When the two words ‘fashion’ and ‘India’ come together, hers is the obvious name that comes to mind. A pioneer in the field, as much a revivalist, Ritu Kumar could be given singular credit for introducing the very concept of fashion in clothing in India. Yet, she hates being called a ‘fashion designer’. A woman who has dedicated her life to travelling to the remotest corners of this country in a bid to rediscover, preserve and represent ancient aesthetics in embroidery and craft, hers has been no mean contribution. She tells us why the long and hard journey might not have been a lonely one, but it indeed has been stubborn.
GJ: Looking back nearly five decades of leading the fashion industry, what would you say are the main qualities for someone to follow a success curve like yours?
RK: I just instinctively wanted to do things which I communicated with and then you have to be very conscious that you are not going to stray away from your path because many times we are told that we are old fashioned, traditional aunties or whatever you know. But I was very clear that if it was not happening then I am going out of it, I am not going down a path which I am not convinced about. So one thing led to another and I was lucky. Aesthetics, instinct, and understanding one’s own country is very important. And you cannot impress everyone.
GJ: You have dressed so many women for the last 45 years, what is your idea of a quintessential woman?
RK: Basically, it doesn’t matter Indian or western, I always find that the women who are more confident about who they are dress better always. They make the choices. I don’t think as a designer you can impose your choices on people and you shouldn’t other than offering a classic sort of something. But people who are more confident about themselves dress better. Then you are not imitating anybody. You are yourself. It makes a huge difference.
GJ: If you had to define a Ritu Kumar creation in one sentence, how would you define it?
RK: It doesn’t necessarily have to do with fashion. It is something which has a lot to do with being from this country, identifying what we turn as lifestyle aesthetics and translating it into something that has become the collection. You have to get the essence of it and how you like to put it because I really don’t see myself as a fashion designer because there are a certain parameters that follows if you were doing a fashion designing. While starting my career if I’d had to choose NIFT as my option then perhaps I wouldn’t have. It would not be the area I would have gone to. It is not my discipline it is not my interest. So I think I went through it through the crafts root and got interested in a wider range that happens around textiles which is in this country lot to do with the people and the society and the continuation of very old aesthetic and through that because it has to be translated into something it got initially into saris and then into clothes. So, I think that is the route I took.
GJ: You joined the fashion industry in 1960 when it was a lot about textile and embroidery, you were more into traditional garments and now, you moved into your new creation Label and it’s also a lot more about prints and cuts. Given that, how else would you say has fashion transformed in the last 50 years of your experience in the industry?
RK: It has been from being not there to today as an entity. There was no such thing as retail space or experience or there was not any retail space or there was no such thing as a designer and it was very post independence and very nascent in its format. So, all these things were created after that. It was a time when there was a lot of innovation was going on in the country at that time whether it was creation of fine arts or music or just the general cultural milieu, not only in textile but in every field as well. That’s when my work started, so it started through that route and not through the route of fashion.
GJ: When did you first learn the word ‘fashion’?
RK: When I went to Brighton on a scholarship. I got an understanding of what fashion is in America. In 1964–65 when I got the entire understanding of it.
GJ: Did you travel a lot as a child?
RK: Not as much a child as after I started working, I traveled all over the world as there were no designers at that time. Then, I was doing the entire editing of designing for my husband’s company and even now, that’s what I have been so involved with. So, you know I got a truly bird’s view of the entire world.
GJ: How do you feel being called the pioneer in the industry?
RK: I think it has to be the oldest in the industry and in the fact that what I started, a lot of my contemporaries stayed with just the crafts for one reason or the other. I got into a lot of exports in textile. So, my exposure to international fashion world became so much wider that it was possible to take the next step from the crafts and try and move it to a more contemporized garments as well so that’s how that transition happened.
GJ: You did a lot of things alone; you did not have a role model in the Indian set up… did you find the journey lonely ever?
