— RITU KUMAR
With a fifty- year legacy and Padmashri recipient for her exceptional artistry in the field of fashion and textile craft, Ritu Kumar altered the way the world views handmade textile craft through a prism of contemporary globally- relevant design. This culture is the core of every single product she designs, from couture and pret to the home line. Here, she speaks to me about challenges she sees cropping up in Indian fashion post- pandemic.
Owing to the devastating outbreak of the global pandemic, industries have ground to a halt, including Fashion. ''This is going on for a while now. Initially, I hoped for the situation would get better within two months or so, but with the opening happening currently, things are very slow. So it's a little difficult to understand what will eventually happen if things normalise. I could make a conjecture that the sales are going to be very much lower, as compared to last year. And I feel, for a lot of areas that we will be looking at, not continuing operations if those stations don't warrant it. There are decisions that are being taken every day on it. I have a feeling that the fashion world would be the last to pick up…''
With fifty years' legacy of sustainable fashion and reviving the nation's indigenous textile craft, she has a vision for designers adapting to the new reality of incorporating sustainability practices for survival. ''The fashion industry has a powerful message, not in terms of volume, but driving inspiration for everybody. So I feel if we consciously start not only sourcing things from within our country, but also sourcing styles which are sustainable and which can last you through the wardrobe for a while, a strong message would be sent out. Fast fashion is something we can adopt once things are normal. According to me, at the moment we should just do indigenous work.''
There are crucial issues and challenges she sees cropping up in Indian fashion, post- pandemic. ''I feel things for us, in India, will not be as difficult as the rest of the world. Fortunately for us, we have not adopted their way of working, by completely following single colour trends and specific winter and summer collections. So I feel we should not have a lot of wastage in products that the last four months have imposed. But at the same time, there is going to be a lot of inventory pullover and people are going to have to put products on sale if they want to get the wheels churning. The next challenge would be to make more stock, considering the absence of workers; they have all gone to their villages. So I think that first, we will have a boom where things will be put on discount and after that, we will have very limited things to choose from. I'm not quite sure of what will happen to fast fashion brands that work a year ahead of time. We in India can still manage from within our resources, trying to do whatever we can. But as for International fashion, who have long inventories and product lines at work, it's challenging because they have to export as well. They are mostly folding up, cancelling orders, not picking up what they ordered, let alone taking new orders… So the pandemic hit this industry hard and I don't think we've reached the end of it. It is the beginning because the peaks in the cases have to stop first. Also, since each factor leads to another… another challenge is that a lot of tourists will not be visiting India, which is a big hole. We are trying to drive our online sales, which to some extent is working, but people will not want to travel and enter shops, which is justified.''
What can we, the consumer, do to help sustain livelihood and craft of weavers and craftspeople, I ask her? ''One should really and truly patronise the weavers and craftspeople. For example, instead of buying a Lycra trouser, one should go and buy a khadi churidar. If we can patronise what they are making, we would be helping out. And also at this time in India, I feel we should be very conscious of not being enthusiastic about manmade fibres like synthetic materials which we don’t need at the moment. My advice to those who want to shop responsibly and build an ethical wardrobe — when you visit any place, just ensure that it has organic products. We should know where it has come from and support 'Made In India' products.''
As we wrap up the interview, I ask her what design institutes should add to the curriculum to educate design and textile students about the importance of our textile heritage, sustainable practices and ethical fashion. ''We need to make the history of our textiles a part of the syllabus for design institutes. I have recently written a book, 'Costumes and Textiles of Royal India' that emphasises the same. If we realize what the history of textiles is, and what we are consuming, new younger designers can find places to source materials. I am also writing another book to direct such designers to find embroiders, printers and weavers because they don't live in cities. They live in the rural heartland. That knowledge is very important for the students as well as the craftspeople.''