As Fabindia reaches out to younger clients with a western line, the fashion fraternity discusses the need to innovate and challenges to cope with

Handloom retail giant Fabindia sprung a surprise recently when it announced the launch of a western line of garments, Fabels, in cotton and khadi, made possible with design intervention by French designer Alistair Blair, who has been associated with labels such as Dior and Valentino. Eager to diversify from ethnic wear the brand is known for, Fabindia hopes to reach out to younger clients who look at high-end labels for dresses, jackets, palazzos, shirts and skirts.

In its first phase, the label will be available in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai and eventually across the country. This maybe a significant step for a retail major in the handloom sector, but closer home, enterprising designers have been in the innovating mode for a while now.

Style and comfort

In February, Sunaina Sood launched her collection in khadi, in silhouettes ranging from ethnic to fusion. “I had seen enough of nets and georgettes,” she says, talking about her shift to khadi. Known for quirky garments, she tried to do the same using khadi. “In my school days, I associated cotton and khadi with Shabana Azmi. Today we see college-goers and young working women buying cotton garments but they want both comfort and style,” she observes.

Sunaina says experimenting with handlooms has its own challenges. “I used five different textures of khadi, sourced from Ponduru, Hyderabad and Bangalore. The drapes required a certain variety of khadi and a structured outfit warranted something else,” she says. The line included ghararas, outfits inspired by Hyderabadi khara dupatta, short and long dresses. All this comes at a price. “It’s a myth that handlooms are cheap. Despite that, I feel youngsters will accept handlooms if you use the fabric to create new silhouettes. They are likely to pick up a garment for its style than heritage value,” she says.

Aravind Joshua agrees that not every youngster holds hand-spun khadi in reverence. “If you cannot reach out to them through the philosophy of khadi, do it with design,” he says. He observes that khadi was considered a fabric fit for an age group above 50 when he began designing and since then, has noticed a steady shift to make it accessible to the 20s and 30s.

Social attitudes

M.V. Chandrashekar and his business partner Ravi of Metaphor Racha, have been giving khadi-cotton an urbane look without compromising its ethos. They design tops, tunics, dresses, jackets and trousers apart from khadi saris.

Chandrashekar doesn’t go by changing trends. “We look at fashion in the broader sense, stemming from an understanding of textiles. Women are individualistic and want clothes to reflect their personality. So innovating with handlooms is not merely about designing new garments, it’s about catering to this attitude change,” he points out.

Pricing matters

Sharmila Nagraj Nandula, who showcased evening gowns in khadi at the International Workshop on Natural Dyes in Hyderabad and launched a line of crushed skirts, feels the college-going age group prefers a larger wardrobe at affordable prices, a tough task for the handloom sector. “Fab India’s new move is a great idea; it will be interesting to see if they can make this western line affordable. Youngsters want quantity. In cities like Mumbai and Delhi, they are happy shopping at Fashion Street and Sarojini Market,” she says.

For most designers, ethnic wear is the mainstay as the revenue comes in from a mature clientele that understands and pays for handlooms.

For instance Sashikant Naidu, known for his line of saris in hand-woven khadi and silks, has also designed chic khadi dresses and tunics. “One has to innovate, but we designers will not able to match the pricing of a retail brand simply because we don’t mass produce. I’ve had young women asking for my khadi dresses. But that’s a small segment,” he says.

How far will Fabels be able to tap the college-going age group is something the design fraternity would like to wait and observe.