RK: It was never lonely. I did not know where it was going. You only do that in life when you have a goal in front of you two things happened. First, I discovered all these amazing places, you know there were lot of patriotism at that point of time much more than is apparent at the moment because you just take it for granted. With us, it was the first generation and we were more interested in fashion, finding a root in our own country and so, when I discovered all these places that became almost passionate to continue with them. And at the same time, it so happened that my husband and I started working together and he started a very large export house of garments, so I think it was always a little hobby at the side the retail part. It was a hobby since they were subsidized because there was no financial sense in doing what I was doing, then I was reviving things in the villages, it was not as remunerative I was doing a lot of revival of trends, it actually site up a base for finding of things and then I became a very proficient print designer but there was no such thing in any case in the country. So, the journey was not lonely; it was just stubborn more than anything else.
But I knew what I was going to collect some stuff from Europe and I did that professionally like any profession. It was just something I did. I had my soul into that. But you know writing the books and everything was something I was doing for my own self or for the areas that I started working in. After a point when you get a commitment it’s very selfish you can’t just walk out and say I’m done with this village, I can’t be bothered anymore, you know you can’t. So it was a journey and then one thing led to the other, I started hand block printing, and then zardosi. I did a couple of projects with SEVA and then you tend to become a catalyst because you brought on the change in the table, the change that was needed in moving that craft to handloom and to make it more user friendly and it was necessary that they were selling through our stores. I would do these projects just to help that area and I found that highly satisfying and in those days there were a lot of people who were with me, Laila Tayebji and people who were working over there and I would also interact with them, but it just seemed a non ending journey actually because there is so much in handlooms that can be done and so I was really looking for an opening in these stores in India and then things happened on their own.
Yes, very clearly what I did want to do was to put an input in anything where I could bring about the kind of change that I saw within my own life time. You know the time when I started, you would be surprised that there was not a boutique to be seen. Everybody is wearing these printed saris with pearls, and for the people who are affluent this was the only resource of wearing elegant and chic clothes as there was no parallel thing in the country. At your age I guess you can’t even imagine what that was like. Because a lot has happened in 40 years, but you know a lot could have not happened is what my thing was, I mean I used to travel so much, I saw what was happening in China and I saw what was happening in Japan all of there the crafts were gone and we could have gone exactly the same route where you would not be wearing what you are wearing today, you would be wearing a little black dress with print because there was no other option and the options were patent in my own lifetime in the country which was highly exciting. So there in which was actually pretty accidental, even if it was no design, the design of course was there which I was working with my husband and export became a career for person again by default and this part of it was like something was in your fate and you had to do it and you had to enjoy this part of the world also which is being highly satisfying. You know in the time I started I remembered what would people wear for their wedding, they would bring something from Europe and they would put something that was not even a part of our ethos, it was just things patched together because you know the older things had died and there was nothing to replace it with. So you know we were actually very close to losing what ever little was left in the memory of our crafts, in textiles in particular as a matter of fact in everything you know whether it was patiala or churni, the original arts and the professional arts I mean they were all gone.
We were created because of that fact, because our generation found the lack of it and the tragedy of being without it for a 150 yrs under the British and of course it had in a certain way of civilization the remnance from the past will always be there in an old industry if not in the original history but most of the history comes down orally to us. So we did remember that we had the dhup-chao fabric and we remember that there was something highly exotic hanging around somewhere. A lot of it happened because I think post independence the whole culture was different, we were almost in the role of a barefoot doctor type of thing. We went into areas where there is no road, no place to stay; we were just on the road to the discovery of the country which was another amazing journey.
GJ: If you could share your thoughts on retail fashion.
RK: You know how fortunate we are in this country, we have a space which can do that and you travel I’m sure, you go to London and you go to Top shop or you go down High street or Bond street you see the company labels and it’s more or less give or take at a different price level for the same fare which we were very close to being a civilization also inundated by multinationals because they have the skill they have the power and the money and they have everything going for them and they have a 100 year old history in fashion and it can be so impressive and also they have the media power. So you now if they can sell a Birkin without anybody understanding why they are buying it or wearing it, it is a sociological happening which was very close to happening in this country as well, I think partly it was that which was driving me, because every time I’d go to Europe I’d say how sick is this, it’s ok if you have it I mean I wear those clothes also but not as in brain washing of a country which has so much. So I think perhaps that was the goal if you are saying that there was a goal. I mean you are blessed with the fact that it works with your culture and your climate and your lifestyles. But when the whole world is convinced that you just throw that all out of the window, it’s also doing a lot to your brain because if you also then throwing out a lot of other stuff which is associated with your culture. Perhaps, if I had not got the exposure as much to the outside world then I would not be able to appreciate what we had as much as I did.
