India no longer cheap shopping destination: Ritu Kumar (Interview)

December 10th, 2008 - 11:35 am ICT by IANS  

Princess DianaNew Delhi, Dec 10 (IANS) Ritu Kumar, the high priestess of Indian fashion, feels India is no longer a place where foreigners come to look for the best bargains as it has made an exclusive place for itself on the global fashion map.”To put it candidly, India was always a place where people came to buy cheap. It is changing now. Along with China, India’s fabrics, designs and textiles are going places. The country is no more the place where people, especially foreigners, can buy cheap,” Kumar told IANS in an interview.

The French government Monday honoured Kumar with the prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) in recognition of her contribution to Indian fashion.

“It is nice to have an acceptance of our own cultural heritage, which is what this award is all about,” the 64-year-old designer said.

At present, Kumar is working out of Jaipur. “I am partnering with the craftsmen and block printers of Bagru and Sanganer on the outskirts of Jaipur and with clusters of local weavers who make handloom fabrics,” she said.

Her focus is ‘rangrez’ or tie-and-dye, the traditional fabric of Rajasthan, block prints and stylised ‘bootis’ (circular and floral motifs).

“The bootis have remained unchanged over the decades. I am trying to take the basic ethnicity as well as the roots and give it a modern kind of feeling,” Kumar said.

Born Nov 11, 1944, Kumar studied in Briarcliff College in New York in 1966 after graduating from Lady Irwin College in New Delhi in 1964.

Kumar has been credited with creating Indian pret-a-porter or ready-to-wear clothes from traditional fabrics and using indigenous techniques for haute couture. She has clothed the late Princess Diana, Jemima Khan, Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and almost all the winners of the Miss India title.

The House of Ritu Kumar, which completed 40 years in 2008, began modestly in West Bengal with two tables and four hand block printers from the countryside in the 1960s. She has experimented with almost all the Bengal village weaves - from the khadi of Nabadweep to the dhaga of Ranihati.

“I ventured into designing by accident,” Kumar said with a laugh. “In the 1960s, the concept of textile in fashion did not exist. It was more of a subject of study.”

So Kumar studied textiles across the state and then the country through its crafts - before drifting to fashion.

Kumar gave Delhi its first boutique in 1966. She recalls how all her friends turned models for her first show at The Trincas in Kolkata in the 1970s.

However, her signature show was the Tree of Life in 1989 - put together at the request of the Crafts Museum in Delhi. It was exhibited both in India and abroad several times. Her new perfume line - an array of sandalwood based floral fragrances that was launched in September - is also known as the Tree of Life.

The designer loves to work with cotton. “I like the nature of the fabric because it’s natural. But as it does not have very good drapes, it has to be worn crinkled. You cannot iron cotton into natural folds,” she said.

Kumar has a few thumb rules for everyday dressing.

“I basically feel Indians should not be fashion victims - just wear what you are. Ask yourself who am I and put on whatever sits easy,” she said.

For women, she recommends salwaar-kameez, tights with short kurta tops and saris. “They are the best. You cannot go wrong.”

Men have several options, but they prefer to go by the boss’s verdict, she said. “Men clothe themselves according to whoever’s ruling. However, the culture has changed.”

Indian clothes, said Kumar, have not undergone radical changes despite the 150 years of British rule.

“The blouses (sari tops) became different in places like Kolkata but overall they have remained the same. In India, I think we were not washed out by international trends, but I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 years,” Kumar said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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