It was the most glamorous college reunion that you can ever imagine. Earlier this week, the alumni of India’s premier fashion school, the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), gathered at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan for a special event that set out to prove that dreams can indeed come true. Present here were NIFT graduates from the past three decades who now have successful careers in the world of fashion.

“I am so happy after meeting my colleagues today. It’s the feeling of going back to college all over again, Nostalgia!” said Pratima Pandey, an NIFT alumna and founder of the fashion label Prama.

She was here for the NIFT’s International conference, “Rediscovering Culture: Transforming Fashion”. The three-day event began by unveiling the “Tree of Knowledge”, by Union Minister, Smrti Irani. Myntra, Amazon and Jaypore together launched a Digital Crafts Bazaar, an online portal which would help weavers and small craftsmen from every part of the country to display their works and reach out to customers the world over.

“Against the backdrop of the Government’s overriding priorities for creating skill-resources and enterprises under the Make-in-India initiative and the launch of the India Handloom brand to endorse quality products with social and environmental compliances, this is the time for such an event to highlight the challenges and opportunities that are posited in the relationship between culture, fashion, sustainability and industry. It will also enable new generations of designers to contextualise the story of their textiles and their crafts into the idiom of expression and self. It will hopefully power strong debates on sustainability and technology solutions,” said Sarada Muraleedharan, Director General, NIFT.

“The conference will provide a platform for academia and industry to engage and understand future directions and possibilities of collaborative research,” she added.

The alumni were seen enjoying the evening, talking about their work, recollecting happy memories and exchanging hugs. Most of these people are now well-established designers who have carved a niche for themselves in the fashion industry both in India and overseas.

“Organising such conferences is a great way to come together to listen and learn from one another, and to also present our perspectives on the diversity of the fashion industry,” said designer and NIFT alumnus Sanjay Garg, founder of the textile brand, Raw Mango, which deals in contemporary Indian hand-woven textiles.

At the event, Garg showcased his collection of designs called “Cloud People”. In conversation with Guardian 20, he said, “It is a collection that invokes a celestial spell, bringing to earth winged messengers and unearthly spirits—mythical symbols of hope and guardianship. Requiring close appreciation, minute collection details reveal soft feathers and scalloped clouds of angels in flight, made through hand embroidery, Bengal mul, zardozi and brocade.”

He added, “I am delighted to be a part of this conference and hope that this event brings together different aspects of our culture presented in interesting ways through fashion.”

The day started with a curated textile gallery walk at Crafts Museum, Delhi. The gallery showcased some intricate and beautiful textile pieces and the show was named “A Search in Five Directions”. The textiles displayed at this exhibition covered a wide range of India’s traditional textile techniques, like pigment painting, printing and weaving from all around the country. These handicrafts included Kodalikarrupur sari made from cotton and zari; Padma Pichhavai, a Rajasthani cotton sari; Paithani Panel, a Maharashtra-based silk sari with gold zari work, and so on. The collection showcased at the gallery was from the National Museum of Handlooms and Handicrafts.

Astonishing local handicrafts and artworks from different parts of the country were also showcased at the event. These handcrafted works included bell metal artifacts from Chattisgarh, Kalighat paintings from West Bengal; papier-mâché artifacts from Jammu and Kashmir, handlooms from Gujarat, and Gond paintings from Madhya Pradesh among other things.

“We are displaying toys that are made out of dry coconut covering. This is a good replacement for other toys as it is made out of natural material and not from plastic. Also, these are all handmade and cost-effective,” said Rama from Odisha, who had set up her own stall at the venue.

Talking about the theme of the conference, “Rediscovering Culture: Transforming Fashion”, Sunita Shankar, designer, told us, “It is time to initiate a dialogue on design evolution that is rooted in traditional crafts and textiles, addressing sustainability and finding a rhythm  with technology to move forward.” Shanker’s collection at the fashion show was inspired by traditional wear. She said, “The collection embodies and celebrates integration of varied traditional crafts. The look is contemporary, relaxed and chic, layered but linear.”

The event also witnessed a Bharatnatyam performance by a troupe from Odisha. The skilful and young group of artistes was a huge crowd-puller.

The day ended with an exclusive fashion show by former NIFTians, who showcased their designs to the audiences. These designers included Rajesh Pratap Singh, Manish Arora, Renuka Reddy, Tanira Sethi, Gaurav Jai Gupta and many more. Jewellery designs were also a part of the overall show.

“This is a period of reflection and transformation across the world. This makes it even more pressing for academic institutions to push their own horizons. Academic institutions should be in the forefront of research, to be the light-bearers for the world into the future,” said Swati Kalsi, an NIFT alumna who is today a renowned fashion designer. At the Delhi event, Kalsi showcased pieces from her collection called “Designs Journey”

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