GJ: Where do you think Indian fashion stands against the international fashion industry today?
RK: We haven’t even scratched the surface. Actually somebody has and they are not considered as designers and that is another thing that confuses me. I think Fab India has scratched the surface or even to some extent Anokhi. They have got a look, a feel, they know what they are doing and they are reaching out to a market which the Promod’s can’t. Even they’ve got an identity, they’ve got a scale also, but most people tell me that they are not designers, this I don’t understand. I feel they have a very strong designer identity. I mean I can wear a Fab India kurta if they were cut better actually but there is a look and feel about that whole product line. But people just feel that if they are not looking hot on the ramp in Paris it’s not fashion. This is a big problem with the young designers. I am just sharing this with you because you are talking to so many different people maybe you’ll be able to explain to me what is this?
GJ: What do you think is next for the cottage industry?
RK: I think it will grow because Indian fashion industry has proved everybody wrong. I thought now we would be dominated completely, as a matter of 10 years back I thought this is it, like when it opened up I thought I will not be able to take the competition with all these brands coming up; I just didn’t think we would but it seemed to be good. I think Indian fashion has had its real surprising moments, to me the fact that now everybody’s wardrobe has got both western and Indian clothes where I thought the Indian will be thrown out. I was waiting for the day when everybody will be wearing white dresses to their wedding, like it could happened like it happened all over the world. We are kind resilient you know. I think we like to look pretty. We just don’t like looking androgynous. Whenever I put on a collection which is androgynous I fail. It just does. The spookily dog like collection doesn’t work in India, so we want to look pretty, we love to look over the top in our own way and that kind of resilience is a psyche thing, you just can’t wipe it out. Come summer we will wear holi colours no matter what they are shrieking is the worn in Paris, it doesn’t not make lot of difference in India. And I think after a point black is a big bow. We have surprise ourselves and we have gone through the cycles of various kinds of dresses and there is a mix now. I think basically it’s flattering because we think that the world has stopped looking at fashion as something that is flattering. It doesn’t flatter them anymore. You should analyze what people in Paris are wearing, they look so boring, so drab, unless you’re size 16 or 0 less there is nothing for anybody, it’s all lycra and stretched and minimal clothes they’ve lost the colour and it does nothing for anybody. But you see fashion cannot look at itself objectively. It has to sell next year so they change the colour to brow or something you know and they have lost the ability to lose colour completely.
GJ: What do you say is the difference between being in fashion and being in vogue because we are talking about seasons here and collections?
RK: I think they are part of the same thing, I think perhaps you are asking me that being in vogue you are a victim. You had it because you are going to follow everything that is going to come your way or whatever is prescribed. I think the definition of being in fashion is what you are comfortable in. Comfortable in the sense both in terms of what you feel you should be touching in the morning when you look at your cupboard; it does have to do with climate, society where you are going, what you are going to be. I don’t think I will wear a pair of jeans if I have to go to the village, I’d feel a little out. So you know what you are comfortable in is what you should be in fashion and what is in vogue is of course the highest heel, the most uncomfortable stockings, the impossible dresses where you have to keep pulling and pushing yourself around. Most fashion internationally works on making you unhappy about the way you are. It’s totally true and my philosophy on working for fashion is that I’d love to do clothes which make people feel good about themselves and not inadequate that they have to keep on changing it five times before they can leave the house. This is a big problem with western fashion.
GJ: Because you’ve seen the generations grow it has been wonderful perhaps to just watch it. You have a background in art, history, and musicology. How has that influenced your designing?
