Having completed 50 years in the industry, designer Ritu Kumar has not just witnessed India’s fashion scene evolve, but has played an active part in it and made lasting contributions to our design heritage. She speaks to Swati Singh about her understanding of fashion, and about the global reach of India’s textile traditions.
Q. Last year in March, a wide range of your designs, photographs and paintings were exhibited at a show entitled Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar, at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. The exhibition marked your 50th year in the world of fashion, and one of its underlying themes was travel. How have your travels helped you grow as a designer? What have they added to your understanding of fashion?
A. As soon as I embarked on my quest to become a designer in the 1960s, I pursued my habit of making notes, taking timely pictures and creating artistic impressions on canvas of the places I visited. Along the way, I documented the crafts of artisans. Now all these visual elements were brought to life for the public through this exhibition at the India Habitat Centre.
Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar traced my almost 50 years of travels across South Asia and Europe. Part-professional memoirs, part-musings of an art enthusiast, part-personal reflections on the historical regions I visited—the show was, perhaps, the only known example of a multiform travelogue authored by a designer in post-Independence India.
I feel we have a rich culture of textiles. This exhibition was proof of that. I hope we can still retain it. However, due to commercialisation, mechanisation and not enough encouragement and patronage, I feel we are at a crossroads in India. Hence the name of the exhibition. As in the rest of the world, in India too we may lose our crafts and textiles because the next generation may not take any interest in them. This has happened in most cultures.
Q. Fifty years and counting, how has your journey been in the fashion industry till now?
A. The journey has been a very eventful one and it has enriched my experience with increased interest in the textiles of this country. It has been a fabulous story which I never thought would ever be possible to live through. And this industry in India is very different and special; it cannot be compared to those of any other part of the world.
Q.What sort of challenges did you have to overcome in the early phases of your career, when you were trying to establish yourself as a young designer?
A. I think every year is a challenge in the fashion business. The challenges change as time goes on. In the early days, the challenge for me really was to break out of a very conservative society and become the open and liberal person that you are dealing with today.
Q. You have always been interested in the history and the future of Indian textiles. Are there any similarities between textile crafts as practiced in India and the West? Also, tell us about the textile links that India shares with West Asia and Europe.
A. I feel we have a very rich printing tradition which was taken from India to Europe, where they copied all our designs and made them look as if they were theirs. This is our link with Europe, which took advantage of our prints. In the East, Cambodia also used our ikats. So India has been the central hub from where different textiles traditions have travelled to different parts of the world.
Designs of the huge pashmina shawls, which I showcased at the Crossroads exhibition, were also copied in Europe in a very big way. These shawls are more than 100 years old, and had come to Bengal. All Maharajas used to wear Kashmiri shawls. And I procured these from dealers. The shawls have been woven with kani weaves. Today’s shawls are embroidered and are not made in kani weaves. What we get today is a commercial version of pashmina. We want to highlight all this in our country where we still have a strong tradition of textiles, unlike in other parts of the world.
Q. Which materials or fabrics do you personally like working with the most?
A. I strongly believe in preserving the legacy of art forms, and believe in heritage. India has a rich textile tradition with multiple dimensions, such as embroideries, weaving, printing and dyeing. So a typical Ritu Kumar design would have pure textiles, traditional embroideries, highlighting the craft heritage of our country.
Q. In the past, you have worked on a khadi collection as well. What’s your take on how khadi is taking over the fashion industry in our time?
A. I don’t think any one fabric is taking over the fashion industry. Khadi is as prevalent as other fabrics. It just depends on the kind of market you are dealing with. Khadi is always going to be exclusive and a very special fabric. A)Because it is difficult to get; and B) Because it needs a certain look to go along with it. It will never “take over” but will always add new dimensions to Indian fashion.
Q. What according to you is the USP of your fashion house?
A. Design and textile in India are products of skills and wisdom passed down across generations. Ritu Kumar, the brand, has always embraced this heritage. This is the USP of all our lines. My work is constantly evolving within an aesthetic which is sophisticated both in the Eastern and the Western sense. Each of our collections makes a contemporary statement in a fast-changing modern India.
The Brand Ritu Kumar has been retailing in Europe and India since the 1970s. Our fashion house has three distinct brands. RI, a premium couture bridal and formal wear line. Ritu Kumar, a traditional prêt brand offering ethnic daily and semi-formal wear. And Label, the affordable fashion-forward line that is aimed at the young, global Indian woman with a contemporary lifestyle.
Q. How has the fashion landscape in India evolved over the last few decades?
A. One of the main changes in the fashion landscape is that it has become much more open and aware of what’s happening internationally. It’s no longer restricted to what your mother told you to wear, but has an international as well as an Indian dimension to it. Because of that, I think the wardrobes in India are very rich and more vibrant than anywhere else in the world. That is the exceptional thing about our fashion landscape.
Q. These days,designers all over the world are becoming more and more conscious of sustainable fashion. How important is this development for the industry?
A. Many designers are working towards bringing sustainable fashion back on the fashion map, and with great success. Their projects are not only putting the spotlight on the craftsmanship, but also on the craftspeople and on their places of origin. By highlighting an important aspect of our heritage, they are making people around them more conscious while also helping the art stay alive. Beauty should never die for the sake of convenience, and that’s the idea these designers are preserving and taking forward.
Q. Tell us how your collaboration with Bollywood actress Aditi Rao Hydari came about last year.
A. Our Autumn-Winter 2018 campaign featured Aditi Rao Hydari. Aditi and our family have known each other ever since Aditi was a kid. She has spent days in my house growing up, surrounded by her brother, Amrish, and their cousins. So this collaboration was a natural fit.
The Ritu Kumar woman is constantly evolving. She possesses an innate sense of self, is strong, resilient while also being sophisticated, refined and stylish. She’s earthy and has an effortless, understated grace about her. Aditi embodies those qualities very organically; she is an extension of all these qualities.
Q. Are you in any way working towards nurturing and supporting young design talent in this country?
A. We have now expanded our design studios, both in Calcutta and Delhi. So we invite interns as well as senior designers to come and take on projects with us. This helps them gain experience and they also help us with our collections. This is no longer a one-man show.
Q. How do you see the year 2019 panning out in terms of fashion trends?
A. The focus this summer is on minimalism. Florals, ruffles, off-shoulder tops and sheer dresses in subtle colours will be in vogue. Figure-flattering silhouettes that are classic, feminine and sleek pants with beautiful fits will also be among the favourites.
Q.Tell us about the projects you are currently working on.
A. As of now, I’m working on a book, which is kind of my textile travelogue. My company is of course heading on to do their summer and winter lines as usual for all three brands. We are also expanding into home furnishing; this was something we would keep doing sporadically whenever there was the space and the time to do it. And we always did cushions, quilts and so on. But now there will be a full-fledged revival of Indian prints through our home collection.
Q. In conclusion, what’s your fashion statement?
A. Be comfortable with who you are and what you wear.