It would be easy, and perhaps a little clichéd, to describe Sanjay Garg as a thinking person’s fashion designer. Not because he isn’t, but because his work over a decade with his label, Raw Mango, is about so much more than that.

Yes, he views fashion from a different lens, placing it in the context of socio-economic and political realities. He stays aware of the zeitgeist. And he appeals to every kind of consumer – from businesswomen and heads of companies, to Bollywood stars and the everywoman. But more than that, what Garg does best is engage with ideas about what fashion and design can and should mean. He looks beyond urban India, drawing from inspirations that are not hand-me-downs. He relies on Indian textiles and colours instead of embellishment, and strips away at the candy-coloured romanticism that is often the signature of designer Indianwear. And yet his work is infused with both simplicity and luxury.

As a label, Raw Mango is rich without being opulent or inaccessible. Garg’s approach to imagery and visual merchandising is unique – Raw Mango’s campaigns don’t feature models, and they tell stories that draw you in. For example, for his newest collection Heer – which “recalls the shared culture of pre-partition Punjab through bridal festivities” – the campaign has been shot at Baradari Palace in Patiala, but the images echo the feel of portraits and intimate moments at family weddings. The champions are the textiles, colours and the non-celebrities wearing them.

In a conversation with Scroll.in, Garg talks about why he thinks that design, fashion and politics cannot be separate from one another, what the journey with Raw Mango has meant to him, and why he thinks India can and must be a global hub for textiles. Edited excerpts:

Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango. Photo credit: Shovan Gandhi.
Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango. Photo credit: Shovan Gandhi.

When you look back on why you started Raw Mango 10 years ago, your ideas at the time and your journey, does what inspired you then inspire you now?
I started by asking myself and I still ask myself – as citizens, what is our contribution to our society, and what is my contribution, specifically? And I felt that [in India] we’re thinking about every aspect of our country, except design. Parents don’t encourage their children to become designers – it does not even feature in the top 10 acceptable careers.

I was training to be a chartered accountant but after I graduated, I wanted to study design. I trained as a textile designer, and I had these questions – what can design solve, and how can it be recognised as a part of our everyday lives? Not just in the sense of colours and motifs, because they keep changing, but in the context of the bigger picture.

To me, design is a way of life. You need to think about how your home looks, what your world looks like, what do you need that design can offer you. For example, everyone talks about weavers, but why doesn’t anyone talk about the leather tanner and the potter? They are also artisans.

Which is also why the word sustainability bothers me sometimes – I find it very limiting, abused and overused. It does not mean anything to me and it feels like it’s a borrowed word. Are we only going to sustain textiles? We look at shoes from Italy, but what about leather artisans in our own country? Are we going to support them?

To me, design means that there has to be a relationship between the weaver, the saree, society and the ideas of sustainability and functionality. I must be able to make money and you must be able to make money. No one needs sympathy. We all need to work together. These are the ideas that drive me.

So how would you define sustainability?
It is a fluid concept and it depends on the place and time. Earlier, sustainability meant something else and it means something else now. In India, we especially have to think about where we are coming from. Our four metropolitan cities cannot define what sustainable means. India is much bigger than them – the needs, income groups, lifestyles are very different outside these cities. Sustainability has to be a local concept and no-one can force their definition of it and system for it on anyone else.

Raw Mango is a unique brand. The palettes are filled with very Indian colours like lime green and rani pink. You don’t use models in your campaigns, and the images are very unlike the kind of fashion photography we are used to seeing. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you created this aesthetic?
I am always trying to push the envelope in every aspect of my work – I don’t know whether I am successful in doing so or not, but it is important that I work this way. And imagery is a part of this.

When I started my label, I could find no references of fashion imagery in the Indian context that worked for me. There were Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings for example, but nothing else that really resonated with me. And personally, I liked the way Indira Gandhi wore the saree, even though she wore very little colour. Maybe that was because the references of colour at that time in India were taken from the West, or because there were not many options to choose from? Or because what was considered sophisticated at that time was not colourful?

Now, that has changed. Indians are travelling, they have the power to buy, they are proud to be Indian and they no longer think that they have to go to America to be successful. When I launched my label in 2008, the conversations had just started about design and luxury and what these mean in India. People were becoming more confident and they wore my garments in lime green and rani pink.

I never use models in my campaigns because I want to feature people who actually wear my clothes – they bring their own personality to the garments. For the shoots, they choose their jewellery themselves, and they wear their hair as they like – I never ask them to change any of that, because it makes my brand’s communication very positive, relatable and real. The people in our photographs are also of all ages and they represent the range of women who buy and wear Raw Mango.

I stay in dialogue with my own work, mostly. And sometimes, my inspiration is something that angered me. For example, I hated the idea that lime green was considered a gavaaru [unsophisticated] colour but I feel that colour does not relate to social status. Where else will you wear colour if not in India? The light is very bright and colour looks good on us.

You place great emphasis on the experiencing of your brand in your stores. The sarees are placed in cupboards and are taken out to be shown to the customer and just that one practice harks back to the more traditional experience of retail in India.
[Yes] and this is an important part of our brand. Across the board, our references of visual merchandising are taken from the West these days. And it is not that I wanted to prove a point, but because I did not relate to those references, they did not burden me, and I chose to go the old-fashioned way.

For example, in Rajasthan, when two diamond merchants are conducting a trade, they sit on white gaddas [mattresses] in a room and there are no displays. The stock is stored in cupboards in another room, and it is taken out, wrapped in green paper. In Varanasi, I observed that saree merchants use brown wrapping paper. So this is a very Indian concept of minimalism and I wanted to bring it back.