RK: That really paid off. Because I was doing a course in Ashutosh museum, Calcutta University, after I got married because I was an art and history student before and I go into an archaeological digging situation around Calcutta, which is where I discovered all these villages. One thing led to the other and so my introduction to all these crafts was through artistry. I don’t think I would be in this profession as I told you earlier if I had the option of going to art history and fashion designing course I don’t think I would have chosen for the latter. It was not in my mind space. I could not understand as to why would anyone sit and make clothes. I mean not until it’s tied up with a lot of other stuff.
GJ: You’ve written a book on costumes and textiles of India. It is a lot of research and it shows years of diligent patience and findings. Can we expect more such definitive work from you?
RK: I don’t think I have, I think someone else has to write it for me and they are being written I mean there are books on saris and handlooms and textile etc. This one I did because I was actually researching the costumes of textiles of Air India because they were the patrons of the best textiles and crafts of the country and it was a very interesting research to do. But if I am writing a book I will probably put in together after the collection. I am going to take a two month break and start writing now and that is going to be my journey in these areas. I’ve seen it we’ve done it but I don’t think the next generation is going to have that opportunity. So I think this is also something that has to be put down somewhere.
GJ: Do you feel responsible about the fashion industry, the shape that it is going to take? As one of the pioneers do you feel responsible to guide this industry?
RK: I think if all of us who’ve worked in the industry, in the crafts, those 30-40 years did lay a background and now the way it will go will have to go in an innovative way to give what the market what is wanting and demanding. But I think the core has been set, the book, our works, all of us who have worked in crafts, the books on the various crafts we have, the research is already in place, so this much can be done. But I definitely at some stage would want to archive my collections, much more for educational research for the future, for anybody who needs good reference that I would like to do. We are not good at museums in this country, we are not good in recording our heritage; we are actually very bad at it. We have got too much culture hanging around us but nobody sitting and recording.
GJ: You are the first generation entrepreneur. What advice would you like to give to the entrepreneurs who want to get into this industry?
RK: I basically think that most people are smart enough today to know that they should not just do it for instant name and fame which doesn’t work. It has to be an industry something that you feel strongly for and you have, you can’t become a doctor overnight or find the cure for cancer overnight, so any industry that you are in there is a lot of groundwork to do. You have to be willing to spend the hours and do the slogging that it takes to get there.
GJ: Having showcased your work in so many different countries around the world, which have been your favourite and why?
RK: You know what ever I’ve showcased has gone as the museum type of collection not as the collection of garments but otherwise I’d say France. We’ve been working there for 30 years. And is there something I think there is empathy in those colours and forms. Whatever I do it goes down very well in France and vice versa. There seems to be a thread there which is quite similar.
GJ: Who were your icons whom you looked up to while growing up?
RK: Pupul Jayakar and Kamala Devi. I couldn’t get over their energy and what they did for this country.
GJ: In terms of crisis and dilemma who do you turn to? Or what do you turn to?
RK: My family basically, my parents.
GJ: One of your sons is a designer and the other one is making a name in cinema. How does that make you feel as a mother?
RK: The one that is making a name in the cinema is doing such controversial movies. He is making out of thinking things and things which are very hard to do so there is a mixture of concern as well as lot of pride that someone is actually stepping out and that is not easy. It’s very hard actually. What he is doing is a lot harder than what the other is doing though his work calls for equal innovation and creativity. It is insane out there. Within a certain discipline they are doing great.
GJ: You worked with your son and you designed the clothes for his movie. How was the experience for you?
RK: I designed for the first film The Little Terrorist which was nominated in the Academy. He is very difficult person to work with. He will just not take any half measures; it’s a little crazy to go all the way to Kutch to make the costume designs for the movie.
GJ: What parenting advice would you want to give to our readers?
RK: You have to let your kids grow and not provide too much shade. You have to give them space which may be very difficult for the parent.
GJ: Do you miss having a daughter?
RK: Of course, there is no question about it.
GJ: How would you like to be remembered?
RK: It would like to be remembered as somebody who came to this world and looked at some of the beautiful textiles and created some great designs.