Sonia Kirpalani's award-winning film project “Threads of Tradition” has given young designers in various countries a platform to show their talent.

Sonia Kirpalani recently made waves in Dubai when her first independent film project “Threads of Tradition” won the prestigious Cannes Documentary Co Fund Award (The MipDoc Co Production Challenge) for four documentary features: “Silken Synergy” (Bangladesh), “Indiavisualism” (India), “Between Bombs and Burqas” (Pakistan), and “DoBuy – Fabric of Faith” (UAE).

No one was more surprised than Kirpalani to hear that her documentary film “DoBuy – The Fabric of Faith” also won the Top Award at the Gulf Film Festival 2010. She was the only competing non-Arab. Espousing the cause of struggling designers in Dubai, Kirpalani — who has lived in this city for 24 years — is deeply concerned at the way 40 per cent of the world's luxury brands are showcased in this city. On the other hand, local brands are just not visible, local designers sidelined and refused retail spaces in the malls. The film, which she directed, reflects the resentment she feels at the gross neglect of local talent.

Quiet revolution

The 75-minute documentary focuses on three Emirati women, local fashion designers who struggle for recognition of their fashion houses to showcase their talent. “It is the story of a silent revolution by these women — Zahra M, Rabia Z and Deeya Nanda — to build national brands, removing the shroud covering their veiled canvas,” says Kirpalani. “Imagine countries where seven out of 10 people wear garments produced in their country, exported for a few dollars, re-imported and sold back to them with 200 per cent premium?”

The film was shot over three years in the US, India and the UAE. The camera follows three young local designers, as they face tremendous competition amid well known international brands and established fashion houses. Zahra M showed part of her collection in Miami, and walked away with the award for the Best Evening Wear Designer of the Year. Deeya Nanda, an expat born in the UAE, bagged a stylist assignment for Steven Spielberg. Emirati designer Rabia Z develops what she calls conservative chic fashion.

“Emirati women are the driving force in this country,” says Kirpalani. She is hugely surprised at the way the film was received in Dubai because the documentary was very critical of national policies. Kirpalani's salary and percentage of profits from the film will go towards enabling local designers map out a strategy for a democratic local council.

A common thread that runs through the documentaries, which are part of “Threads of Destiny”, is the struggle of designers to get their local brands recognised internationally and how some of them have revived craft and textile traditions in the areas they work in.

“Silken Synergy: the Moral Fabric” highlights the story of Bibi Russell — Bangladesh's first supermodel, muse to Yves St Laurent and Armani — who threw up her glamorous career to provide livelihood to 80,000 weavers and craftspeople from Spain to Senegal and Sri Lanka. In Rajasthan, she is seen reviving traditional weaves, developing designs, researching economical, eco-friendly solutions and fighting for the recognition of local labels.

“Between Bombs and Burqas: The Fragmented Fabric” shows how rampant terrorism in Pakistan shrouds emerging generations and how outsourcing snuffs out the growth of cotton textiles, weaves and craft. Realising what was at stake, local design icons Rizwan Begy and Maheen Khan work with a craft community to revive arts and crafts and provide sustainable incomes for 2.3 million people connected with the ravaged industry. They announce a “Democratic Design Council” in a military dictatorship. Rizwan and Maheen cross borders seeking support from the Indian Design fraternity. They have signed the only existing MOU between two hostile neighbours, using culture and crafts as precursors for peace.

The bottom line of “Indiavisualism” is that India is swiftly losing her heritage collection to neo-colonialism. Traditional design loses out to the bizarre synthetics, eclipsing handlooms. Challenging national policies, a nascent fashion fraternity decides to build local labels. Asking why the country's minimal infrastructure fuels global retail without offering Indian designers the same retail and manufacturing infrastructure, they deplore this servitude while opening up a visual dialogue using Fashion Week as a platform.

The Indo-French-German duo Lecoanet-Hemant comes to India with the hope of nurturing the nation's first local luxury label. They design contemporary solutions and their journey opens up debate on governance, questioning India's politicians on why they subsidise exports but tax national brands.

Many avatars

Sonia Kirpalani wears many hats. A woman who has been nurtured in different cultures — India, London and Dubai — she is a trained psychologist. Kirpalani owes her media training largely to Trinity College's external programme. She is fashion editor for several reputed publications across the world including online journals. Kirpalani worked with the Sony Entertainment Television teams jointly developing their reality series called “Faces”, which she staged, scripted and directed. She presented “Henna on my Hands” as India's first cross cultural production for Geo TV and Femina.

Today, Kirpalani's motive is to create documentaries that educate, empower, and raise awareness. Pursuing her career as journalist and media person, Kirpalani is tied up with Sony TeleLife, Khaleej Times, Air Tel, and Asian Life, to quote a few. She works in an honorary capacity with the Emerging Councils of Design for Arts and Fashion across Asia and Arabia.

With this activist's efforts it is hoped that young designers will find the platform that they deserve.