Fashion and Style

Five North Eastern designers who are putting the region on the fashion map by showcasing its fabrics

With each state boasting a vast range of craft traditions, the North East is a sartorial treasure chest.

Over the past decade, the Indian fashion industry has devoted considerable time and effort to revive heritage textiles, resulting in a new generation of consumers who are keen to champion weaves as varied as chanderi, ikat and banarasi. Much of this spotlight has focused on states like Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, neglecting one region in particular: the North East. Most Indian consumers have only a vague notion of the dress codes of the seven states and are often unable to recognise the jainsem as traditional Khasi attire, distinct from the Manipuri moirangfi or Assamese mekhla-chador.

In an attempt to shift the conversation and showcase the textiles and crafts of the North East, Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort hosted North East Mojo, a special showcase of designers from the North East this past February. From breast cloths worn by Tripura’s tribal women to nettle weaves from Sikkim, these designers highlighted how traditional fabrics and techniques adapt deftly to new technologies and markets. The show was supported by the United Nations and the British Council.

Jaspreet Chandok, fashion head and vice president of IMG Reliance, said, “The North East was our focus for the Sustainable Textiles day, and the collaboration [with United Nations] aimed to boost local economy, showcasing the North East’s potential to mainstream stakeholders, including brands and designers, and the benefits of doing business in the region.”

Five of the designers who participated in North East Mojo share their inspirations, and plans.

Jenjum Gadi, Arunachal Pradesh/Nagaland

Photo credit: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP
Photo credit: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP

For the summer/resort season, Jenjum Gadi chose to work with Nagaland’s loin loom weaves, which are produced using a non-mechanical technique, in which the fabric is woven on a bamboo loom strapped around the weaver’s lower back. It is a technique employed by numerous tribes in the North East.

“One of the things I liked was how the weavers did everything, from growing cotton to extracting dyes,” said Gadi, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh. The lack of a steady supply chain is a challenge in the North East and he sees this self-sufficiency as a way to cut costs while maintaining quality.

Gadi worked with narrow loin loom strips, deconstructing complex traditional motifs into minimal, geometric pattern – “I wanted to retain the textile’s essence without it looking typical.” Models walked the ramp wearing fringed jackets with waterfall collars and contrast pockets; soft-collared tasseled shirts; and roomy trousers. Accessories included traditional jewels and woven backpacks.

Gadi, who launched his label in 2012, retails through multi-designer boutiques in Delhi (where his operations are based), Mumbai and Kolkata, and is exploring new retail opportunities in Bengaluru and Chennai. He hopes to showcase the collection across India in pop-up stores later this year.

With his goals firmly set on working with more weavers and textiles from the North East – especially Arunachal Pradesh – Gadi believes that fashion has opened new avenues for people from the region. “People from the region are known for dressing well, but now they are using their skills in jobs and businesses. People across India are also keen to explore and learn more about our culture. It’s a promising time for the North East.”

Kuzu by Karma Sonam, Sikkim

Reviving dwindling crafts and techniques is central to Karma Sonam’s design aesthetic at her label, Kuzu, which she sees as a constant collaboration between designers and craftspeople. She aims to showcase Sikkim’s repository of distinctive textiles – such as nettle yarn, rabbit wool and yak wool – which are rich in colours, motifs and texture.

A lack of resources, however, means that weavers switch to cheaper alternatives. “Textile plays a significant role in making our social and cultural identity…,” she said. “We must ensure that weavers benefit economically to continue [with] it.”

Inspired by the layered garments of Sikkim’s Bhutia tribe, the Gangtok-based designer’s LFW collection exhibited deconstructed jackets and vests, anti-fit culottes, and dresses with ruffled hemlines, using the Lepcha community’s loin loom weaves, one of the state’s oldest indigenous textiles traditionally used to make women’s coats. The Lepcha weaves were traditionally created from nettle yarn but is now made with cotton.

Since starting Kuzu in 2016, Sonam has retailed through her website, but is now looking for new retailers. “Textiles have their own values, meaning, and story. As a designer I fine-tune traditional techniques and motifs to make them globally viable.”

