Abraham And Thakore’s Modern Indian Label Completes 25 Years In Fashion

Why does fashion touch us the way it does? Because it tells us stories. Stories about the people we are, and the people we want to become. Stories of our world and the culture we live in. From the power colour wields to evoke emotion, to the complex narratives we use daily to communicate our beliefs and status—clothing is the skin we choose to package our bodies and emotional lives in.

Fashion in India is an especially curious beast. The reality of trends exists more on the streets of the country’s cities and towns, than on the runway. And while international trends are acknowledged and followed, our culture and tastes often make us reinterpret them to suit our local proclivity.

Over the course of our career—we just celebrated the 25th anniversary of our label, Abraham & Thakore—we have steadfastly championed design that stems from the power of indigenous, handwoven textiles. Until 2010, our marketing focus was the West—the traditional fabrics we used were consciously tweaked to suit that market.

Besides the climate, social and cultural constructs, too, dictated the interplay of silhouettes and proportions in combination with the layering of garments. So, for one, we had to be mindful of colour—not only did we need to adapt to the quality of light in the western hemisphere, but we had to be mindful of a wider range of skin tones as well. That extraordinary splash of rani pink against turmeric that had so captivated us in Delhi, looked tawdry in the grey London light.

With regards to the physical structure, we found that many of our fabrics, such as handwoven Mangalagiri cotton from Andhra Pradesh, Maheshwar silk cotton weaves, and the exquisite Jamdani cotton of West Bengal performed more successfully in our Spring/Summer collections, which comprised light, unconstructed garments. Creating winter dressing was a challenge.Our traditional wool fabrics, many woven for use as shawls, were at times too fluid for the Western aesthetic.

Over the years, our design briefs were shaped by international colours, trends and textile forecasts, along with the endless stream of runway images from London, Paris and Milan. Feedback from our key buyers in London and Paris was important too. Admittedly, it was exciting learning a new vocabulary and codes of dressing.

Then, in 2010, when we presented our first-ever Indian runway collection at the fashion week hosted by the Fashion Design Council of India, it turned out to be an oddly liberating experience. Perhaps it was the comfort of the home turf, or the ability to design clothing that maximise the potential of our very particular textile base. Or, then, that we were using a familiar vocabulary to create a fashion sensibility that would fit this environment.

The design requirements of a woman in Chennai or Delhi can be quite different from that of a woman in Europe. Growing up in Bengaluru, my mother, a Peranakan-Chinese from Malaya, wore sarongs with open-front voile blouses called kebayas. And into this eclectic mix of ‘fashion’ at home, my Syrian-Christian grandmother brought the crisp white ‘chatta mundu’. I knew few women who wore dresses, as most either draped a sari, or wore tunics with trousers. Working women wore a sari or a salwar kameez. Layered dressing usually meant shawls and cardigans thrown over anything (even housecoats) when evenings turned nippy. Skirts, overcoats, jackets, tights and jumpers were not everyday clothing.

Climate influences clothing everywhere, and this in turn affects the structure of apparel textiles. While some parts of India do experience winter, the weather mostly ranges from hot to less hot, to more hot to wet-hot. Unstitched clothing, such as the sari, so very well-suited to our climate, requires fabrics that drape and wrap easily. The salwar kameez also has a relatively easy fit, with softness and drape in the dupatta, and an adjustable waist in the salwar. Traditional skirts like the ghagra are free-sized with drawstring waists. Fabrics woven for such apparel lend themselves easily to unstructured clothing, rather than to the definition and structure required by a lot of Western clothing. Finding a balance between the clothing sensibilities of the Indian and Western markets engaged us in a fascinating interchange of ideas and dialogue.

I like the word ‘syncretism’. The dictionary defines it as, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”. Many traditional Indian textiles exemplify a syncretic approach to design. Motifs from Dutch pattern books are an intrinsic part of Kalamkari textiles, China patterns have been absorbed into Banaras brocades in the form of Gyasar work, and Persian motifs are still used in many textile forms. This uncanny ability of the Indian craftsperson—due in no small part to the desire to trade with buyers from all over the world—helped create this rich syncretic design vocabulary, which made India the largest textile manufacturer in the world, before its decline and suppression under colonial rule.

Every Abraham & Thakore collection explores new ways of looking at traditional Indian textiles and silhouettes, reinterpreting them in a modern fashion language. In 2011, for a collection inspired by menswear, we wove a houndstooth pattern into a double ikat sari and teamed it with a men’s shirt. We also designed a man’s traditional angarkha silhouette in houndstooth silk ikat, and pairedit with cropped skinny pants. For our most recent collection, which is inspired by the traditions of woodblock printing, we teamed bold, graphic, block-printed lungis with Nehru jackets. Always inspired by the world around us, we find that the rich and intense variety of colours, shapes and silhouettes on Delhi’s streets, at its malls and weddings, makes for a kaleidoscope of visual influence. From the woman in the multicoloured ghagra selling roses at the traffic light to the cool kids of urban India hanging out at the mall, to the richly embroidered, heavily encrusted fare at a Delhi wedding. Into this mix, throw in the digital feed on our smartphones—that veritable deluge of diverse imagery from far-flung sources around the globe at our fingertips—and it all comes together and feeds back into our consciousness. What better way to expand our design legacy beyond borders?

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