From roots to stylish routes

With traditional fabrics giving shape to trendy silhouettes , ANASUYA MENON finds that fashion is going local and how.

August 07, 2015 04:42 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 02:13 pm IST - Chennai

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If it is about going back to the basics, this is as basic as it can get. The  thorth,  the traditional Kerala bathing towel, widely known as the  gamcha,  is now a chic accessory. From the humble piece of cloth now comes a range of wardrobe stunners such as stoles, summer shawls, sarongs, kaftans, tunics and scarves. Traditional handloom fabrics that are woven in ageing looms by weaving communities in the small villages of Kerala are being contemporised in a big way. A little bit of streamlining and playing with design possibilities have catapulted these fabrics to the fashion high street. While reviving age-old weaving techniques, the brands doing this are also looking at creating a market for conscientious clothing.

Says Indu Menon, co-founder of Kara, a social enterprise creating hand-woven textiles: “It is about looking differently at something we have always taken for granted. A little value addition and there you have a product so fashionable and at the same time, sustainable.” Kara’s new line, Neyth, focuses on the timeless  thorth , giving it an entirely new edge. While Kara has been exporting the bigger, finer-woven version of the  thorth,  promoting it as beach towels and sarongs in the west, Neyth sticks to the traditional small  thorth  woven in the 30-inch loom for the Indian market. It is really just the towel, but delightfully reinvented. “Handloom is one sector that has huge potential yet to be tapped. It is sustainable, has a low-carbon footprint (doesn’t need electricity), and whole families survive on the profession. By giving it a chic twist, young people can be encouraged to use handloom,” says Indu.

And the good news for the thinking fashionista is that the makeover of the  thorth  is indeed quirky. As stoles, they retain the basic white with colourful borders, but an interesting range of pastels too form the palette. Since they are long enough to be draped around the shoulders, they could be used as dupattas, too. While the scarves and the stoles have a fine finish, the fabrics used for the kaftans and tunics are thicker. The kaftans can be paired with straight-cut trousers or leggings for a stylish yet everyday look. The bath towel also finds itself reinvented as yoga sheets. These sheets in bright shades are meant to be spread over yoga mats. And for the yoga fans, there are yoga kits containing a yoga sheet, a bandana and two square napkins, all made of the  thorth . Indu attributes the popularity of the collection to its hassle-free maintenance. “It is a time-tested fabric and we have been using it for generations. We know that washing is easy and it is perfect for the sweltering tropical heat,” she says. The journey of the  thorth  is on with the design team constantly experimenting with ideas, but Neyth also plans to make use of the traditional Kerala mul fabrics and the soft muslin the state is famous for (Kerala set  mundu  material) to create a range of clothing accessories.

Working along similar lines is The Kaithari Project, a prêt line by Seamstress, a customised tailoring unit. Drawing inspiration from handloom, it works with small societies across Kerala, picking and choosing from the State’s historical tapestry to create a new look. Only that it has given the staple cream with gold combination a miss. The colours here are fiery – crimsons, blood oranges, parrot greens and dramatic blues. The line specialises in dresses, jackets, tunics, tops and kurtas. The ready-to-wear sari blouses are a special attraction. Old-world shirt blouses and the rouka (bodice tied at the front) will be introduced soon, too.

Kaithari is now working with Theyyam (a performance art popular in northern Kerala) artistes to recreate a particular appliquéing technique used in their costumes. “We have commissioned two artistes to work with our team. We have not tampered with the original. However, a little design intervention is necessary,” says Rasmi Poduval, co-founder of Kaithari. The appliqué work will feature as borders and as other patterns in the limited-edition line which will be called the ‘Theyyam Collection’. Kaithari uses Malayalam names such as Manjadikuru (vermilion), Mittai pink (candy pink), Kilipacha (parrot green), Neelakili (blue bird), Mailanchi (henna green) and Neelamashi (ink-blue). “We felt it takes us closer to where we draw our ideas from – Nature, and our tradition,” Rasmi adds.

For those who believe that style is about making a statement, there seems to be no dearth of stuff. History buffs, for instance, will like to wear a piece that pays tribute to a weaving tradition left over by the Portuguese in Fort Kochi. The ‘kavaya thuni’, which is woven in a small weaving unit in Kannur in multi-treadle frame looms set up by the German Basel Missionary, has now been converted into smart dresses by Kaithari. “The cloth has a unique geometric pattern. It is a square chequered block, within which four tiny chequered blocks are contained,” says Rasmi. Wearing tradition on your sleeve is totally cool now, as the founder of Seamstress and co-founder of Kaithari, Vimala Viswambharan, says, “There is so much interest in going native now. Anything that is natural and ethnic evokes so much curiosity.”

And why not? Aren’t we a bit of what we wear?

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