Fashion passion

JUST MENTION "fashion designer" and stereotype images flash on the mindscreen: Page Three gloss; expensive, unwearable clothes; underclothed, undernourished models on FTV...

"It's all media hype," declares the diva of haute couture Ritu Kumar, the pioneer of the fashion design industry in the country.

Time was when there was no fashion industry in India. "When the British left India, they'd systematically decimated our arts and crafts and made us completely dependent on their polka dot prints and Lincolnshire cotton. If women wanted to look `in' they wore French chiffons and dripped pearls."

Ritu has drawn from our country's rich crafts heritage to make her mark in a highly fickle industry.

Ritu has drawn from our country's rich crafts heritage to make her mark in a highly fickle industry.  

Till the youth of the Sixties era rebelled and discovered khadi, bright Indian prints, and jhola bags. "We thought we were really cool in those clothes," she remembers. As a student of art history, Ritu savoured her journey through the rich colours of an Indian past. Researching Indian crafts, prints, textiles, expressions, she travelled from Amritsar to Delhi often.

"The (Central) Cottage Industries, FabIndia, Handloom and Handicrafts Council were all just beginning a movement of Indian renaissance. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Pupul Jaykar put me on the right track by suggesting that I take up my love of Indian crafts seriously." Ritu travelled to villages all over the country. What touched her was that regardless of the market, artisans still had their skills and were passing them on to their children. "The exclusive weave of a Baluchari sari still existed. The looms were still moving, the threads were still flying into exquisite embroidered patterns on tunics and saris." This was enough inspiration for her to set up two tables in a village near Calcutta and start block-printing saris with old designs she had come across during the course of her research.

When she had her first sale, however, the response was lukewarm. She got her first lesson in fashion psychology: the past had to be embellished with a contemporary flavour to be relevant in the present.

The rest was not history, but the beginning of a struggle. Designing for her husband's export company, she worked harder on her knowledge base. She set up the country's first ever boutique in 1966 and her early clients included glamorous stars like Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee, and Rekha.

Fashion passion

Her aim of establishing an Indian design identity had become a reality.

"I am happy to be associated with traditional Indian designs," says Ritu, who has authored a book on the ancient crafts and textiles of India. "I was just turning out elegant women in my saris, I never thought of it as anything more." All this hype about designers and the celebs they cater to is a recent development, she asserts.

"At that time, my family needed the money. I had to help with the business. My mother and in-laws were very supportive. I wished I could spend more time with my two sons, wished there were more than 24 hours in one day. It was very stressful, a balancing act. But I made a choice and I was lucky," says the founder of the international brand name, Ritu.

Isn't the market overflooded with designers now? "As long as we are swamped by our own designers, it's OK." Though most designers can embellish and cut cloth, few can design textiles. "The Weavers' Service Centres (coming under the Union Ministry of Textiles) were set up to keep weaving alive. Somehow, they seem to have lost focus," she says.

If terms like "zardosi" and "hand block-printed" are now commonly understood and appreciated, it is Ritu's work that is at the root of it. Her passion for craft translated into beautiful saris, lehengas, and other traditional clothes that had become unfashionable, displaced by synthetic, foreign yarns and designs. Sold at over 13 outlets across the world, they are now available in Bangalore at her newly opened store on Vittal Mallya Road.

Ritu's work is a tribute to our people's inborn aesthetic sense, and their touching adherence to tradition and its continuity. Trying to bridge the gap between the boutique shoppers and the working middle class, Ritu has introduced her Label line. A collection with better pricing and youthful designs. You can check them out at 1, Embassy Chambers, 5, Vittal Mallya Road, or at