Roughly six years ago, at an exhibition in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, I struck up a conversation with a slightly built, convivial vendor who introduced himself as Sanjay Garg. Piled up in front of him was a near-toppling stack of handloom saris and fabric. We talked of intellectualism, urbanisation and Bollywood and, somewhere in between, he convinced me to buy (what seemed at the time) an expensive Chanderi in tightly arranged strips of sea green, gold and silver. “Girls in urban India don't want to wear handlooms today, let alone a sari,” he had said, “But hopefully you will.”
Things have changed. Not only has a section of urban India been swept up in a revival of interest in handloom saris, Indian prêt is in the early throes of transformation. Enough so that six years after starting Raw Mango saris, Garg announced an eponymous second label last year, to take his brand of weaving beyond unstitched garments to tailored pieces, but with the sentimentality intact.
Last month, Garg was chosen to open Amazon India Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2016. His 2015 collection (he doesn’t follow fashion’s seasons, electing instead to create only one collection a year) cast the runway in bridal red, betel-nut-leaf green, sharbat pink and brinjal purple (the English colour palette falls short of parallels). There were barely any saris, instead there was the Kutchi abha paired with cigarette pants, lehengas with calf-length kurtas, Kashmiri phirans and stiff skirts with boxy tops, all in variations of gulbadan (with its floral motifs), danedar (resembling polka dots with floats of cotton weft) and ashrafi, a circular motif reflective of ancient coins. It was an ode to Mashru textile, which came to India through the silk route and was woven in Gujarat, the Deccan and Uttar Pradesh. Silk on the outside, cotton on the inside, Mashru was originally developed with a nod to Sharia law (which doesn’t permit the wearing of silk against the skin), and a wink to good living.
The Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango used to baulk at the idea of a fashion show, but as founder of the label Sanjay Garg, he seems to embrace it. “I never said I was against fashion shows; I just don’t believe they will ever be right for Raw Mango,” he clarifies. We’re sitting at Garg’s haveli-like studio in Delhi’s Chattarpur Farms. About a year ago, he moved his home next door. The overarching visual identity of his study is derived from his broad selection of books — on the birds of North Africa, Danish design, the sultans of Deccan India, the vanishing Kodavas — rows upon rows of them, all neatly labelled and organised into bookshelves. Elsewhere in the room, more discreetly stored, are precious samples of old saris and fabric that he ferrets out of homes and traders to use as inspiration and succour; here a Garhwal, there a Kanjeevaram, all waiting to be reinvented. Voices ebb and flow around us, a customer has come to pick up an order, assistants mill about. Above us, 25 tailors sit across three floors starting on the orders pouring in. “I laughed when I was offered the opening slot — who could’ve imagined a day when textiles would be opening Fashion Week?”
Garg is not ideologically attached to fashion; stitched garments merely allow him a platform for his artistic practice, born of the desire to take his engagement with the loom to the next level. “Value addition doesn’t come through surface embellishment alone. For me, adding value is about innovating on the loom; enhancing the skill set of the weaver himself.” So it’s the textile that gives birth to the garment and not the other way around: a lehenga is designed on the loom because its panels are developed a certain way. “And that’s why I’m still a textile guy and not a fashion designer… never mind how you journalists see me,” he laughs. (Journalists, in his world, are both boon and bugbear, no offence taken.)
Garg tries to drive that distinction home often. He refers to his runway shows as garment presentations, his studio bears neither name nor obvious branding, and his lookbooks are artful but stark and textile-museum-catalogue-like. The presentation and buying experiences, he believes, must stay true to the values of the brand. After his debut showing at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2014-15, Garg decided to bring the same collection to what he believes is its rightful home: Delhi. He fashioned a runway setting out of his Angoori Badi garden for a private showing in October last year; oil lamps were lit, jasmine garlands strung up, and amid cocktails and conversation, he sent out shararas, maxi dresses, long jackets and brocade lehengas, all made with the Benaresi Kadwa technique.
