— Poonam Bhagat
Taika By Poonam Bhagat is a label where natural indigenous fabrics, artisan tradition and sleek, edgy design fuse to handcraft globally relevant collections. Her collections register a modern minimalist feel — graceful and glamorous, tempered with an austere feel. I, for one, love her capes, quilted silk jackets and silk skirts — lifted with burnished gold threadwork, appliqué, paint or texture. In conversation with the designer who is also on the Board Of Governors of the Fashion Design Council of India.
Poonam, you are acclaimed for globally- relevant design handcrafted with natural indigenous fabrics. What inspired you at a time when "sustainability" and "ethical fashion" were not buzz words?
I always believed in using our natural handlooms or fabrics that breathe. Not only does it provide the weavers their daily bread but also encourages us to use indigenous textiles besides being environmentally conscious. I had my first exhibition in April 1991. I went to Gwalior and sourced Chanderi and used it to fashion seventy ensembles. Ever since then I've had my Chanderi woven by Zakir who lives in Chanderi. It's been 29 years!!
This is a moment of truth for Fashion and designers are adapting to the new reality. Incorporating sustainability practices is critical. What do you wish you could do more of in the sustainability space and what steps are you taking towards that?
Industrialisation, as we all know very well, has destroyed the planet bringing into play Global Warming and its companions, El Nino among others. The Arctic is melting and the Earth is bleeding. With the Virus taking its toll on humanity it has also insured that Nature can breathe again. It has singlehandedly brought the world to a stop and the Industrial wheel from spinning. It has robbed most people from sustaining themselves so that our Planet can start sustaining itself again. Soon, before we start teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy and starvation, the wheels will swing back into motion. Industries will start opening up slowly yet steadily to lift the economic crisis that has already tripped, fallen flat on its face and hit rock bottom. As we reopen our commercial enterprises we have to be extremely mindful of not going back to the state we were in before Covid slammed our doors shut. We not only need to inculcate mindfulness in our consumers but we, as designers, have to set the trend. Sustainability is the need of the day. Slow fashion as opposed to fast fashion. Make clothes that last longer and aren't binned from one season to the next. Fast fashion has never been a palatable option for me! We believe in slow sustainable fashion that takes longer to create, is perennial and classic, ensuring longevity. Upcycle textile fabric that would find its way to the bin, give fabric scraps to NGOs so that they can use it for filling quilts for the underprivileged. Repair, reuse, remake and reinvent every scrap of fabric that is leftover. I'm a great propagator of reversible clothing and the idea of mixing and matching. Use handlooms so we can provide for our weavers who were struggling even before the lockdown and are now dyeing of starvation. Boost our economy by buying indigenous fabrics instead of looking to import from other countries. Make ourselves sustainable so we can sustain not only our country but also The Planet. Made in India should be our mantra from now on…
What are the crucial issues you see cropping up in Indian fashion, post- pandemic?
Consumerism is going to take a major hit. We are educated enough to know that the Novel Corona Virus isn't leaving us anytime soon. Not unless a vaccine is found or until two- thirds of the world population is infected and develops herd immunity. Until then we will have to live with the 'New Normal'. I don't foresee any big events in the near future. Yes, we will start socialising with each other in small groups, perhaps in each other's homes. We might even want new clothes to feel good provided our pockets are deep enough to allow it. I feel the reasonably priced pret may still find a market but couture will certainly have to take a backseat for now. Before we come to this we should be able to open our factories and ensure the safety of all those coming to work for us. That is most crucial and challenging. Designers, including me, have had no source of income since the lockdown. Getting back on our feet will not be easy unless the Government steps in and makes it easier for us to take those baby steps. We have been thrown off the deep end and told to learn how to swim and also save others from drowning!
Rural weavers- handblock printers- artisans are the most widely hit. Since you are widely travelled- and showcased in world fashion capitals- how do you feel we could showcase Indian textiles to influence designers worldwide to use it in their collections, leading to community development through Fashion?
