Not Your Average Jo
After I watched Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women, many of its scenes — Laurie unbuttoning Amy’s smock in an airy art studio, Beth serenely playing the piano in Mr Laurence’s mansion — continued to dance in front of my eyes. But the sublime character development of Jo March, visually represented through the costumes, has been imprinted on my mind. In the opening shot, March runs through a crowd after successfully pitching an article to Mr Dashwood, her trousers visible underneath as the gathers of her unhooped skirt rush to keep up with her. Cut to the last scene, where she looks on intently as her labour of love is finally bound into a book at the printer’s. Her passion for writing continues to burn, but an earnest sense of maturity has replaced her brashness from the first half of the movie; even her usually disheveled androgynous style has a polished edge. Perhaps my affinity for Jo is influenced by a personal vestiary vendetta as well: I, too, grew up detesting extravagant finery and preferred the company of books to human interaction. A telephonic conversation with fashion label Eká’s Rina Singh — who collaborated with Telangana State Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society Ltd. at Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort ’20 — connects me with someone who admires Jo March just as much as I do, if not more so. “Ah, to be as young and fiery as Jo! Even if I can only express that feeling through my clothes,” Singh tells me wistfully.
The designer’s anachronistic kinship with this second-eldest March sister resulted in her launching a collection titled “Jo – The Nonconformist”. Inspired by the character’s transformation, it was presented on Day 2 of Lakmé Fashion Week, which is reserved for conscious designers. Keeping in line with the label’s signature diaphanous dresses, pleated skirts, boxy jackets and tiered layers, the designer employed fabrics from Telangana, jackets woven at the Pochampally Handloom Park and hand-knitted mufflers with basket weaves to bring in a countryside aesthetic. “I thought the collection would be perfectly suited to the character of Jo since the ensembles have minimal embellishment and an understated air of glam-meets-country,” says Singh, her beam almost audible even through the phone.
It’s not merely the character’s habiliments that impressed her; Jo’s feminist ideology subconsciously steered Singh’s decision to work with all-women clusters in remote parts of Telangana. “Mahadevpur, which is where we worked with the weavers, is six hours away from Hyderabad by car. Out of a 14-hour workday, we were on the road for 12, and that too in the unbearable 42-degree heat,” she says. The team had a communication gap to overcome as well: “There were no loos on the side of the roads, and we couldn’t ask the local women anything — they couldn’t understand our dialect, and we couldn’t understand theirs. I can recount at least 50 instances when I would say something to the weavers, but they would comprehend it as something else altogether,” she recalls.
“Eventually, though,” she sums up, “we were able to work together seamlessly, because we spoke the common language of design. These women are skilled at what they do, and their talent will have a lot more meaning if it is merged with trends in modern Indian design and is showcased at a global level,” she says. We’re already doing trade shows in Paris and New York to book orders.”
Listening to the designer extol Jo’s virtues so earnestly makes me wonder whether her favourite scenes from the movie match any of mine, or whether they are all restricted to sequences featuring the lead character.
“Actually, I haven’t watched it yet,” Singh admits sheepishly, and she goes on to explain how things lined up perfectly regardless. “But it’s a strange coincidence how the character I had in mind aligns perfectly with Gerwig’s movie-version of Jo. You see, the starting point for me is always textiles, and the ones we were developing for the collection went seamlessly with the prairie-bohemian look. I wanted to base my collection on someone who is not super-feminine and does not place physical beauty on a pedestal. Jo fit that brief perfectly. I also have to admit that in spirit, I was once her. While designing, you should always go back to somebody you used to or would like to be. Otherwise, your collections will end up looking like a reflection of what you wear daily — clothes that are in your wardrobe already. This collection is a representation of who I used to be at one point, who I am in my head, and who I might be in the future.”
“I procured 100 per cent merino wool through The Woolmark Company in India to create the scarf. I wanted to play with the weight and the thickness of the yarn, so we sourced the wool and got it knitted in the studio itself.”
“I had not worked within the traditional textile language earlier. Of course, I know Indian textiles, but I use them in a very contemporary and modern way and don’t really refer to the technique in the sense of a motif or colour language. In this collection, I had to stick to a specific colour sensibility, because Indian ikat can very well end up looking like the Indonesian, Thai or other South-East Asian versions. I aimed to keep the Indian flavour intact while staying as close as possible to the heart of a brand like Eká. Additionally, weaving with ikat requires you to work backwards: you have to dye the yarn first, according to the pattern you want to achieve. So, when I send out a design to the weaver, they start thinking of the entire fabric as a canvas, with the yarn serving as the appropriate dividing tool. Then the yarn is used to demarcate the width and length of the fabric — the warp and weft respectively. It’s a very tedious and highly skilled form of weaving.”
“The engineered stripes appear at 10-centimetre intervals, interspersed with uneven stripes of 100 per cent sustainable coloured yarn. All the fibres we use are biodegradable, even if they are not organic.”
“Each accessory is handcrafted and hand-embroidered with metal wires using unprecedented precision, which is what allowed us to create clean pieces in various shapes. These are then backed with hand-sculpted clay, painted with gold and silver, and linked together to give each piece flexibility and movement. Eká is usually known for its embroidery techniques, but I wanted this to be a little more decorative than what we did in the past. So I got the flowers made by someone who specialises in sustainable trims.”
The Lone Blue Button
“Well, that’s Eká’s trademark token. It’s something I stumbled upon a long time ago and applied for the copyright. It signifies biodegradability and sustainability. It’s the first time I’ve done it in metal, though.”
The Cloth Buttons
“Other than the blue metal button, the others are all handmade with fabric embroidery and then sewn on top of a coconut button.”
“I wanted to give the lining this inherent, prairie kind of design, reminiscent of English period movies. It was a very literal ode to Jo. There is a synergy between India and the West that comes into play when one uses paisley in a particular manner. Even though paisley is typically Indian, I’ve incorporated it in a minimal and unconventional way so that it isn’t filled in with too much colour. The material I’ve used for the lining is 100 per cent silk and block-printed.”
“I wanted the shoes to be modern because I thought that if I made them rustic as well, the outfit would have ended up looking like a costume. I did away with the buckle and the back of the original design and added a one-centimetre velvet edge. We’ve used the same trims from the rest of the collection for the shoes to create that sartorial harmony.”