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November 21, 2017

The Heroes Reviving India’s Heritage Textiles: Palak Shah of Ekaya

Text by Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar

“If we continue to use the same old methods, the craft will always struggle to sustain itself”

Where: New Delhi
Known for: Benarasis

When we walked into sari studio Ekaya for the unveiling of its fabric label Thaan, we noticed its CEO Palak Shah, known for her sartorial experiments, sporting an edgy pantsuit crafted out of exquisite silk and zari fabric. The ensemble was a smart and shimmering pointer of how the boundaries of India’s heritage weaves could be fashionably stretched.

“Traditional Benarasi fabric can attain an international feel through clever styling and design. We all revel in the allure of saris, lehngas and anarkalis but heritage textiles can do more. While woven saris and Indian silhouettes are the mainstay of Ekaya’s repertoire, the outfit I wore at the launch of Thaan, our newest baby, was the bell-weather of how these weaves can wow global fashion circles,” says Shah, walking us through Thaan, a museum-like space that houses about 1,000 woven fabrics from Varanasi. The space is a stark juxtaposition to Ekaya on the lower floor, a pristine ivory-and-gold set-up reminiscent of the sari sellers of yore, where clients sat on low gaddas while they browsed through exquisite weaves of India.

While Ekaya has been regaling women with a yen for handwoven Benarasi saris, Thaan’s quest is to redefine conventional perceptions about textiles. “The store highlights the mastery, art and narrative represented within the fine textures of each hand-woven fabric, but in a different way. Think snake-skin patterns, designs inspired by handcrafted tiles and more such quirks when you enter here. We pushed the envelope as we want people to live in luxury. Many of these textiles can give an opulent feel to upholstery as well as cushion covers and quilts. For a textile lover, this is like a candy store,” Shah explains with childlike excitement.

Shah returned to India six years ago with a business management degree from King’s College, London and entered the 70-year-old family wholesale business of handloom saris and fabrics. “Though I learnt everything about woven textiles from my father, Bharat Shah, I envisioned something ambitious. I shifted to Delhi when he wanted to create a luxury retail experience here, and we launched Ekaya in 2012,” she recalls.

Ekaya presented an all-pervasive experience to the fashionista and Shah’s modish outlook resulted in collaborations with fashion bigwigs such as Abraham & Thakore (A&T) and peppy labels like Play Clan. “We wanted to explore how luxury could be achieved through minimalism. While for Play Clan, there were funky motifs like dancing dolls and flights of birds, with Archana Rao, we played with reverse cuts in the loom and distinctive patterns. With A&T, who flaunt a sound methodology in the single and double ikat weave, the saris carried a colour-blocked look. The geometric patterns were showstopping,” says Shah. The collaborations with Parsi gara pundit Ashdeen Lilaowala, was a sell-out. She explains, “The detailing of the embroidery in a woven format rendered an extravagant feel to the six-yard.”

Shah, whose garment of choice at social events is the sari, reiterates that she is keen on avoiding run-of-the-mill ideas. “I want our Indian textiles to stand for impeccable craftsmanship, inventiveness and subtle yet noticeable sophistication. If we continue to use the same old methods, the craft will always struggle to sustain itself. The focus needs to shift to the versatile and global appeal of heritage weaves. If crafted with ingenuity, they can mould themselves into sexy dresses, sharp pantsuits, structured trench coats, priceless wall decor items and of course, timeless saris,” she finishes with aplomb.

Previous: Swati Agarwal And Sunaina Jalan

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