Upholding their traditional looms and fabrics and gaining acceptance in Mumbai's fashion industry, these designers are striking a balance between these two worlds.
About a decade ago, there were only Atsu Sekhose, Daniel Syiem, Sonam Dubal and a couple of other fashion designers from the northeast.
Today, we have Jenjum Gadi, Easternlight Zimik, Utsav Prasdhan and Teresa Laisom, Mawi Keivom, Stacey Syiem, Richana Khumanthem, Lin Laishram, Andrea Kevichusa…the list seems to be unending as more and more fashion designers from the northeastern states receive recognition in mainstream fashion in the country.
“Our part of India has always been fashion conscious, dressing either in the best of Western-style or our traditional attire. And as long as our creations are good, as designers, we receive a warm response from the market,” chorus the fashion designers hailing from the seven sisters.
And weaving on handlooms has been a part and parcel of family chores. Here, every home has a loom where women, after completing their household chores, sit with their looms and weave. Earlier, they wove to meet the needs of their family, but now, many of them weave to supplement the family income.
The states where the earlier generation urged their children to take up the usual civil services exams, a teaching job or a steady income job after graduation are now accepting the idea of exploring other opportunities. The region, which for many years, remained unfamiliar terrain for other Indians is now slowly getting recognised, thanks to the internet, social media and increased tourist footfalls.
Like elsewhere, the new generation here too is enthralled by the world of glamour and the world of fashion: for they believe that these will take them one step closer to Bollywood and fame.
“The difference between us: those who entered the fashion industry more than a decade ago and the present day designers, is that we came in without any professional training. We knew about dressing well and grew up watching our mothers and grandmothers talking about clothes and weaving beautiful clothes at their looms for hours. We acquired our knowledge on the job. Youngsters today get into the business of fashion with a degree and the basic information required to start,” explains Shillong-based designer Daniel Syiem.
The co-founder, creative head and the lead designer at Ethnic Fashion House, Daniel Syiem belongs to a family of social activists and so wanted to help and work mainly with the weavers, fabric and designs predominant from Meghalaya. He is perhaps one of the very few designers who prefer to operate from his home state, Meghalaya, and never plans to shift to urban metropolises like New Delhi or Mumbai.
Luckily in his quest, he met an official from the sericulture department who introduced him to weavers of Ri-Bhoi village, Meghalaya, who weave Ryndia fabric from Eri silkworms. A designer who believes in the craft of the weaver, Daniel says,
“I don’t like to change their traditional style of weaving. The whole idea of us following the sustainable, eco-friendly and slow fashion is to preserve the age-old weaving tradition of this region and the style followed for generations.”
Not as fortunate as Daniel to work with weavers from their home state, Utsav Pradhan and Teresa Liasom from Gangtok, Sikkim, and Imphal, Manipur, studied fashion at Delhi’s Pearl Academy and established their brand Munkee Se Munkee Doo in 2009.
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Like designers from other parts of India, the duo began their career designing with popular fabrics like chiffon, silks, etc. But soon realised their dream and found a cluster of weavers from Manipur and presently concentrate on cotton, woven by these weavers.
“The cotton fabric from these looms is a bit thick and doesn’t suit the Western silhouettes that we design. So we had to ask them to reduce the count of ply and make the yarn thinner and delicate to suit our needs. And now, they also use different sizes of looms to weave the right length of fabric that we need for a design to reduce the wastage of fabric that would otherwise occur,” explains Teresa.
Having studied designing at their college, they learnt about textiles, natural dyes, yarns which would suit their designs and motifs while working with the weavers.
“The main problem we faced was the lack of real estate space. Designers from New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru or even Kolkata either have their own spaces or know people who can rent it out to them. In 2009, we started our brand by hiring a place in Hauz Khas in New Delhi. Today, it has become such an upmarket area that we had to shift our base to Noida,” elaborates Utsav, about the problems faced by designers from the northeast region.
Teresa adds, “Clients aren’t bothered about the region we belong to. If we deliver what they like, we have our market. Our drawback is that a majority of us don’t make Indian wear or the wedding attire–which is the main attraction in the Indian fashion industry. The reason for this is we have grown up wearing Western silhouettes and so can’t create what we don’t know.”
A recent entrant to the world of fashion is 25-year-old Zimik from Ukhrul, Manipur, a graduate from NIFT New Delhi. Besides designing, he also loves to illustrate and uses digital prints in his creations.
Having trained with designers like Manish Arora and Gaurav Gupta, he is unashamedly in love with brilliant colours. Zimik shares, “I love colours. And though I am from Manipur, I am a Naga, and we are famous for our brilliant reds, greens and blacks. I use the red extensively on my Western attires.”
Like all youngsters from the region, his dream is to make a place for himself in Bollywood. “I plan to shift to Mumbai very soon. In this industry, we have to struggle and fight for survival and irrespective of the region we belong to, only the good ones survive,” says the youngster.
He too dreams of working with the weavers of his land in the field of sustainable fashion. But first, he wants to establish himself.
Perhaps the senior-most of the designers, Sonam Dubal, who started his label in 1990, had a fashion week debut in 2003 and is known for his designs in Eri silk (Ahimsa silk) and khadi cotton.
He sums it up, saying, “Since the time I entered this industry, there has been a lot of changes and a lot still needs to be done regarding perception and understanding. Things are opening up, and there is more awareness about the region and the understanding of its amazing unexplored culture in the last few years.”
However, in light of exposure, designers from fashion capitals like Mumbai and New Delhi expect the weavers of other regions such as the northeast to adapt to new style of weaving, dying and using motifs to suit the preconceived style. Utsaav and Daniel fear that this might erode the traditional style of weaving which forms the identity of the region.
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They conclude, “We hope the exposure doesn’t take away the beauty of our heritage weaving culture!”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)