Illustration by Bhuli Art
Let me start by stating a fact: the sari does not need saving. It is not a damsel in distress, but a powerful protagonist and the ultimate shape shifter – one minute a yardage, the next minute, armour! It has travelled through time, across continents, has mutated and grown multiple avatars without missing a pleat. It is the perennial fuel that feeds the hungry creative who returns to it again and again, starved for inspiration. It is the sari that saves the designer, not the other way round.
There is a world of ideas beyond the recycled romantic renditions of the wardrobes of our mothers and grandmothers; you can hardly expect the 2018 woman to transport herself back in time, be coyly swathed in drapes, chew paan and take sari-shaming silently. The reason why she may or may not wear the national garment everyday is because she now has a choice. If she picks a pre-stitched version for the purpose of practicality or an alternate aesthetic, she need not apologise for her non-traditional sensibility. And if she doesn’t understand the history behind the 18th century Awadhi crocodile booti that has taken two years to develop, maybe she isn’t the right audience. Why get a quivering upper lip about that?
It amuses me when I hear established individuals voraciously orate on design platforms about their unfathomable contributions to the re-re-reinventions of a classic garment, craft or textile. Their good – sometimes great – work never goes unnoticed; it provides a fresh perspective to something that requires a little rush of lifeblood once in a while, and inspires many more to follow their path. It’s when accolades lead to constant credit-seeking, that I start sensing a borderline messiah complex: as though their sole efforts have made the only difference and saved these from the brink of extinction. In this Jurassic Park of reclaimed crafts and communities that are older than their re-creator, the concept of copyright and ownership is a bit confusing.
Self-promotion gets preachy real quick, especially if you’ve heard the same story multiple times; it becomes a part of the white noise that we are increasingly calling sustainable heritage. A responsible outlook is a genuine need of the times, and the growing consciousness can be attributed to many perseverant creatives. Sustainability is a practice rather than an aesthetic; it’s not about eschewing glamour, glitz or experimentalism in favour of stoic intellectual narcissism. But even here, when the back-story looms bigger than the design evolution, it becomes a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – almost a contest to establish who pioneered the theory in India. The design dialogue, rather than breaking the mould, seems to be about claiming it. Oft-used tags like minimalist, alternative, effortless and the likes are part of the preferred vocabulary amongst the current anti-fashion elitists, each extolling the virtues of their chosen righteous path. The smaller the detail, the bigger the narration: a peppering of florid Urdu, Sanskrit or French is the added garnish.
Interactive exercises between fashion and art addressing social, cultural and political issues have the potential to provoke and ask pertinent questions. A few noteworthy exceptions aside, more often than not, these end up offering rehashed design content from a label’s archives, in a rudimentary repackaging of sorts: their themes picked up from a handful of trending topics. To compensate for the visibly ‘inspired’ presentations, there is a barrage of press releases, concept notes, customised hashtags, catchy slogans and morally upstanding commentary. Cryptic imagery, DIY audiovisuals and eerily ambient soundtracks amalgamate these on/off-runway showings, where the word ‘artist’ is used freely and what you don’t understand is to be taken as genius: the necessary shroud of intrigue that is the vital ingredient of conceptual installations. Threads from Berlin, Tokyo and Copenhagen are woven into fabrications that are made in India.
Post the demise of the fashion review and in an era of ‘love all’ journalism, digital access and social media have levelled the field for individual commentary. However, they have also made it easier for duplicators. The problem of plagiarism (a whole other topic altogether), sadly, does not have a simple, one-pronged solution. But vigilante accounts that are pointing out copycats have gained immense followership; their new form of ‘critique’ through shading and humour seems to resonate with the millennial tone. At the moment, it’s wait and watch; how far fashion’s new watchdogs will curb copies is a matter of researched and objective fact-spotting, our collective awareness and resulting action. Perhaps, the opinionated old-school should give them a chance to do their job, instead of picking up spear and sickle to fight personal battles on public forums, repeatedly. No one can claim to be a complete original, and a new idea – much like technology – inevitably becomes public intellectual property and a source of reference once it’s released. Blatant lifting is unforgivable, period. But raucous mudslinging at contemporaries over chicken-and-egg theories invites skepticism towards self-proclaimed inventors, even if they have valid points. When the voice speaks louder than the design, all it receives is temporary attention, not long-lasting relevance.
Personally, I am all for the vocalisation of moralistic standpoints in fashion, up to the level where they educate us with information, but leave room for individual interpretations. Storytelling is a great – and necessary – marketing tool, but let’s be honest and admit that. Obscuring the fine line between opinion and righteousness only leads to a fifteen-minute discourse debacle, and the core concerns are lost in a vortex of swirling commandments, no matter how principled they may be. The bittersweet irony is that with time, the story recedes into the background; it’s only the designer’s body of work that remains etched in memory.