She is the pioneer of the Indian fashion industry, whose ethnic designs the glamorous across the country still swear by. Ritu kumar, the torch bearer of the Indian fashion industry, sits down to a casual chat with Sruthi Rajan, talking fashion and all things pretty, especially Indian women.
The name Ritu Kumar is not alien to anyone even remotely interested in fashion. Ritu, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 for her spellbinding work of over five decades, was the first to bring fashion and boutique culture to the country. One not to be affected by the fame and fortune that came her way, Ritu has dressed the leading ladies of Indian cinema since the 1960s and always patronised weavers from all over India. She not only brought back the dying vintage motifs into prints, but is also making them fashionable.
Born in Amritsar in 1944, Ritu showed her spark early on and was ahead of her time way back in the 1960s and ’70s, when she began her own label in Kolkata, showcasing bridal and evening wear. Back then, Ritu used to work on handblock printing techniques using only two small tables. Creativity, determination and some fabulous work ensured she made her mark— she went international in the ’80s and ’90s, with branches in the fashion hubs of London, Paris and New York. Estimated to be around A10 billion, Ritu’s company, as compared to all the other fashion outlets, had the highest annual turnover at the time.
The motif forever
Ritu has always remained loyal to traditional and timeless Indian designs and motifs. She works relentlessly for the revival of age-old techniques such as the 2,000-yearold ajrakh printing and vegetable printing, as well as kalamkari and palampore chintz, which were, in fact, adopted by the Europeans in the 17th century but was dying out for want of patronage. Ritu even went to great lengths to restore some of these crafts, especially kalamkari, which she had to source from across the world with digital renderings. In fact, in her Winter/Festive edition at the Lakmé Fashion Week 2015, she brought the Benarasi weaves to the ramp. The motifs she used in her designs were hand-cut works including jamdani, kyari and shikargah, which were woven by the Varanasi weavers who have collaborated with the designer.
Ritu Kumar has been designing the attire for the participants of beauty pageants such as Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss Asia Pacific for over 20 years.
International celebs like Princess Diana, Anoushka Shankar and Mischa Barton have worn outfits by Ritu Kumar.
The Mughal-inspired wedding dress that Dia Mirza wore on her wedding-day was inspired by the septuagenarian designer. Also the marigold yellow anarkali that she wore for her mehendi.
All of Genelia Deshmukh’s trousseau was designed by her.
Soha Ali Khan picked Ritu’s rani-pink kurta for her mehendi function.
Lara Dutta arrived at Arpita Khan’s wedding celebrations in a Ritu Kumar ensemble.
The designer was recently in Mumbai for the unveiling of her new store, in Kala Ghoda, the art district of Mumbai, which culminated in a fashion presentation at the store. Said to be the first of its kind in India, the store has been given an element of history by showcasing specialised kalamkari designs and palampore chintz among the collections on display, with focus on the chintz textile trade of India. Evidently, the store could double up as a museum. The store is abuzz with activity when we arrive for our designated chat. We are led to where she is seated, dressed in an off-white long sleeveless kurti, and a black embroidered sleeveless jacket and a black dupatta, worn over a long off-white skirt. It is evident that age has not caught up with the designer’s energy and charisma. She gives us her endearing smile, putting us at ease immediately. We couldn’t help but start our interaction with one question that has got us curious for a while.
Here are excerpts of our tete-a-tete with the designer.
What brought on your love for Indian weaves?
I have been a textile historian, and I realised that India is perhaps one of the richest textile-based countries in the world, with an inexhaustible talent in the field. That has always drawn me to it and inspired me. And I enjoy going on revival spree in this area. I love not only weaving but also embroideries, prints and tie-dyes.
How did you think of moving out of printing techniques like natural hand-block printing?
Although it has its inherent qualities, hand-block techniques have limitations. But I learnt a lot about printing through the medium of printing, whether hand-block or colours, and it was simple for me to then move to hand-weaving and thereafter to digitising those prints. In fact, every discipline in the textile world is tremendously educating and I enjoy that journey.
Have you ever felt your journey in this industry was monotonous?
Monotony sets in when one gets complacent. That being said, every craft is such that there are times when one doesn’t have a fresh idea. That block has happened to me too, and I know there will be many such instances in the future. It merely indicates that I needed to be jolted out of my complacency, or move to another craft for a while. It gives me and my craft some breathing space, and then I get back to it. My brand has also experienced dips like that. Fortunately, another craft would come along and pull us up.
2013 – Padma Shri
2012 – L’Oreal Paris Femina Women’s Achievement Award
2008 – Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), an honour from the French Government
2007 – Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini award
What drives your passion?
Textiles and areas where textiles are practised, because India is rich in textiles with talented craftspeople. All of it makes it a rather exciting journey.
You have been dressing up women for over four decades. How far has Indian women’s dressing sense evolved?
Indian women have evolved immensely. And it is extremely impressive what they have achieved in terms of their style and dressing, making just enough changes to their traditional clothes, so that they are not just some antiques stored in their wardrobe. They have a wider perspective, which is reflective in their clothes. Fortunately in India, unlike many other places across the world, there haven’t really been many (rigid) prescriptions around dressing. The societal pressure to dress in a certain way has been little too, particularly among the educated, younger generation. The choices they make are their own. For instance, it is noticeable how we have veered away from the extreme imitations of the West as also our grandmother’s dressing style. We are finding our own path, whether it’s in the jeans we wear, pairing it with a tee or kurti, and a scarf or chunni. The call is ours, and we celebrate that choice rather colourfully too.
Talking about kurtis, a couple of years ago, some designers and bloggers had termed it boring. Would you agree?
It’s such an individual thing. With the kind of population we have, nobody in this country, can claim one thing is in fashion and the other thing is not. There are just too many variables to find that one label which fits all. So for someone like me who is comfortable in a kurti, I can’t think of anything better to wear.
Have you ever looked at somebody and, impressed with their dressing, felt, “Oh my God, she’s dressed up so well”?
All the time! I was in Jaipur recently, promoting the Rajasthani heritage, and I was so impressed by how the audience had turned up. Each of them seemed like she had a different take on the fabric she was wearing. Some women wore kurtis—some long, some short— some women wore ghagras, while some wore sarees. I was bowled over by all of their ability to dress up so well for occasions.
It is extremely impressive to see what Indian women have achieved in terms of their style and dressing, making just enough changes to the traditional clothes so that they are not just some antiques stored in their wardrobe.