I have been showcasing Indian textiles fashioned into contemporary collections for a very long time. My first show overseas was in Tashkent in 2002 and the last was in London eight months ago… with one on top of the Eiffel Tower thrown in for good measure! A lot of very talented designers have been showcasing Indian fabrics on International platforms particularly at Paris Fashion Weeks. Rahul Mishra is one of them who shares the same love for Chanderi as I do. We need high street fashion to take cognisance of this and use our textiles for their collections. Hermes, in 2008, spearheaded by Jean Paul Gaultier and his assistant, our very own homegrown Ramesh Nair, who's also a dear friend, showcased the India story replete with turbans and jodhpurs. The quintessential saree and Nehru Jacket were also given an Hermes twist. Now, if only they had used our fabrics it would have been stellar! Alexander McQueen, in the same year, presented a collection based on peacock motifs. Ellie Saab, not to long ago, used saree- inspired silhouettes and Nehru collars. Vera Wang borrowed Ikats and Brocades from India giving them a modern avatar seven years ago. Zandra Rhodes did a saree collection way back in 1987! Designers worldwide are extremely aware of the potential India offers, not only as a muse, but also as the font of rich textiles in myriad forms. We are perhaps the only country that can boast of textiles that are indigenous to each state and as diverse. If the Ministry of Textiles would promote designers to showcase their collections on International platforms there is so much trade one could establish. But now is not the time. Let the world open up and the economy get back on its well heeled feet. Until then Social Media is the only way we can make our presence felt worldwide.
What can we, the consumer, do to help sustain the livelihood of weavers and craftspeople? In fact, what would be your advice to those of us who want to shop responsibly?
Handloom fabrics have mostly been associated with ethnic wear. That is not the case. I have been experimenting with chanderi, khadi, tussar and matka silks all my design life giving them a contemporary twist. Most designers are doing the same now. You don't have to BE Indian — in terms of dressing — to buy Indian! It is IMPERATIVE that consumers support MADE IN INDIA and MAKE IN INDIA movements to help India save its flagging economy and to give the weavers a much needed livelihood.
In a different context, what should design institutes add to the current curriculum to educate design and textile students about the importance of our textile heritage and ethical handmade fashion?
Exactly that! You said it! Make them proud of our heritage and make them aware of how proud International designers are of our heritage. That would inspire them. Take them on field trips to weavers in their villages. Let them see for themselves how labour intensive weaving our fabrics is — especially Ikats, Patolas and the like. Make them fall in love with Indian textiles…
The devastating effects of the outbreak of the pandemic was like watching the domino effect, live. What are you going through right now? How do you plan to strategise for the post Corona period?
I'm going through a whole gamut of emotions from anger to sadness. Sometimes I try to bring positivity into an otherwise grim situation but it is transient. I'm without an income and I'm unable to sustain my workers through these tough times and our Government is doing nothing to support us considering we have generated enough revenue for them before the outbreak. They may consider fashion frivolous but the blood, sweat and tears that go behind sustaining ourselves and our workers is anything but.
Considering social distancing will become the new normal and it’s hard to know when customers will feel safe to shop again - would you consider shifting investment online to protect business with brick-and-mortar stores serving to strengthen the e-store? Would that work in India?
We will have to turn towards online sales to support ourselves. Some of us are already selling online through designer stores but the orders are few and far between because consumers prefer to feel the fabric and try on the garment before ordering it unless she is already familiar with the designer's product. Also most online portals have too many designers in their basket and to be able to promote each designer becomes daunting. Designers need to constantly come up with new collections to shoot and post online. No longer are two seasons enough. The price points have to be extremely competitive and social media presence imperative.This is where the young and the restless have a winning edge over us. Quality might not be of essence but armed with arsenal of social media tools, these Instagram warriors march on with a smugness that comes only with youth! I like interacting with my consumers; they come to my studio, are treated to lunch, coffee and nibbles depending on the time, and play with my dogs who also come to work everyday. They meet the master cutter and my team and are also advised by me on what would look best on them. The whole experience is personal as well as personable. And they keep coming back, by appointment. I think that module can still work if we offer them a sanctuary that is safe and sanitised. Standalone stores also stand a better chance at attracting customers.
With the havoc caused by the pandemic, the industry is halfway between a pause and a pivot. Poonam, do you feel all designers should use no-touch payment? Would it propel fashion into a more sustainable and technologically innovative space? Would it work here?
Only time will tell…