Jamdani on Dover Street
Reposted from: The Hindu
As Varana welcomes London’s elite, graphic designer Sujata Keshavan tells us why she switched lanes and how this is the first Indian fashion experiment of its kind
Dover Street in London’s Mayfair, a neighbourhood salted with high fashion stores like Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton and Victoria Beckham, became the address of Varana on May 10. Spread across four floors that were previously occupied by Alexander McQueen, the womenswear boutique is a project by renowned graphic designer Sujata Keshavan, and her partners, Ravi Prasad and Meeta Malhotra. Their ambition is to deliver to the world an Indian luxury brand — a home-grown answer to Gucci or Hermes.
Few Indian companies are well known outside the country’s borders. There is the Taj Hotels and IT firms such as Infosys and Wipro, but nothing in the area of lifestyle. “Lots of manufacturing takes place here, but design always comes from there (abroad),” says Keshavan, the creative director. However, it is surprising that, for all the founders, Varana is their first experience of fashion. The 56-year-old, dressed in a simple shell pink Varana shirt scattered with embroidered flowers, says, “Design is a wide activity. Once you’re a designer, you can design all sorts of things, and across mediums. You work with a team of people so you’re like a conductor, but with a shared aesthetic.”
A ‘glocal’ outlook
Of the three — Prasad is the ex-chairman of Himalaya Herbals and Malhotra, a brand strategist — Keshavan is the most well known. As the former head of Ray + Keshavan, she was considered one of the most influential players in brand design, an area she’s seen develop from pre-Liberalisation times. Living in Bengaluru with her husband, historian Ramachandra Guha, she admits to pondering about a fashion brand for over a decade. She recalls having noticed Hong Kong clothing label, Shanghai Tang, and the Chinese luxury fashion brand, Shang Xia, and thinking it is high time India offered up a quality label. “Design can be transformative. Fashion is combining graphic design and architecture,” she explains.
The trio, who raised angel investment to start Varana, is attempting to set themselves apart from their peers by making ‘everyday’ clothes. “Indian designers are more about occasion wear, not something that can be worn daily,” says Prasad, the executive chairman, adding, “Our vocabulary is contemporary.” As someone who “likes clean lines and beautiful cuts”, Keshavan provides the “overall aesthetic filter”, supported by a talented, cosmopolitan team who are experts in tailored clothing. “Our tradition is the flat textile, the sari, the dhoti,” says Keshavan, who feels the technique of complex pattern making is not readily available here. “For example, we don’t have the skill to make a fantastic jacket. It’s a highly engineered product. France and Italy are the capitals of luxury garments; they know how to make complex patterns.”
Varana’s Bengaluru unit comprises French pattern maker Aurelie Lalande, Italian fashion designer Francesco Chiapperini, Japanese knitwear designer Marina Hiramatsu, and four textile designers from Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design — Pooja Jagadeesh, Radhika Patil, Sayan Chanda and Zosangpuii Pachuau. The founders have roped in Stefano Arienti, who was formerly with a company that made clothes for Prada, to handle quality control, and the business operations in London are handled by Marc Forestier, former MD of British fashion label, Joseph.
To appeal to a western audience while staying true to its Indian roots, Varana does clothes in cotton, silk, linen and cashmere, with modern cuts using material that has been woven or embellished using traditional Indian techniques. The team has been developing fabric since February 2015, which has meant working with weavers and artisans. For instance, the cashmere is from Ladakh, and the cottons from South India and Madhya Pradesh.
Among the pieces in the collection are dresses and shirts block-printed by hand, jamdani tunics, and bomber jackets withbandhani-style patterns. Trends have been studiously avoided. So while there are a few pieces that recall recent fashion week highlights, like roomy silk jackets, most of the cuts are classic. Since the spring-summer collection is currently on shelves, the colour palette is full of whites, pastels and summery prints as well as evening-appropriate darker hues. Aside from the clothes, the store also retails a line of Ayurvedic beauty products, under the label Almora Botanica (a sister brand, led by Prasad), which sources its raw materials from India and is manufactured in Switzerland.
One of her motives, Keshavan says, is to showcase Indian craftsmanship abroad and do away with the impression that India is only a factory of cheap goods. “We can make exquisite things, we have the hand skills,” she said, explaining how our artisans produce embroidery work for the world’s top brands but remain unknown. With buyers of luxury in Europe used to a certain level of quality, and the price that goes with it, at Varana, a plain linen shirt costs around £275 and a cashmere shawl can set you back by £10,000.
Of course, this isn’t the first time an Indian label has wooed the West. While a few, like Manish Arora and Anita Dongre, have stand-alone stores, several designers, including Anamika Khanna, Masaba and Sabyasachi, sell at multi-brand outlets. Manish Malhotra is reportedly opening a store in London this year, and Rahul Mishra, who currently retails at Corso Como in Milan, has plans to open 10 stores across 10 global fashion capitals in the next three years. “One of the biggest challenges for Indian brands going abroad is having the muscle power to sustain a store before it starts earning profit,” says Mishra. “They are going up against names like Dior, whose revenues for 2016 was €41.6 billion. I’m not saying a brand out of India cannot become a Dior; it will just take time, a lot of money, a great design ethos, and an amazing amount of branding.”
Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, feels that while it is tough to expect people who don’t know you or the brand to walk in and invest in your premium products (“a multi-designer store has more of a chance at success as there is diversity”), it’s good news that Indian labels are trying to make a mark. “We need people like them to take such a plunge,” he says.
Keshavan and team, who picked London as their launchpad as it’s closer to India than, say, New York, another of the world’s great fashion capitals, share that, so far, the store has been attracting shoppers from India and across the globe. As far as the Indian market goes, they’ve decided to wait till a time when bridal wear doesn’t weigh as heavily on the economics of the fashion industry because “Noor Jehan outfits”, as Keshavan likes to call them, are antithetical to their design aesthetic. For the moment, with plans to expand through online luxury retailers like Netaporter.com and Matchesfashion.com, she wants to concentrate on building a brand that becomes as recognisable as the best names in the world’s fashion firmament.
With her signature salt-and-pepper hair, Keshavan is regarded a pioneer in developing South Asia’s design industry. As creative director of Ray + Keshavan, the design firm she co-founded in 1989, her portfolio includes a variety of projects, the most memorable being Kotak Mahindra Bank, the Himalaya Drug Company and the international airports Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi.
Spread across 4,359 square feet, the shop has been designed by Keshavan and London-based architect, William Russell, a partner at the design firm Pentagram. With a muted colour scheme, wooden floors and stone walls, it is filled with artefacts hand-picked by Keshavan. An interesting feature is the window displays — bamboo sculptures of dresses created by Sandeep Sangaru, a furniture designer in Bengaluru.
Varana’s first collection is inspired by the Taj Mahal. The spring-summer line has sheer white shirts with embroidered flora, and dresses and pant suits hand block-printed with the geometric motifs found in the monument. Three traditional techniques that were in use at the time the Taj was built in the seventeenth century have been employed, too: aari embroidery (done with a sharp needle or awl), jamdani (the muslin weaving technique from Bengal), and wood block-printing from Rajasthan.
The article was first published in The Hindu