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The craft of fine fashion

Every outfit in Jason Cheriyan's winter collection, on display at Cinnamon, is marked by a rare pride in craftsmanship.

Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Jason Cheriyan: 'Design is dialogue'

IT'S THE invitation that gets me at first touch. Single threads of red and pink, violet and orange that meander across a black swatch as it flaps atop a card. It announces the winter collection by Jason Cheriyan to mark the third anniversary of the trendy Cinnamon store on October 27. The tactile magic proves irresistible. It reminds me of the fine allure of chikankari when fashioned with imagination. Or the feel of Gujarati self-coloured applique, the edged surfaces that tantalise caressing fingertips. And so, though fashion is not my metier, I'm seduced by the call of texture, touch, and colour. I succumb.

The mood is enhanced by the Sunday morning beer-and-coffee event. Jason's outfits offer texture imbued with subdued personality. As the angular, unsmiling models move through the angled passages of the lifestyle store, our eyes catch the nuanced movements that play over the draped fabrics, whether patterned as skirts with long slits for sleek legs to flash through or kurtas with streamlined cuts that suggest a second skin.

With each, it's the call of the skein that prevails. Whether seemingly random off-white strands that trellis a sleek white top. Or the gaze-stopping blues and purples that summon up an evening at midday, subtly marbled through with embroidery. Or the spontaneous pleat-effects on waistcoat-short kurtas.

What's distinctive about Jason's Workshop Line, on view at Cinnamon upto November 10? "It is essentially the short kurta which is easy to slip into and out of, which is played with and cut in various proportions to lend itself in such a way that the wearer has a feeling of ease and luxury," expounds a backgrounder from Cinnamon's Radhika Poddar, referring to the racks laden with garments that range from cream-hued weaves to knobby blacks, from luxurious cottons to purest silks in a non-traditional palette. Whether stoles or tailored garments, whether evening bags or saris, each has an invisible label attached - crafted with pride.

Can this be a designer to whom craft is a paradigm for fashion? In conversation with Jason, I find that's true to a deeper extent than I had imagined. "It's a very tactile profession, I'd say. You've got to touch and feel the fabric, work with people, weave it, embroider it, tailor it. There's never an end," explains gentle-eyed Jason, at his Workshop studio at R.T. Nagar. "It's exciting because there's always something of the unknown. If you have a mindset where you've created the end, you probably won't enjoy fashion design."

Mulling over the element of the hand, I seek insights into his design overview. Jason, who also does the ready-to-wear Splash Line for the Lifestyle Store chain, offers: "I just do what I do. I hope it reflects what I am, maybe not consciously. Yes, I definitely do explore craft and the hand. Even a machine run by hand, as opposed to a power machine. That's probably the only common factor that I explore. Textures, they're important to me, as of now. But I'm not saying that's what I'll do all my life."

Jason, who did a course in textiles at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai before he signed up for an early batch at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi, (where Rita Beri, who's making waves in Paris, was a classmate), delineates an interconnection between his personality and his designs, "Basically, I like interacting with people and communicating. It's always nice to see people wearing your clothes. Our opportunities are very market-driven, but that doesn't mean ours has to be an industrial product."

What sets Jason's designs - which are available at Ogaan in New Delhi, little boutiques in Spain, the Livingstone Studio in London, besides Cinnamon - apart? It could be that he once worked with a Buddhist monk, a former designer, from a settlement outside Ooty to create a line that sold at Saks on New York's Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus.

Or with another Japanese designer. Or that his label has morphed its away through Jason Cheriyan, and just Jason, to its present avatar as Workshop.

I gauge Jason is essentially a people-person. It's evident in the warm smiles the models garland him with, once they are off the catwalk. As in the loyalty of the small core team at Workshop, and the confidence they have infused in the 200 to 300 people at NGOs, crafts and weaving units whose lives they have touched.

What are the intrinsic elements of a Jason Cheriyan design, which a viewer described as timeless, even verging on the classic? "Sometimes I feel design is dialogue. I seldom sketch. Most times, I talk design. Or it could be just a swatch," he replies with animation. "I think the biggest investment is people, ideas and your own motivation. Then, money. If it comes in that order, it'll work out."

Watching the transformed swathes of purple and pink sway past, the magical infusion of navy with black, the barely-there embroidery that catches one by surprise midway up a garment, or the incandescent, unpredictable turns of thread as the model walks away, it's easy to believe Jason. And even to subscribe to his future dream. "Asia, to me, is the most exciting continent. I think the new directions, the new trends, the new excitement is going to happen here," says Jason with fervour, then adds an individual take on the global village. "I've been working with Indian crafts. But I have a fantasy. In the future, maybe I can work with craftspeople in Africa or Latin America. I'm interested in craft, that's it."

But to return to the beginning. The brilliant invitation card, which one invitee wanted to frame, happened by accident, insists Jason. As his designs grow from swatch to rack, perhaps accidents will add to their unique texture.

It's an enticement that's hard to resist, when fashioned by Jason Cheriyan.


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