Textile is the soul of design, says Krishna Mehta. T. Krithika Reddy talks to the designer about her aesthetic, pioneering work in menswear and her involvement with the differently-abled
“I'd rather remain a label that plays to its own strengths than follow the herd,” declares Krishna Mehta, with an air of confidence, her finger filtering the mint leaves in a tall glass of fresh lime.
In Amethyst, Chennai, for the launch of her latest collection that takes batik and bandini to a new level of refinement, the designer, who has survived gusty winds in the fashion world by simply sticking to her vision of nurturing indigenous textiles, says she trusted her own instincts to cut through the synthetic haze in the style circuit.
Though Krishna's fledgling years in fashion were spent in Paris, her sensibility is distinctly Indian. “For over 25 years, I've been experimenting with ethnic textiles. To me, textile is the soul of design. I don't like putting too many things on a creation. No bling, no fabric-concealing embroidery,” explains the designer who has worked extensively with the Weavers Service Centre in Mumbai.
While Krishna lets her textiles make a statement with delicate home-grown dyeing and printing techniques and a restrained use of colour (think dusty grey, washed out blue or faded rose), when it comes to styling too, her operating principles are ease and comfort. Not for her those tent-trapeze looks. The cuts are straight and streamlined and there's a sense of lightness about the kurtas and tunics. “I veer more towards separates than ensembles. They are versatile and allow out-of-the-box thinking. You can bring out your personality better by wearing them the way you want.”
What appeals to the designer about textiles is diversity. “There are so many traditions in our country. I don't see it as a challenge to come up with something new all the time. There's so much scope to experiment within the template of tradition.”
While textile crafts are encoded in her design sensibility, the other factors that make Krishna a big name are her efforts to integrate the differently-abled into the world of design and her pioneering work in the menswear segment.
The desire to change the look of people led Krishna to change the lives of differently-abled people in Palanpur on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. “I work closely with the weaving community in remote villages. In the mid-1990s, I came across some school children with special needs in Palanpur. I wasn't sure what they would do after they passed out of school. They needed a livelihood, but were not prepared to leave their hometown. That set me thinking. I placed an advertisement in a local newspaper calling differently-abled people for an orientation programme in crafts. Over 100 people turned up! I was surprised. I gave a PowerPoint presentation. A friend helped me with sign language. I set up a unit in Palanpur and selected 20 youngsters with specific skills and trained them in simple block printing and uncomplicated needlework. A chunk of the textiles I use in my collections today is created by them. When one batch is trained, I take the next set of 20. I'm setting up a similar unit in Mumbai.” She displays a subtle grey kurta with neat needlework around the neck. “This was done by my Palanpur artisan,” she beams. “Besides creative satisfaction, it gives them a sense of financial independence. They are free to go elsewhere and work after they take the training at my unit. In Mumbai, I have about a hundred people working for the label. It's a wall-less, non-air-conditioned space where we work and eat together. I'm a hands-on person. I like to get into the minute details.”
A pioneer in menswear, Krishna says when she launched her eponymous label in 1988, the drive to do something different led her to launch a line of batik shirts for men. “At that time, everyone spoke about the limitations of a man's wardrobe. All it required was breaking away from the checks-stripes stereotype. Unless you gave them something different, the mindset wouldn't change. My debut line was a sell-out. It spurred me to take on fresh challenges in menswear. Look, how we have evolved since. Today, we have a special Fashion Week dedicated to men! Fashion is fun, but it's also serious business. When I'm at my desk, I think of myself as a scientist ready for painstaking experiments…”
Krishna's creations will be on display at Amethyst till September 25.
I'm familiar with this city. My aunt lives here, so the best part of my summer vacation was spent in Chennai. My cousins and I — about a dozen of us — used to bundle up in an Ambassador car and visit a lot of places. Ooty and Kodaikanal were also part of my South sojourn. What I like about the women here is their understated aesthetic. They are discerning when it comes to the intrinsic value of textiles. As someone who loves working closely with our culture, I find that aspect very heart-warming.