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June 14, 2018

Puducherry’s Craftswomen Are Overthrowing A Patriarchal Mindset By Designing This Lakmé Fashion Week Collection

Text by Ojas Kolvankar

Rouka’s Sreejith Jeevan imagines a design utopia where craftswomen from far-flung rural regions work in harmony with large retailers

Five young designers at Lakmé Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort 2018 edition joined hands with the USHA Silai School, a community-based initiative founded in 2011 that empowers women to become entrepreneurs, to create a harmonious collection that coalesced the visions of the designers and the karigars. These ensembles are now being retailed under a newly launched label and are being stocked alongside other premium brands in Delhi. We immersed ourselves in a conversation with these catalysts of fashion as they narrated their journey of bringing to life narratives from remote areas through this venture.

Known for bringing alive design stories from South India, ROUKA’s Sreejith Jeevan lent his expertise to artisans from USHA Silai’s Puducherry cluster. From educating the artisans to recognise the beauty around them to translating it into garments that not only developed their tailoring skills but also honed their entrepreneurial drive, Jeevan takes us through his journey with the craftswomen who created a gorgeous collection for Lakmé Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort 2018 edition.

Excerpts from the interview:

On collaborating with the Puducherry cluster…
“When we were first offered the project, there was no defined outcome, design or product brief provided to us; everything evolved as we went along. The ambiguity was quite exciting in that it was interesting to see what could happen with an initiative like this in an unorganised sector.

Puducherry is USHA Silai’s strongest cluster in South India and has a market, a story and a product vocabulary that artisans could learn from. When we talk about connecting rural districts to urban areas or vice versa, I think the region is ideally located to build a context for the craftswomen.

Approaching the women of the cluster with many preconceived notions, we wondered if they would agree to leave the confines of their homes and work with us but when we got there, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that they were really enthusiastic about being employed. Hence, the challenges were limited to their design skills and not to any social constraints.”

The aesthetic behind the collection…
Titled ‘Windows to the world’, the collection was inspired by my first visit to the region. When you walk around Puducherry, it’s impossible to miss the rich architecture — the windows, the old buildings and the combination of Tamil and French-style villas. The moniker is also metaphorical in some ways because when we approached the women to work with us, they were excited about the windows that it would open for them to other pathways.”

Techniques employed for the collection…
“I went around the region and took many pictures as references. We then invited the artisans to a workshop where they were educated about different techniques and how to improve the finishing. We asked each one of them to pick a technique that they were passionate about and gave them a corresponding image to work with. For instance, if an artisan was interested in piping or binding, I would present them with a picture of the sea or a wave and ask them to incorporate it in a garment. At the end of it, they came up with swatches that were quite different from what they had expected since they had never used such references to tailor their garments.”

Getting inspired by the artisans…
“The craftswomen were always eager to learn and were looking to break boundaries set by a patriarchal society. A few of them had only completed their first USHA Silai class and were already running their own tailoring units. What was exciting and intriguing at the same time was that many of these women had young children back home. Even in cities, women have a problem leaving their families and resuming work. However, these craftswomen were ready to burn the midnight oil without complaining just to ensure they had quality samples the next day.”

Addressing social issues through such collaborations…
“The idea was to focus on skill and USHA Silai has been doing that since a long time but look where it’s reached now! Many of these women have ventured out of their comfort zone; some of them even claim that their husbands assist them when they stitch through the night. I think the whole premise of this initiative was to address the issue of migration and the decentralisation of production — a lot of migrant workers live in deplorable conditions in cities when they could actually be doing the same thing in their own villages with a lot more dignity. Fashion could grow to become much more sustainable with such collaborations; imagine a large retailer adopting villages with the required setup, marketing strategy and customers all in place. It would actually be a design utopia if you ask me!”

Previous: The Women Of Ahmedabad’s Dholka District Used Almost No Electricity To Produce This Lakmé Fashion Week Collection

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