No part of the transition from designing unstitched to stitched garments was easy, he says: “Pattern-cutting was a nightmare.” Interestingly, he’s stuck to traditional Indian flat-cutting, with geometry as its base — a kurta is thus made up of rectangles, squares and triangles, but don’t ever mention to him that the patterns are reminiscent of a kimono. “So we all know the kimono, yet think the anarkali is the only Indian cut for a kurta?” will be his retort.
He’s done something right because his work certainly hasn’t lacked admirers. Jaya Jaitley, Laila Tyabji, Chiki Sarkar and Dayanita Singh are friends often seen in the front row — or front row guests-turned-friends. There are associations that have been established and deepened by his tendency to eschew models for “real” women in Raw Mango’s catalogues: magazine editors, anthropologists, communications executives and design entrepreneurs, figures at once languorous and self-aware; lounging on a bed, sitting at the dining table, walking a dog — frozen tableaus from everyday life, with the sari front and centre.
As the sari was becoming the unlikely peg in a new modern Indian narrative, there was also a parallel metamorphosis underway in Indian prêt. A whole new guard of designers has been emerging in a sort of ripple effect — péro by Aneeth Arora, Eka, Anavila, Bodice, 11.11/eleven eleven among others (several of them are Garg’s friends) — and they’re creating clothing familiar in textile, but carving a bold new path that is unpretentious, pared down and self-consciously bland.
If Raw Mango was a reaction to us drowning in western fashion, Sanjay Garg seems like an alternate narrative to this new subversive “Indian” style of minimalism. “Unfortunately, it became attached to this pseudo-intellectual identity that says everything is cool when it’s loose, rough and cotton or linen — and now there are 25 brands that do that. I wanted to create an alternative and develop a handloom brand that was opulent but not embroidered.” Not that he’s making a value judgment, he adds. “We don’t want everybody to be doing embroidery, just like we don’t want everybody to suddenly swing this way and be doing handloom.” He sweeps things around his desk deliberately to illustrate. “There’s room for all. We need gays and straight people, liberals and conservatives, Mamata Banerjee and Akbaruddin Owaisi.”
Garg admits he’s slightly worried that all the media attention he’s been getting lately is indicative of a fleeting fascination. “I’ve been worried about this elitist bubble from the beginning. And it is elitist, because for a large percentage of Indian women, what they wear has largely remained unchanged.” Then he adds: “How do I stop people from calling me the current darling of the fashion world? It is so problematic.” He wants his buyers to make studied choices about what they wear, not be swayed by what the fashion press deems current and fashionable, and he, for his part, is willing to work hard to educate, to overturn perceptions, like the ones that say silk is expensive but suti is not, that Chanderi isn’t durable, that Kanjeevaram can’t be contemporary.
About a week before the interview, Sanjay Garg had played impeccable host to a post-show party, one I’d had the pleasure of attending. Food and drink flowed at his Angoori Badi studio and the music and dance raged till 3am. His friends from the fraternity were in full attendance, as were smatterings of the Delhi arty set. “Did you notice something that night?” he asks, “Not a single girl at my party was wearing a skimpy dress or showing cleavage — and no one wore heels. It’s part of this new sensibility: everyone is covered up.” Perhaps, I think later, or more likely, this: there is a new sense of pluralism among India’s urban young — of religious beliefs, of cultural values, references and wardrobe. Where a pair of ripped jeans sits comfortably alongside a tailored blazer, an unstructured khadi shift dress and a Sanjay Garg phiran. And perhaps that is the world that will always look to and esteem Garg and his memory-keeping.
On his muse: Garg's sister Prerna, an advertising professional, is his constant muse. Not just because she is family, but also because she is exactly the kind of woman he likes to dress: independent, progressive, intelligent and unafraid to be herself (sans make-up, heels and any fashion props) — “She doesn't care about being 'cool'."
Photographs: Nishanth Radhakrishnan (Prerna Garg), Gulshan Sachdeva (Runway); Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Make-Up And Hair: Shallu Chandla