You will see that I have no mannequins in my stores and there are no boards outside though we get complaints about that. We don’t have trial rooms – a customer can drape a saree anywhere in the store but now that we stock blouses and kurtas, I am thinking about adding in trial rooms. And most important – in our store, you cannot really see the merchandise. Every cupboard has curtains so when you walk in, it looks very clean.

And when a customer starts browsing, it feels like unveiling a surprise...
Exactly, that is the experience – it is luxurious, and it visually different from what you might expect. This was my sole purpose, but it is coming directly from those traditional practices. Because there is enough minimalism and everyday luxury in Indian design.

You pay attention to the details, but you don’t overwhelm your customer.
Yes, and it’s very instinctive and I have to work hard to strike that balance.

These days, there is a lot of talk about how sarees are being revived. Do you think that this is a very narrow approach to the conversation when there are whole sections of the country in which the saree has never died?
Yes. And people might disagree with me but I think this is true because through our lens, we only see Delhi and Mumbai. So this conversation that the saree is being revived is a very high-end drawing room story. It’s only a [concern] for some people. Women all over the country are wearing the saree but I don’t like the divide that the saree is a traditional outfit, which automatically makes it passé. To me, traditional is a part of the present and will be a part of the future. If we can correct this divide between cool and traditional, I think we will be okay.

What have been your personal milestones over this decade?
A milestone for me was when we opened our first store-in-store in Bengaluru – it gave me a lot of joy and it showed me that I can grow my business. When you start out, you don’t know where this journey will take you and you think that you will have to always tend to every aspect of it. But opening that store showed me that we had become a brand which can grow without me being there personally. We are now opening a stand-alone store on Lavelle Road in Bengaluru, which is great.

When I learnt how to work with mashru, and brocade, it’s not that anyone else knew or noticed. But when I saw the first saree or garment, it meant something to me, because working with new textiles was a challenge I fixed for myself.

Sales are numbers. Once you crack that, you don’t really feel a rush. It’s the same – you are successful, bread-butter aa raha hain, aap badhte ja rahe ho. [You are making your bread and butter, and growing.] Numbers are fine, but you cannot stick only to the number game. You have to creatively challenge yourself.

I always thought [my label] should be worn in Lucknow and in Mumbai. I love that I am successful in Chennai and Bengaluru.

What do you find most exciting and, conversely, most challenging about being a part of Indian fashion now?
Maybe this is not a real challenge but now [Raw Mango’s] success has come to imply somehow that my brand is unaffordable. This [perception] does not make me happy and it is not true because I still stock sarees for Rs 4,000.

But it is an interesting time to be a designer in India. Earlier, fashion brands tended to have a sense of regionality but I think newer labels have broken out of that – for example, labels like Péro and Bodice are pan-Indian [in their appeal].

I feel like we’re all part of this new movement that thinks about organic food, being aware of what you are buying, environmental consciousness, etc. There is [a school of thought] that if you don’t understand politics or economics, you cannot design something. Everything happens for a bigger reason.

Do you see a new Indian aesthetic being created?
How do we define India? There could be a hundred definitions. This question is very difficult, just like asking if paneer is a national dish. I can put the aesthetic in three categories. One is kitschy like truck art, Bollywood-inspired art, street fashion – it’s a bhel puri of everything. The second is the India of the maharajas – with elaborate enamel work, the Taj Mahal and the palaces. The third is rural India – missi roti, chutney and kora kapda. So [it is] impossible to say if we have a common aesthetic.

You have said in the past that you are not taken in by recognition from international museums or organisations. Why do you feel that way?
I respect the work that they do, don’t get me wrong. And I appreciate the attention but to me, it is important to think about creating our own institutions. Can we study design better and do something on our own? Because a foreign museum does not have our point of view. We need to create something within our own context.

What happens abroad does not make any difference to people in Panipat or Sonepat or Nagpur. Will what happens in a museum in Kochi or in a palace in Rajasthan matter to someone abroad? No. So it’s the same thing. We have to create [our own] institutions and evolve. We cannot keep examining only our past.

There is huge interest now in buying textiles and engaging with weavers and artisans, both as consumers and designers.
I would really like to say two things about this.

One is that if you only focus on making handloom, when are you going to start educating people about textiles? How will people know the difference between khadi and other kinds of cotton? How will they know the difference between pashmina wool and Merino wool? People say handlooms are special but if they don’t understand what makes them special, what is the point? How will they value them? We need much more education about textiles, much more awareness.

And the second thing is that we still look at weavers through the lens of class and hierarchy. It’s still a very casteist issue. Weavers only marry weavers. But when a weaver gets his daughter married, he looks at what skills she will share and learn – if she knows how to weave a kota saree, maybe she can marry into a family that will teach her how to weave a maheshwari saree. A bride takes her skills and her loom with her. This is a complex but interesting reality.

My point is that weaving and working with handloom textiles need to become an acceptable career choice. And this is also true for all kinds of craft. We have no famous glassware designers. In this country of over a billion people, we have no really famous footwear designers. Or furniture designers. Are there any names we can actually celebrate?

What are your goals and hopes for the next decade, not just for Raw Mango but also for the industry?
I think there is a lot of interest in what we are all doing, and there is a hunger for it, which is great. And I have been able to achieve all of this on my own, without a godfather. We are making money. I am able to do whatever I want to do. And this is stimulating enough for me. The day I am not able to do things, I will start complaining – I hope that does not happen.

And I think India can become the next big global hub for handloom textiles, like France is the global hub for perfumes. If we can all come together as an industry with the right support, we can achieve this. We have to create Indian brands that can do well globally.

All images courtesy Raw Mango.