Small world: Rashmi Varma


Small world: Rashmi Varma

The designer's vision of Indian craft and western modernity gives us the global nomad's uniform

By Nidhi Jacob  May 25th, 2015

We’re sitting in Rashmi Varma’s well-used (read organisedly chaotic) Shahpur Jat studio in Delhi, chatting over chai and biscotti as she haggles with one of her tailors about taking the next day off — it’s the Cricket World Cup final. As the gentle tussle veers off (he won), I begin to get an idea of how Varma runs her business — with honesty (she’s transparent about where she sources her fabrics from, whether it’s a nagging journo or one of her employees asking), with a slow intensity (she skipped a couple of seasons to perfect her existing collections) and with genuine respect for Indian craft and culture (she has worked on her Hindi to create the best possible team, and accepted textile grants to travel across India). And to think she nearly didn’t get to be the designer she is today. “I mean, I wanted to study fashion, but my parents were like, no!” she exclaims, recounting her journey from Montreal to Delhi, political science student to fashion designer.

After mucking around with her studies, Varma finally swayed her parents into letting her do the closest thing to fashion: interior design. She went to a local design school and then moved to Toronto in 1999 to work with a small architecture firm, doing “the most unglamourous jobs — equivalents of McDonalds and Burger Kings”. But this was her introduction to design; where she realised that she could process her creative ideas into reality. When the corporate-ness of the job got to her, she decided to bide her time. So she worked in a little boutique in her neighbourhood, recycled her old garments to make one-off pieces, took sewing classes and did film/theatre costume gigs.

Somewhere you get the feeling that the realism that film and theatre often demands is what really prepared her for her current situation — catering to women of multiple ethnicities, body types and personalities. “When you’re shooting a 300 background cast and you have two hours to size up each person’s body type, you become so much more connected with clothing. You should be able to tell how wide a person is without a measuring tape. And then it has to look good.” The variety that her 30-piece S/S 2015 line offers is really a testament to the tips and pointers she’s picked up along the way — a draped jersey dress that miraculously nips and tucks wherever needed, a sari-dress that flashes some leg, baggy khadi jeans sprinkled with shisha.

Something for everyone who treasures their roots but cannot be defined by it — women like herself, “cool, international, nomadic cosmopolites”, she explains, and adds, “The one thing I know about these clothes are they work well in different places; in Delhi, London, New York, Toronto, Tokyo, and they have something intrinsically Indian about them but not necessarily obvious.” Although, despite all her worldly ways, Varma couldn’t ignore the call of India. She tried to set shop here back in 2005, “I rented a little apartment in Delhi. Found a tailor. Rented a machine and made a small collection,” she recalls. It did fairly well too; she got the line into four stores in Canada, London and New York. She came back to make another, but couldn’t sustain the business. “It was too much money. I was probably too young,” Varma says. So she returned to Toronto, did big projects like Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth (2008) and, the Lisa Ray and Kabir Bedi-starring play, Taj, till she was finally ready to give India and her designing career a second go. “In 2012, I got rid of my stuff, put all my own money in and got this studio.”

A little more than two years down the line, Varma has churned out two spring/summer lines. The first (2014) featured chevron chikan work, minimalistic dabka embroidery and khadi drapes — a pretty accurate representation of the modern Indian aesthete. The second, this year, played with more traditional craft in super-contemporary shapes. There’s khadi denim frayed skirts, colourful mashru pantsuits and kala cotton bomber jackets. There’s restraint in the use of the crafts and a respect for tradition. “I’m neither a minimalist nor a maximalist, but I can be both at the same time. Like with the shisha, I’ll use it in a very repetitive way, I won’t add 50 million elements, I’ll add one element and multiply it like 10,000 times,” she explains. Also, her pieces with their pleating and draping often imbibe the familiarity of Indian silhouettes but made so fresh, you know you’re not being sold just another sari hybrid. “I’m looking at the everyday here, what people are wearing on the streets, like the woman doing construction, wearing her sari. Isn’t that amazing?” she asks earnestly. I have to agree with her.

