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Diva of design

Ethnic chic is Ritu Kumar's forte.The ace designer talks to T. KRITHIKA REDDY about her tour de force of the country's rich craft heritage.

RITU KUMAR'S romance with the retro for three diligent decades has brought to the Indian fashion scene timeless couture. Hers is not a pastiche of the past, but a passionate revival of vanishing crafts traditions. In essence a "modern classicist", Ritu's eagerness to anchor the present to the past is evident in her oeuvre spanning scores of lines that spell ethnic chic. In Chennai to showcase her latest collection, at a fashion show organised by Ellements, an all-woman club, Ritu traversed a range of topics with her trademark charm. And her sunny disposition instantly reminded one of her sprightly new line, "Label."

A striking contrast to some of her West-obsessed contemporaries, Ritu's forte has consistently been retro chic. "The designer plays the role of a catalyst. It is not as if we have invented the crafts. They were all there. All we did was kindle the creative energy of traditional weavers, printers and embroiderers and blend old and new with a stunning effect. This way, it is not just the craftsman, but also the customer who is benefited."

But translating traditional designs into wearable modern styles must be quite a challenge... "True. Our rich crafts heritage must not be lost to modernity. The challenge therefore lies in unearthing the roots and rhythms of tradition and adapting it to modern tastes." Displaying some stylish tops with ethnic prints, she goes on... "Look at these designs. Their richness has endured through the ages. Only the styling is contemporary. But this fusion of tradition and modernity has a certain appeal. And such styles hardly get dated."

Strolling down memory lane, Ritu reminisces, "I was lucky to have started my career at a time when Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jayakar et al were deeply involved in reviving the crafts heritage. That was the spur. I visited several hamlets in West Bengal and developed a direct rapport with the artisans. The result, an enriching professional and personal experience."

Candid as she can be, Ritu continues, "As far as our work goes, nothing has changed intrinsically. But the media spotlight on fashion over the last decade has done wonders to the industry. Fashion shows and professionally managed events have brought with it visual glamour. That's not all. The emerging breed of individualistic, style-conscious working women in the 1980s and 1990s too did help to a large extent in evolving an indigenous fashion industry. So much so, the disturbing trend of looking up to the West for inspiration has somewhat faded."

And what about Indian designers hitting big time in the West? "Frankly speaking, it is our craftsmanship that sells, not the designer. Indian workmanship is widely acclaimed. But it is not an easy task for our designers to make their presence felt in the global scene," says Ritu, whose exquisite works have attracted the attention of international celebrities such as Princess Diana and Jemima Khan.

From a modest unit in Kolkata to doing burgeoning business here and abroad, Ritu has come a long way. In fact, going by the milestones in her career, it is evident that the ace designer is a right blend of creativity and business savvy (she was one of the pioneers to introduce the boutique culture). Flashing a warm smile, she says, "Initially, I started by taking orders. But that did not give me enough creative freedom. And I had to be in control over what I do. That's precisely why I started my own boutiques."

Talking about Label, which is a distinct departure from her typical lines, Ritu explains, "It's for youngsters who want a label. The line was inspired by my son, who did extensive market research on the changing tastes of youngsters." Easy to wear and affordable, "Label" comes in a blaze of hues. It's for those whose workday stretches to an evening out. In short, styles and colours that don't wilt.

Talking about her significant lines (Kashida, Zardosi etc.) and shows (Tree of Life) that were a tour de force of the country's crafts legacy, the topic veers to her magnum opus "Costumes and Textiles of Royal India." An exhaustive document of varied stylistic traditions, the book published by Christie's in 1999, traces the evolution of tastes and couture preferences of royalty. "It was a work of great magnitude. It took eight long years for completion. But I am happy the one-of-a-kind work will be of profound use to posterity. In fact, I have enough material and research initiatives to write another book. But it would be another marathon effort."

A student of art history, how did the transition to designing come about?

"Well, I guess the metamorphosis was natural. As far as I am concerned, the line between art and craft is blurred. One usually leads to the other. I was instantly drawn to the languishing crafts. For over a century, nothing had been done to preserve certain hoary traditions. After patronage from royalty dwindled, middlemen who cared a damn about authenticity and quality, stepped in and hastened the decline of traditional craftsmanship. This set me thinking. I had to do something... Revive the old and present in such a fashion that it appeals to the new generation. And this penchant for the past will continue for some time. There is a cyclic quality about fashion. The world over, designers are now looking with nostalgia at the 1960s and 70s styles."

As for her trysts with designing for international pageants, Ritu gushes, "Oh! It's so easy. Which other country in the world has such a rich reservoir of shades, styles and crafts to choose from? When most others turn up in predictable couture, our participants have always stood out for their ethnic outfits."

Ritu might have drawn inspiration from couture archives, but has definitely given it a directional modern twist.

That her muse is constantly on a whirlwind tour of heritage gathering treasures en route is obvious in her many collections. Reigning over fashiondom with her retro musings, she has proved that if mined with care, the past can prove to be rich ore.

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