Fashion week in Mumbai showcases designs from the Northeast

Updated: Feb 03, 2018, 16:51 IST | Dhara Vora Sabhnani

An ongoing fashion week in Mumbai starts a dialogue on the cultural wealth that empowers the region's design community to pursue sustainable fashion in the face of challenges

Designs by Daniel Syiem and Aratrik Dev Varman
Designs by Daniel Syiem and Aratrik Dev Varman

February 1 marked the second day of nominations for the Assembly polls in Nagaland, but saw no filings as a mark of protest against the unresolved issues among tribal groups and the Centre. Thousands of miles away, in Mumbai, at Lakmé Fashion Week on the same day, six designers represented the Northeast with contemporary collections created using traditional handcrafted weaves from the region at the show, #NorthEastMojo.

(From left) Designers Karma Sonam, Richana Khumanthem, Sonam Dubal, Jenjum Gadi, Daniel Syiem and Aratrik Dev Varman. Pics/shadab Khan
(From left) Designers Karma Sonam, Richana Khumanthem, Sonam Dubal, Jenjum Gadi, Daniel Syiem and Aratrik Dev Varman. Pics/shadab Khan

To add to it, the United Nations in India, IMG Reliance and GoCoop announced the launch of the Action Plan on North East India Report, to offer an overview of the challenges and opportunities that the fashion and lifestyle industry in the region faces. "We hope to make an attempt to develop partnerships to accelerate and maximise the great potential of the Northeast. We see the region as not only an abundant source of natural resources, but also a powerhouse of economic opportunity," says Yuri Afanasiev, resident coordinator, United Nations in India. This couldn't have come at a better time. Issues ranging from insurgency, resource shortage and infrastructure hurdles bog down these designers, as we found out while speaking to them at the ongoing fashion week.

A ryndia weaver from Meghalaya
A ryndia weaver from Meghalaya

Ask designer Jenjum Gadi whose show (with NGO Exotic Echo Society from Nagaland) featured unisex pieces created using the loinloom fabric. "The emergency situations in our state hamper the supply system. The usual delay in the supply chain coupled with this worsens it. But weavers of the Exotic Echo Society work self-sufficiently where they produce the raw material, spin the yarn, dye and weave it. More grassroot-level societies like these are the need of the hour," feels Gadi.

A weaver works with the loinloom for NGO Exotic Echo Society in Nagaland
A weaver works with the loinloom for NGO Exotic Echo Society in Nagaland

Richana Khumanthem's collection uses natural silk and the wankhei phee handloom white cotton created by the Meitei community in Manipur. Gadi's thoughts find resonance with Khumanthem, "Usually, all raw materials for weaving are sourced from Guwahati, which is a challenge due to frequent curfews in Manipur that create a halt in supplies. Naturally, weavers have to find other means of livelihood. The other part of the business that involves marketing goes for a toss."

Aratrik Dev Varman of Tripura has worked on a collection to promote alternative use of the Tripuri breast cloth for modern garments; one such piece is a flowy jumpsuit accessorised with a traditional bead necklace. "Design can play a huge role in making traditional crafts relevant in a modern context, which is what helps sustain the practices. Our weavers are losing their connect with cotton-weaving since acrylic threads are now more common," he says.

For those like Meghalaya's Daniel Syiem, who also showcased at the show and has presented his state's ryndia weave at London Fashion Week, in 2014, it's an unfortunate scenario. "We have received a lot of appreciation internationally, and buyers placed orders. But when we return home, we face problems with sourcing fabrics and finding the right quality. The government and social welfare organisations need to support the weaver community to ensure it gets more organised and centralised,"
he rues.

We shall overcome
However, all isn't bleak. "With the National Institute of Design coming up in Jorhat in Assam, we hope for things to change. Textiles from the Northeast are extremely malleable, they can be worn in different seasons; they also have great textures and motifs, and hence we need to make the most of these strengths without diffusing their cultural identity," says designer Sonam Dubal.

This apart, the British Council's Global Crafting Futures programme will collaborate with the fashion week's organiser and Fashion Revolution (an organisation that promotes transparency and ethical practice in the supply chain of the fashion industry) and work with Dev Varman to improve the livelihoods of female weavers. Works in progress as part of the collaborations will be presented at the August edition of the fashion week, while the final work will be presented at the February 2019 edition before appearing in Fashion Revolution's biannual fanzine.

The UN-backed report will assess the demand for handloom products and recommend a strategy for developing supply chains and marketing channels for Northeast handloom organisations and artisans. "The link between fashion and sustainability is clearly illustrated in the Northeast, that seamlessly stitches together tradition with the avant garde. Our goal will be to create a repository for sustainable solutions to overcome these challenges. It also aims to provide a framework for policy interventions by government," informs Afanasiev.

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