While she’s plotting her travel wish list — Pochampally for ikats, Chennai for checks, Kashmir for aari work — Varma is also trying to get her F/W 2015-16 line into shape. “I need to be really on time with stuff, become more comfortable with my design decisions. I’d like to develop my own fabrics, spend more time in villages working with these guys,” she says. The challenges of being a young designer with a conscience are many. I bring up the trendy but pertinent topic of being sustainable in your craft and business. Is it now equal to dropping names to get ahead in the race? Varma tries to answer these uncomfortable questions, “The word itself — sustainable — means so many different things and is used so loosely right now; like the word organic, with food, which is used all the time. I’m not claiming that I’m sustainable at all. But there are elements of what we are trying to do towards sustainability.”

And these include natural dyes over chemicals (although right now, it’s a half-and-half mix of indigo and chemicals), using semi-mechanised khadi and paying her artisans a little more than the fair trade mark. “But it’s expensive,” she says, “if you want to really start practising all that; if I wanted all my fabrics to be handwoven and natural-dyed, and if I wanted to pay my guys something like, let’s say, what somebody in the West was making. So it’s about taking it step by step, really.”

Varma is taking it one day at a time, one craft at a time and one collection at a time, “This is as focused as I have been in my life, in terms of doing one thing.” But it’ll never be as simple. Not with her global identity, “I hate the word fusion! But it’s the hybrid of who I am. A little bit of Canadian French, British Colonialism, Indian — all of this is kind of mixed in.”

Flip through the gallery to see pieces from her Spring/Summer 15 collection

Photograph: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Arushi Parakh: Make-up and hair: Sonam Kapoor

On Rashmi: Shisha cotton jumper, khadi denim skirt; both Rashmi Varma. Metal bangle, leather shoes; both her own. On Vikki: Khadi cotton sari-dress, Rashmi Varma. Leather wedges, Clarks. Metal jewellery; all Bhane

Model: Vikki Pandey/Vogati models; Location courtesy: Delhi Rock, New Delhi

 

 

We’re sitting in Rashmi Varma’s well-used (read organisedly chaotic) Shahpur Jat studio in Delhi, chatting over chai and biscotti as she haggles with one of her tailors about taking the next day off — it’s the Cricket World Cup final. As the gentle tussle veers off (he won), I begin to get an idea of how Varma runs her business — with honesty (she’s transparent about where she sources her fabrics from, whether it’s a nagging journo or one of her employees asking), with a slow intensity (she skipped a couple of seasons to perfect her existing collections) and with genuine respect for Indian craft and culture (she has worked on her Hindi to create the best possible team, and accepted textile grants to travel across India). And to think she nearly didn’t get to be the designer she is today. “I mean, I wanted to study fashion, but my parents were like, no!” she exclaims, recounting her journey from Montreal to Delhi, political science student to fashion designer.

After mucking around with her studies, Varma finally swayed her parents into letting her do the closest thing to fashion: interior design. She went to a local design school and then moved to Toronto in 1999 to work with a small architecture firm, doing “the most unglamourous jobs — equivalents of McDonalds and Burger Kings”. But this was her introduction to design; where she realised that she could process her creative ideas into reality. When the corporate-ness of the job got to her, she decided to bide her time. So she worked in a little boutique in her neighbourhood, recycled her old garments to make one-off pieces, took sewing classes and did film/theatre costume gigs.

Somewhere you get the feeling that the realism that film and theatre often demands is what really prepared her for her current situation — catering to women of multiple ethnicities, body types and personalities. “When you’re shooting a 300 background cast and you have two hours to size up each person’s body type, you become so much more connected with clothing. You should be able to tell how wide a person is without a measuring tape. And then it has to look good.” The variety that her 30-piece S/S 2015 line offers is really a testament to the tips and pointers she’s picked up along the way — a draped jersey dress that miraculously nips and tucks wherever needed, a sari-dress that flashes some leg, baggy khadi jeans sprinkled with shisha.

