— Rina Singh
Awarded Chairman's Scholarship 1998 at Wigan and Leigh, Elle India Graduates Award 2015, Runners Up- Vogue India Fashion Fund 2016, finalist from India at Woolmark International 2016 and Minimalist Designer Of the Year In Vogue Power List 2019, Eka is reflective of Rina Singh's ethos of simple sustainable living. Her design team embraces weavers, spinners and dyers from rural craft clusters who work astride pattern masters and block printers. In conversation with the designer on mindful design, how sustainability comes naturally to Indians and the importance of building a green wardrobe.
''Fashion Designing is a deeply personal journey. I hail from a small village near Kurukshetra. my father is an agriculturist although he doesn't work in the fields any more. From childhood, I've always led a simple village life and our home is reflective of the philosophy of living with less. For instances, our clothes were darned and recycled and winter clothes were put away with neem leaves and stents. I still remember how my mother always sent me things in a handmade cloth thela. Our food was dependant on local resources and a lot of things were woven in the house itself. We had weavers coming in from nearby village for 15-20 days to make durries; each time we retuned from boarding school I would hear looms whirring all day. This sustainable lifestyle stayed with me. When I was with NIFT and worked closely with their Gandhinagar resource center, we travelled to crafts- based rural areas and worked with weavers and artisans there. This really strengthened my leaning towards sustainability. Later, it became an integral part of building my profession. I always had it. Basically, I tailored my lifestyle and my profession to complement the beliefs I had been brought up with. All my life I have not seen, much less used, polyester. So how can I use it in the garments I design? My collections have a sense of earthiness and simplicity.
We have been working with handloom weavers, dyers and block- printers since ten years and all of us have grown together. Our synergy is based on a belief system and it is a personal connection. We interact with them on a regular basis and know all about their family marriages, kids and the issues they face. For example, my husband and I me went to meet one of our block-makers in Gujarat to sort out delays and help them financially; there, he confide in us that his son had left him to join a factory where he was being paid 20,000 and he had no help. His wife helped oil his blocks and he did all the work himself. That is when my husband, also my partner in the business, and I discussed that we were capable of giving that kind of money to craftsmen and they didn't have to look for work elsewhere. You see, these people may find factories willing to employ them at a price but I would not find such a genuine, talented block maker who had learnt the art from his father. It has been years since this incident and that boy still works with us and many other designers, today. It's about building a community and finding those people who work meditatively with craft forms i.e. people who spin by hand all day or women based in West Bengal who work on the math. I'm really inspired by them. That is where we derived the name of the label, EKA. it translates as, a community of people, and is derived from the word, 'ekta'. People who are driven from the same cause, channelising creativity and working together to build something.
Mindful design, Jasmeen, is not about abolishing machinery. Today, we need a progressive mindset. I don't endorse abolishing machinery but we do need to keep our craft forms alive. We only have to do things with crafts that cannot be done otherwise. If a Banarasi sari can be woven with the same intricacy, as it is on a handloom, on a power loom, do it. However there are crafts in Banaras like Karwa Booti that can only be created on a hand loom. Again, for example, if we are looking at a certain price point, there is no harm in designing hand dyed fabrics, on a power loom. Having a direction and channelising it correctly is essential. Let go of what is not required. In olden days, we didn't have another solution to designing multi- colored threadwork other than on a handloom; today a spectrum of colors can be created using digital printing. However, if a designer wants a Ikat story for the season, he or she has to travel to the state which specialises in the craft and work with hand dyers there who understand the craft; there is no alternative. That said, go to the craft person in his own capacity and build new frontiers and new markets for his craft if he feels his indigenous craft or rich knowledge is redundant in his immediate market. Sustainability, to me, is also about not giving up on certain weavers even though we cannot fit their craft in the season or the price points. THAT is mindful design.
How to build a green wardrobe? Actually it's quite simple! Always look for natural fibres no matter where it's made; it must be bio- degradable. Cut out synthetic yarns which is harmful for skin. My principle — buy less, buy good, buy well. Instead of buying five traditional textile saris, buy two with a special design — at a good price point — supporting the weaver and encouraging him to create more. Secondly, recycle. I would love to see this in India. In fact, I would be happy to buy someone's old Tarun Tahiliani lehenga, for example, that they may have bought ten years ago! Sadly nobody is doing this. People feel ashamed of buying someone's worn garments! Thirdly, don't buy into trends. We need to do away with this system of trends like big collars or big pockets etc. I don't buy into trends at all! My wardrobe is uniform. If at all I buy into a trend it's at vintage store in New York, Paris or London. And if I make an investment I would spend on something that I would wear for the next five years. A good idea here is to buy into your favourite colour; you will never feel tired of wearing it all over again. Lastly, buy clothes that you can wash at home, with natural detergents.
India has largely been a believer of sustainability. every regional has its own natural sustainable practices. Be it the 'mochi' or 'darzi', it's easily accessible. Even today my mother uses her old saris to create patchwork razai covers. It is a practical thing! Lean towards natural medicine and locally grown food. India largely is a sustainable country. How it changed over the years, my generation is trying to understand and undo. Maybe we wanted to get rich quickly and easily available solutions were used, but, that said, the west might have understood it better and are more aware of it yet they are looking at India for solutions. Perhaps because we have always supported sustainability due to our strong sense of community and cultural practices. It is something that comes so naturally to me that I don't have a problem in talking about it overseas.
Largely for my collections, I create separates that can be worn as day dresses, or with pants, with churidars. Ideally as an Indian who has travelled the world and is a designer, I look at fashion from a cultural perspective. Any day I would choose a Banarasi sari or lehenga for a wedding, not a statement gown. That said, if I were an Indian, in London, I would be comfortable in a day dress or kurta — worn with pants, functional jacket and boots. Not a sari! So, yes, I do tend to design cross cultural clothing that can be worn in any part of the world. I personally love wearing Uniqlo jackets over separates and styling it in my own way. my collaboration with Uniqlo happened organically. Their team met me in Paris and loved my collection; later, they asked me to collaborate. It was a fantastic experience, a learning curve. And I look forward to more such collaborations!! Next year, we complete ten years. Eka is an ideology that talks about lifestyle, not fashion per se. We already have different collaborations worldwide that bring out a perspective of how I look at interiors or architecture or jewellery. So Im looking forward to the next year where I hope to expand my ideology to other areas and create either more luxurious, or more everyday, clothing at different price points.
On a lighter, personal note, the only fashion revolution I hope to see in India is women stop carrying fancy handbags!! It is so jaded, so not glamorous, so not making a statement. I cannot even begin to start talking about it and say that it is repulsive. A bag that reveals who these people are and how much they spent on it before they have the opportunity to introduce themselves — is repulsive! Not as a rebel, or revolution, but we should start feeling comfortable in our skin and accept that every one of us has an individual voice and a story to narrate.''