The rise of Anavila Misra
Her easy-to-wear linen saris are born from stories of her childhood and a passion for craft
Anavila Misra is only two fashion weeks old, but has already earned herself steady followers who love her languidly draped linen saris in muted colours, with satiny selvedges. Fans of her designs include actor Konkona Sen Sharma (who made a rare runway appearance as Misra’s showstopper at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2014-15, in a loosely draped, shimmering bronze sari), singer Shubha Mudgal, set designer Anuradha Parekh, actors Priyanka Bose, Rani Mukerji, Deepti Naval, Kajol and famed launcher-of-blouse styles Vidya Balan. Then there’s Rashmi Thackeray (wife of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray), as well as a woman named Rajini in Hyderabad, who has lovingly gathered a collection of 50 saris spanning Misra’s career, from 2010 to today. “My saris appeal to women like them, who are more natural in their style, and not uptight,” says Misra, when we meet over coffee in her sunlit studio in Mumbai. “Women who are looking for comfort and elegance.”
Until a few years ago, comfort was the last word anyone associated with this garment, which was seen as a mark of virtuous femininity that smothered its wearers with silk on auspicious occasions, or was starched and pinned into submission. “We think we need to be ‘proper’ in a sari,” says Misra, “I wanted to break that mould to show the ease with which it can be worn.”
Linen turned out to be a great way to change perceptions. Misra was amazed that nobody had tried to fashion a linen sari before, given that the fabric was light, breathable and versatile. “There were some weavers in West Bengal making linen stoles for export to Japan,” she recalled, “but nobody had tried to make a pure linen sari, because it’s a tricky yarn to handle, with its long staple length that breaks easily when it’s dry.” Misra later learned that there had been a few trials, but the thick and unwieldy results, made of the 60-count yarn available at the time, just didn’t work. (Hers, which are light and fine and fall fluidly, are loose, open weaves, typically made of a 120-count yarn.)
Luckily for Misra, during a previous three-year stint working with artisans for the Ministry of Rural Development, she had met a few weavers from Phulia in West Bengal willing to take on the challenge. After a few trials, they produced a collection of 15 saris that she was pleased with. The saris had a character that have now become part of Misra’s signature style: “Very basic, organic linen in natural or indigo tones, with contrast selvedge and geometric, grid-like patterns.” She took these experiments, along with wall-art made by women in Dumka, Jharkhand, to Artisans’, Kala Ghoda’s famous exhibition space for indigenous art and craft. The wall-art did pretty well, but the linen saris sold out in no time. Emboldened by this success, Misra began to focus on developing the yarn and an aesthetic that would suit her sensibility, and that of the “small market” she saw. It has expanded over the last four years; Misra has scaled up production to 60 weavers who turn out 100 saris a month, to be sold in 10 boutiques across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai.
Misra’s inspirations are far- ranging, but her creative muses are to be found closer home — in every craft cluster she’s ever worked in, which she says are much like textile museums, and often, in the artisans themselves. Her first collection, ‘The secret life of forests’ — which she debuted at Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2014, with its muted, burnished colours and surprising little embellishments (dragonflies or a deer peering out from behind a pallu) — was inspired by the 12 Santhal women she’s worked with for six years. “They used to tell me about going into the forests in Jharkhand to gather wood,” says Misra, “and suddenly seeing a group of bees, or a strange bright bird, a bloom in the middle of a patch of green, or vibrant red berries on a dried tree.” Her latest collection, ‘Mohenjo Daro’, sought inspiration from the earthy tones, bronze tools and town layouts of this civilisation.
Shot through all these, and Misra’s saris in general, is her conviction that they are textural experiences to be enjoyed. “I love the raw, the unkempt, the organic, and the grainy texture you can only get from linen.” This love “for playing with textures of nature” is one that she traces back to growing up in Karnal, a small town in UP, with frequent trips to her father’s ancestral village, Hashupur. “Until I was in class 9, I used to go there every holiday, and spend weeks playing in farms. I would climb mango trees and explore my father’s beautiful kitchen garden in the National Dairy Research Institute, where he grew millet, watermelon, strawberries. I had a very botanical, very earthy childhood.”
Misra is now working on a few ideas for her next collection, which will include garments for the very first time, after years of clamouring from dedicated customers. She’s made two prototypes she’s happy with so far, both silken, seamless linen kurtas with gently moulded silhouettes. “My garments will have the same sensibility as the saris,” she says. “There won’t be any overemphasised necklines or embellishments. They’ll be classic, comfortable clothes; the kind you can just wear, and then, forget that you’re wearing.”
Photograph: Sushant Chhabria; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Make-up and Hair: Devika Heroor