Daniel Syiem, Meghalaya

Photo credit: Daniel Syiem/Facebook
Photo credit: Daniel Syiem/Facebook

Since he started his eponymous fashion house in Shillong in 2011, Daniel Syiem has constantly referenced Meghalayan textiles and garments in his designs. His new collection, ShaKiLum, is a contemporary showcase of eri silk, known as ryndia. (Eri is produced by domesticated silkworms and considered one of the most sustainable variants of silk.)

“People have woven eri for generations, but it’s usually worn as a shawl or stole,” he said. “I have worked with the fabric for about three years, trying to promote it outside [the state] with my designs.”

Much like the visual and performing arts, Syiem sees fashion as a means of disseminating knowledge about a culture. “For spring-summer, I wanted to inspire people to head to Meghalaya for a holiday,” he said, which is why he chose the name ShaKiLum, which means “to the hills” in Khasi.

For the collection he presented at LFW, Syiem created cowl dresses layered with power-shoulder jackets, shirt dresses with raised quadruple collars, and slouchy jumpsuits with shrugs.

Syiem has based his work in and around Shillong over the years, and now hopes to find a greater retail presence for his designs across the country.

Khumanthem by Richana Khumanthem, Manipur

Sujit Jaiswal/AFP
Sujit Jaiswal/AFP

“There is a story behind every motif, colour and weave used in traditional Manipuri textiles,” said Richana Khumanthem. These tactile narratives are varied, carrying the stories of over 30 communities, including Kuki and Naga tribes, who live in the hills and valleys of Manipur. The Imphal-based designer showcased one of these stories in her collection, Anaemoia, at LFW.

Drawing from the subtle colours used by the Meitei community, Khumanthem themed the collection around the ShamiLanmi pattern, which is made up of a series of animal- and tribal-inspired embroidery on a black background.

“The ShamiLanmi motif was used in a shawl gifted by the Meitei king to a tribal chieftain, as a symbol of love and respect,” said Khumanthem. “It signifies a bond between the hill and valley people.” The embroidery was used as borders, piping and belts on sheer overlays, checked jumpsuits, and plain and lightly patterned coordinate sets.

In combining heritage weaves with modern silhouettes, Khumanthem hopes to respond to the challenge of reaching consumers beyond the state – “Sartorial or otherwise, it’s important to appreciate and remain connected to the history and traditions passed down by our ancestors. But I also think it equally important to look forward, to change with time, and evolve.”

When she launched her label in 2014, Khumanthem retailed through online partners. In 2016, she opened her flagship store in Imphal and now also retails in Guwahati. She is exploring new collaborations in Mumbai, working on launching her own e-commerce store and plans to expand her product line to include more diverse designs.

Tilla by Aratrik Dev Varman, Tripura

Aratrik Dev Varman has often used elements from his home state in his designs for his label, Tilla, which was founded in 2010 and is named after his family home in Agartala. On getting a slot in the LFW showcase, the Ahmedabad-based designer decided to showcase Tripura’s tribal crafts in a new avatar.

Dev Varman’s choice of fabric was the riah, a long, narrow breast cloth worn by many tribes in Tripura. “For reasons of modesty and practicality, these aren’t worn much anymore,” he said. “Another challenge is that riahs were originally woven in cotton, which has been largely replaced in the North East with acrylic.”

He combined the Reang community’s riahs – recognised by their red, black, and white stripes – with fine Tripuri cotton to create flowing dresses and separates. The breast cloth served as drapes, belts and turbans and the ensembles were accessorised with coin jewellery sourced from tribes.

The collection is the start of a bigger project, funded by British Council, that Dev Varman is working on to create supply chain models and new markets for Tripura’s weavers. He is also excited to expand the scope of Tilla beyond clothing. “We have started a café [in Ahmedabad], made a film on craft, and are doing projects on commissioned walls and interior textiles,” he said. His minimalistic designs are stocked at luxe boutiques across India.

He sees events such as North East Mojo as important steps towards promoting unique crafts. “We must showcase these crafts distinctly instead of banding together under a North East banner. There are 19 tribes in Tripura, each with its own colours, weaves, and patterns. This narrative needs to be communicated to consumers.”

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