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T. KRITHIKA REDDY
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IN CONVERSATIONIs it easy to stick to tradition and also appeal to today's fashionista?T. KRITHIKA REDDYengages Ritu Kumar, the diva of design, in an interview

From four block printers and two tables in a sleepy village near Kolkata to a global brand with several standalone stores, Ritu Kumar's is one of the style world's most fascinating stories. Having survived gusty fashion winds for over four decades, she continues to wow celebrities and continent-hopping honchos simply by sticking to her signature culture-centric creations. As the diva of design gets ready for another tryst with tradition (she's experimenting with Kancheepuram silk and handloom weaves), she opens up on a range of topics — from the practicality of prêt to the young “Label” from her stable. Excerpts:

Label's show at Fashion Week in April ended with the teaser of a collection inspired by an ongoing project in Kancheepuram…

The inspiration for our Autumn-Winter 2011 collection showcased at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week came from the romance with silk and the stories immortalised by the travellers exploring the silk route in the early 19th Century. Since the whole collection was an ode to the lush fabric, I felt it would be fitting to finish the show with a sneak peek at an upcoming line based on a project in Kancheepuram. I'm fascinated by the textures and colours of silk produced in Kancheepuram. It's delicate, yet durable and lends itself beautifully to a traditional as well as a contemporary palette. As part of our ongoing project in the temple town, we are experimenting with different weaves, textures and colours. A collection celebrating the famed silk will be showcased probably in the next Autumn-Winter show. I'm working on a handloom and khadi line as well for next summer. It's an area I'm passionate about and have wanted to work on for a long time.

So many designers, so many shows…. Do you think Indian fashion has come of age?

It still has a long way to go. It needs to get more professional and bigger in terms of reach. Though the designers are visible these days, the industry is still in a nascent stage. Thankfully, it hasn't been wiped out by the foreign brands and luxury labels coming into the country. The design segment still seems to exist on customisation and small runs.

For a country that prides itself on such a rich clothes history, do you think Indian fashion is well-documented?

There is so much media attention in recent years. As for books, a lot of new writing is coming up. The scene is certainly richer and more diverse now. But more needs to be done. After “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India,” I haven't thought about another book yet.

Your forte is tradition. How do you turn around a garment to suit modern tastes?

It's a complex process and an ongoing one… It's not easy to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary tastes. I try to retain the essence of indigenous designs when I create a garment. With ‘Label', a more contemporary take, the challenge is greater. But we work on the shape, the cut and the fabric to come up with modern silhouettes.

Is the future of fashion about pret?

I wouldn't say that. Couture will remain a continuing thread in the fashion world. Pret is about practicality. The popularity of pret comes from its characteristic simplicity. The designer's touch is the icing that sets it apart. ‘Label' was launched to cater for the growing band of globe-trotting professional women. Since it's younger and fun, my son Amrish Kumar heads it. In seven years, it's reached out to a large market.

Top designers talk about ancient crafts and reviving the romance associated with it. But the plight of the craftsmen largely remains the same…

Not at all. But yes, the handloom sector is definitely affected. There is no romance in poverty. The plight of handloom weavers is because of shrinking demand. Ancient handcrafts have stolen a march over handlooms because there's a mindset about the drape and the look of the fabric. Youngsters need to take to handlooms. A huge amount of design work is required to keep the rich heritage alive.

Having worked with craftsmen closely, do you feel the government/ government agencies are doing enough to improve the lot of craftsmen?

No, they are not doing enough. I've seen government agencies set up in the 1970s (such as the Weavers Service Centres) are in a state of decay. Government subsidies do not help that much. Further, there's a crippling excise tax that's imposed on readymade garments, most of which are women's apparel including the sari. There seems to be no clear agenda to support this sector.

When there is too much handcraft on garments, do you think designers run the risk of seeming repetitive?

I think you can use a lot of needlework without it looking overpowering. The challenge lies in using the right cut and colour scheme. Excess and restraint can be balanced out by a good designer who knows how to leave her stamp.

Has cool become formulaic?

Yes, it's sad. The fashion victim syndrome is noticeable everywhere — in India and abroad. I think it always existed. People must look at what suits them best, instead of blindly following trends.

What are your major influences?

Art History and Musicology. They've enriched my mind.

When you think design, what's uppermost in your mind?

An aesthetic feel that's in sync with our rich textile legacy.

Do celebrity endorsements still matter to you?

Why not? They are good ambassadors of culture. When I have a craft-centric Ritu Kumar line endorsed by a famous personality, it's easier to put the craft under the spotlight. It creates an aspirational mood that's good for the craft that might have its roots in some obscure part of India.

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