From being just a utilitarian fabric, linen has evolved into a haute fashion statement

In the beginning it was white and pure. Then it became thick creamy white, ecru and beige. Powder blue and baby pink happened soon enough, followed by butter yellow and soft green. Now, it comes in just about any colour— garish purple, shocking red, even fluorescent yellow.

In the fleeting universe of fashion, linen has been a true survivor. From being the ideal wrapping material for the Pharaoh mummies in ancient Egypt to the chic dresses in international couture weeks in the 21st century, it has reinvented itself as one of the most sought-after fabrics in high fashion.

Stylish, eco-friendly

When top notch designers including Rohit Bal, Manish Malhotra, Ritu Beri, Sabyasachi Mukherji and Tarun Tahiliani flirted with the creases and fall of linen on the ramp, the fabric earned more respect in India. “Linen has everything going for it. It is niche, it is stylish, it is eco-friendly... it is all about being different,” says John Joseph, proprietor of ‘Laven’, the newest linen store in Kochi that deals with ready-mades and accessories.

Linen was extensively used the world over as furnishings and as bed and bath apparel. But it is only over the last decade that linen grew to become one of the most discussed fabrics for clothing in terms of style, comfort and appeal. The demand has gone up and linen stores have mushroomed. Unlike its less-expensive cousin, cotton, linen enjoys an aura of exclusivity. “It is like platinum among fabrics — premium and special,” says designer Matin Mac Mathew, whose label, ‘Ethic’, specialises in linen.

Its elitist image, however, has just begun to fade, Mathew feels. “Affordability is no longer an issue. People want to add linens to their wardrobe,” he says. Popularised by stars (including Mohanlal when he wore causal stylish linen shirts in Grandmaster and Spirit), awareness about linen has increased tremendously in the city. “It is no longer luxury. I have been getting a lot of orders for linen,” says Mathew, who says he loves working with linen.

Linen is ideal as clothing for hot weather as it absorbs moisture. It is also known and loved internationally for its durability and unique texture. But wearing linen “is still a lot about making a statement,” Mathew says. Loyal fans agree. “It is the kind of stuff that becomes a part of your personality,” says Suraj S., who has a collection of shirts and kurtas in linen. “Over time, it almost comes to define your individual style,” he adds.

As the craze for eco-friendly fabric caught on, linen became a fashionable alternative to silks. “There are many who have begun to wear linen to weddings. Among men, linen shirts have become a rage,” says Suchitra Menon, General Manager, Finance and Sales, Burgoyne (linen specialists), Kochi. In the last two years, the demand has shot up, she says. “Linen trousers are extremely popular among young, working women as they are stylish and look professional, too,” she says. The store is planning to introduce a separate section for women’s ready-to-wear garments soon, she adds.

However, linen has to be worn a particular way. “Indians tend to starch linen. The fabric should be allowed to breathe. Starch would also kill the lovely fall that linen has,” says Mathew. Linen crinkles easily, but that is what gives it the character, experts say. One has to be a discerning buyer to identify pure (100 per cent) linen, too, as the market is flooded with hybrid varieties.

If you thought that linen is mostly for those above 40, check out the range of accessories available in linen. “We are promoting linen not just as fabric for clothing, but also for accessories such as bags, shoes, belts, wallets and clutch purses,” says John. ‘Laven’ has a range of lifestyle products made of linen in attractive colours. Combined with leather, suede and silk, the smart accessories are all about giving the fabric a funky twist. “Linen shoes, for instance, is for those who appreciate the fabric. Those who understand the finer nuances of fashion,” he says. And among clothes, it is not just casual wear. “Linen is being marketed in a big way as party and lounge wear, too,” he says. How about the little black dress? “Of course, the variety is huge,” he says.

Though European linen is reputed for its quality, superior quality linens are manufactured in India. Kochi has a linen production unit at Kakkanad, which exports it to international brands such as Marks and Spencers, Armani, Banana Republic and Benetton.