Something for everyone who treasures their roots but cannot be defined by it — women like herself, “cool, international, nomadic cosmopolites”, she explains, and adds, “The one thing I know about these clothes are they work well in different places; in Delhi, London, New York, Toronto, Tokyo, and they have something intrinsically Indian about them but not necessarily obvious.” Although, despite all her worldly ways, Varma couldn’t ignore the call of India. She tried to set shop here back in 2005, “I rented a little apartment in Delhi. Found a tailor. Rented a machine and made a small collection,” she recalls. It did fairly well too; she got the line into four stores in Canada, London and New York. She came back to make another, but couldn’t sustain the business. “It was too much money. I was probably too young,” Varma says. So she returned to Toronto, did big projects like Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth (2008) and, the Lisa Ray and Kabir Bedi-starring play, Taj, till she was finally ready to give India and her designing career a second go. “In 2012, I got rid of my stuff, put all my own money in and got this studio.”

A little more than two years down the line, Varma has churned out two spring/summer lines. The first (2014) featured chevron chikan work, minimalistic dabka embroidery and khadi drapes — a pretty accurate representation of the modern Indian aesthete. The second, this year, played with more traditional craft in super-contemporary shapes. There’s khadi denim frayed skirts, colourful mashru pantsuits and kala cotton bomber jackets. There’s restraint in the use of the crafts and a respect for tradition. “I’m neither a minimalist nor a maximalist, but I can be both at the same time. Like with the shisha, I’ll use it in a very repetitive way, I won’t add 50 million elements, I’ll add one element and multiply it like 10,000 times,” she explains. Also, her pieces with their pleating and draping often imbibe the familiarity of Indian silhouettes but made so fresh, you know you’re not being sold just another sari hybrid. “I’m looking at the everyday here, what people are wearing on the streets, like the woman doing construction, wearing her sari. Isn’t that amazing?” she asks earnestly. I have to agree with her.

While she’s plotting her travel wish list — Pochampally for ikats, Chennai for checks, Kashmir for aari work — Varma is also trying to get her F/W 2015-16 line into shape. “I need to be really on time with stuff, become more comfortable with my design decisions. I’d like to develop my own fabrics, spend more time in villages working with these guys,” she says. The challenges of being a young designer with a conscience are many. I bring up the trendy but pertinent topic of being sustainable in your craft and business. Is it now equal to dropping names to get ahead in the race? Varma tries to answer these uncomfortable questions, “The word itself — sustainable — means so many different things and is used so loosely right now; like the word organic, with food, which is used all the time. I’m not claiming that I’m sustainable at all. But there are elements of what we are trying to do towards sustainability.”

And these include natural dyes over chemicals (although right now, it’s a half-and-half mix of indigo and chemicals), using semi-mechanised khadi and paying her artisans a little more than the fair trade mark. “But it’s expensive,” she says, “if you want to really start practising all that; if I wanted all my fabrics to be handwoven and natural-dyed, and if I wanted to pay my guys something like, let’s say, what somebody in the West was making. So it’s about taking it step by step, really.”

Varma is taking it one day at a time, one craft at a time and one collection at a time, “This is as focused as I have been in my life, in terms of doing one thing.” But it’ll never be as simple. Not with her global identity, “I hate the word fusion! But it’s the hybrid of who I am. A little bit of Canadian French, British Colonialism, Indian — all of this is kind of mixed in.”

Flip through the gallery to see pieces from her Spring/Summer 15 collection

Photograph: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Arushi Parakh: Make-up and hair: Sonam Kapoor

On Rashmi: Shisha cotton jumper, khadi denim skirt; both Rashmi Varma. Metal bangle, leather shoes; both her own. On Vikki: Khadi cotton sari-dress, Rashmi Varma. Leather wedges, Clarks. Metal jewellery; all Bhane

Model: Vikki Pandey/Vogati models; Location courtesy: Delhi Rock, New Delhi