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Anaka Narayanan's home in Alwarpet is every bit a design studio. Swatches of deep-hued ikat and shibori are strewn all over the place. Paper patterns, sketches, mannequins, measuring tapes, sewing kits and heaps of books on textiles form a delightful clutter. A 1960s Singer sewing machine occupies a prime place in her scheme of things. Rusty, but well-oiled and ready to be kick-started, it reiterates the designer's classic-is-cool aesthetic.
There are many changes required for the photo shoot – from a body-caressing red ikat dress and form-fitting ajrak gown to a leaf green printed top — all by Brass Tacks, her five-year-old label. While courting the camera she fields questions, taking a break now and then to finger-comb her curly mane that simply refuses to behave.
“My mother started a sari retail store (Shilpi) with a partner just a few months before I was born. So I was always surrounded by beautiful handwoven and block-printed pieces. They became an intrinsic part of my childhood and continue to influence my taste. Though I always loved textiles, I never associated it with a career choice. It was after specialising in Economics abroad that I decided to follow my heart….”
Basic is beautiful
A fuss-free person, Anaka was determined to launch a brand that reflected her nature and sensibility. Brass Tacks was born. “It's about the basics of any garment — fabric, fit and tailoring quality.”
Basic is beautiful. The silhouettes are elegant and cosmopolitan; they could effortlessly cross over to any part of the globe. “That the fabric is handwoven is a bonus, not necessarily a reason for the purchase. If I remain true to that philosophy, I will certainly reach out to a new market,” says the designer who is gradually expanding her operations to cover other metros (recently launched in Mumbai). “We are also in the process of starting an online store for the domestic market. Once we're confident of the shipping logistics, we'll start our international operations probably early next year.”
Talk about material inspiration, and Anaka smiles, “It might sound corny, but I actually ‘talk' to the fabric. It kindles my creativity. I look at it, feel it, smell it and carefully work out the construction and design. When I play out the details in my head, I at once know whether a particular fabric will suit a draped dress or a structured shirt or won't work for my line at all. Though I use lots of handwoven/crafted fabrics, I make a conscious effort to stay away from anything that might have a strong ‘ethnic' association, simply because of the connotations the word has with my generation!” So Anaka opts for unique experiments on handwoven textiles and choses fabrics that are not available in abundance.” The styling cannot be ignored. For instance, the new Monsoon line features “Draped Triangle” — a thin inner camisole of handwoven cotton and tussar silk with an outer draped fabric of thin Maheswari cotton with jamdani. The Open Sesame kurta in ikat has zipper teeth along the entire neck and down the front. Another attraction is the clingy evening dress in Telia Rumal silk ikat.
Homespun is soulful
Ikat remains her all-time favourite. In her latest experiment, the yarn is tie-dyed before weaving so a pattern unfolds when woven. “I'm also trying to adapt some motifs from Central and South East Asia. Recently, I met someone open to trying out variations with Kancheepuram yardage. I'm excited by this new prospect. Skilled weavers are becoming scarce. It's a result of poor demand for quality handwoven fabrics. I find it difficult to get weavers who can replicate old, complicated designs simply because it's too tedious. A lot also depends on the volume of business you promise them.”
As for the word ‘limp' usually being associated with handloom fabrics, Anaka explains, “There is handloom and there is good quality handloom. The latter does not lose its appeal even after some washes. Having said that, I feel handwoven fabrics get softer with time. It's an acquired taste to find that character appealing. But over time even mill-made fabrics reveal their ‘cotton' texture. Recently at a programme, someone asked me, ‘Why painstakingly create handloom fabrics when you get so many mill-made varieties that replicate traditional textiles?' To me, the answer is simple. Handmade is soulful. It's like home-cooked food!”
Though Anaka has taken the road less travelled in the world of design, she doesn't believe in entrusting young designers with the responsibility of taking textiles and craft forms forward. “It will work only if they are familiar with the terrain. I think the best way to keep the past alive is to find ways of translating traditional textiles in a language that young people understand. There are different ways to do this, and not all designers working with textile crafts have the same aesthetic, which makes it so exciting. Besides, the whole branding and marketing exercise can really change the way people perceive traditional textiles.”
Anaka doesn't stop with just rearticulating old craft skills. The Learning Centre in Brass Tacks website is part of her effort to educate people on the famed fabrics of the past. “I'm wary of coming across as preachy. But the idea behind Learning Centre is to provide a history and context to the work that goes into the textiles we use. I have a huge collection of books on textiles. I read a lot.” She pauses and continues… “I love listening to music too; so I don't lose my sanity and sense of humour. Being with friends is also important to me because I spend a lot of time working in isolation.”
Skilled weavers are becoming scarce. It's a result of poor demand for quality handwoven fabric. I find it difficult to get weavers who can replicate old, complicated designs simply because it's too tedious.