Reticent Bangladeshi designer Bibi Russell tells Shweta Shiware how she forced the faculty at London College of Fashion to admit her, why Tagore is her fashion icon and how she managed to tell the world that there's more to her country than flash floods
It's a comical coincidence. Just last month, we saw international heavyweights Joint-CEO of the Chalhoub Group Patrick Chalhoub, Executive Vice President HermÃ©s International Christian Blanckaert, FranÃ§ois-Henri Pinault of PPR, Anna Zegna of Ermenegildo Zegna, designers Stella McCartney and Dries Van Noten discuss the urgency of involving natural fabrics and techniques in mainstream fashion, and the reinvention of "sustainable" luxury at the International Herald Tribune's Sustainable Luxury conference held in New Delhi. And a few days later, Dhaka-based designer Bibi Russell quietly translated her definition of sustainable fashion into a collection she showcased at Kolkata Fashion Week, crafted from environment-friendly resources. A cause Bibi has been single-mindedly spearheading for the last 15 years, she has successfully managed to provide a platform to over 35,000 weavers and artisans all over Bangladesh. "I believe in the potential of rural craftsmen. For me, it is about soul-searching, especially in the West when I was quizzed about Bangladesh's poverty, the devastating floods. I decided to give my opinion a positive spin; it was a sort of defense mechanism, I think. Now, I show the beauty of poverty, not the misery."
Model Sanjukta Das walks the ramp in a Bibi Russell Gamcha saree at the recently-held Kolkata Fashion Week
My Icon: Rabindranath Tagore. He travelled a lot and everywhere he went, he blended in with the culture. In Japan, he wore the Kimono, in England he wore a double-breasted jacket. Tagore's spirited poem, Ekla Chalo Re ("If they answer not to thy call, walk alone") has pierced my personal style.
Bibi Russell is often seen wearing a black baseball cap with Ekla Chalo Re emblazoned on it in red.
She modelled for Chanel, Armani and Valentino
Her parents were involved in the cultural movement in Dhaka, with Bibi, her three sisters and two brothers growing up in the company of music, literature and art. "I hardly ever wanted to study. The creative arts fascinated me. My mother used to sew my dresses, but I never liked them. So, when my father got me a sewing machine and books on Chanel, I tried making my own clothes. And I was only 10," she recalls.
The hobby turned into a three-month long struggle when the 18 year-old designer sought admission to the
celebrated London College of Fashion in 1972. "They refused since I had no prior training or education. But I pestered them via letters and phone calls. After three months of relentless trying, I was given an 11 am appointment. I was there by 9," laughs Bibi, telling you how she was warned about the notorious frosty British
temperament. "And then they asked me the most inane questions, like spell Bangladesh, and name primary and secondary colours. They went on to grill me about technical jargon that I was clueless about. To that I said, 'I am here to learn the technical know-how. Please teach me'," says Bibi, who was later called "the girl who broke our balls" by the LCF faculty.
She was granted six months of evening classes, restricted to drawing and patternmaking since scholarships weren't alloted to students from "our part of the world". She worked shifts as a post-woman to pay the fees, and for the graduation show, the authorities insisted she model herself. The editors of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar including veteran photographer Norman Parkinson were there and that's how she got picked up to feature in a 14-page spread in Harper's Bazaar. Print modelling led to catwalk assignments in Paris, Milan and New York, for Chanel, Armani and Yves Saint Laurent in the eighties. "My first hi-fashion show was with Valentino, and while everyone was ecstatic that I was modelling for him, I felt fortunate enough to be able to touch the garment he had created, closely and learn his technique."
Villages of Bangladesh to Milan
The short-lived high of modelling with runway divas Iman, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer faded in 1994, when Bibi abandoned a cushy life in Europe to return home. "I wanted to extend what I'd learnt to support the weavers. At first, it wasn't easy persuading villagers conditioned by skepticism. They thought I was a politician dishing out promises to garner votes."
In 1996, she founded Bibi Productions and presented her first collection in Paris in association with UNESCO. She followed it up with a show at London Fashion Week in 1998. The same year, Bangladesh witnessed the worst flood in its history. After the disaster, Bibi was compelled to go back to basics, and launched the "Save the Weavers" charity that has been raising funds to better the condition of weavers and keep traditional crafts alive.
The textiles produced by Bangladeshi weavers are widely used by European Haute Couture, and Italian designer furniture makers. Bibi's own designs retail in England, Spain and France, and her eyes gleam like a child's when she confesses to being elated at sharing hanger space with giant fashion conglomerate Armani at Fashion Village in Milan.
In India, designers are superstars
"Designers in India are considered superstars. They cringe at the thought that I talk to my workers. Ninety per cent of my time is reserved for developing textiles with my weavers, whatever's left is for design," she says.
Bibi likes the work of Indian designers Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anamika Khanna and Kiran Uttam Ghosh, and is happy that individuals like Nilanjana Ghosh work closely with West Bengal weavers to create
exquisite Kantha work.
Design on development
As part of UNICEF's Designer for Development initiative, Bibi worked in Africa between 1999 and 2003, incorporating locals in her work. She admits to spending the first six months altering their mentality: they woke up at noon, and drank like fish. "It was tough, but an extremely satisfying period in my life." Come May, and she is going to pack her bags for Assam, where she's involved in a project with villagers to
produce sustainable fashion.