to do an Indian collection; I feel I can interpret my Western line into Indian with my own signature. That’s why I don’t think it’s a compromise. You also have to deliver what your clientele wants.”

While the saris are mostly in neutral colours, colour bursts come in the form of the blouses — embellished, but in solid colours like canary yellow and orange. As Atsu points out, “It couldn’t be “something totally different from what I generally do. Lace, the colours… all those things I’m associated with but in more modern, lightweight saris. Even the kurta-churidaar sets are more like dresses accompanied by a churidaar and scarf… It’s fresher, you can wear it as evening wear.”

New things will start demanding attention — plans are afoot to do menswear in a big way, while there might also be a line for kids.

He laughs when asked when he knew his calling. “I’ve been asked this so often… You know, we North Eastern kids are always fashion-conscious. They might be in medical college, in DU… nothing to do with the fashion industry. I was also one of those fashion-obsessed kids… a lot of influence also came from music channels.” Atsu’s training is a curious mix — from Tarun Tahiliani on one hand, and high-street label Zara on the other. The former was a judge at a design competition in which Atsu was participating. “When you pass out, come and work with me,” Tahiliani told him, and Atsu listened.

“Working with somebody like Tarun, who’s been in the business and knows the market well, one gets to know what originality is all about. In fact, I started my own label, people were surprised because my look was not at all Tarun Tahiliani. What happens with a lot of interns and people who assist designers when they pass out is they incorporate their sensibilities. You can’t really blame people… it happens unconsciously... But working with him I learnt one should be true to oneself. I learnt to work with the domestic market, how the clients are, how to handle daily walk-in clientele, of which we used to have a lot,” Atsu ponders.

“Working with Zara I learnt about the export and international market, the trends… You’re more up to date with what’s happening, what the Western market is all about. It just made me more confident.”

Atsu’s favourites

“For me, it’s labels like Celine — I see their simplicity, the kind of market they have. It really inspires me. Even Dries Van Noten. Every season what Dries does… It’s not very trend-driven — it’s not like everybody is doing acid colours so he’s also doing it. He always sticks to what he’s doing, and he’s so good at it. Even Marc Jacobs — doing so many labels and taking it to that level. I also like Chloe. Even Haider Ackermann. Ackermann’s totally different from my sensibility again, but what I like about him is a very strong signature androgyny look and his colour sensibility. I associate with him because even I’m known for my colour sensibility. I think my aesthetic comes from where I come from, it’s something I acquired growing up in Nagaland.”