I’ve just come back from a mammoth trip in Asia where I’ve had the time to really think about this idea of a quickening speed, that has taken over fashion’s consciousness (and perhaps its conscience, if it indeed has one…). In Seoul, the pace was fast with its frenetic frenzy of K-pop stars and buzzy street style scene almost overshadowing what you saw on the catwalk. In Japan, it slowed right down into a zen zone of wabi-sabi greens in Hakone and tradition-seeped reds in Kyoto and quickened back up in Tokyo, when Halloween. And then for my final jaunt in Asia, I was flung into the heart of Hong Kong, where I didn’t even have time to take in the waves of nostalgia hitting me because it was so vibrant with cries in Cantonese, cranes shifting and the sheer amount of people crammed into the narrow streets of Soho/Central. I was there to attend the finals of the Y.E.S. (Yoox.com & Esthetica Sustainability) Awards, which I was part of the jury for and also modelled for the website. Inside PMQ where six designers from Asia presented very different approaches to fashion, I got thinking about an alternative and ultimately slower pace that the industry could benefit from. One where designers can create with time to make innovative research into materials and production practises and actually make them a working reality.
This brings me back to my trip to India in February. I’ve still not yet been to see the much-talked about The Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. That will hopefully complete the cycle of the trip, but I’ve still got a wealth of experiences to share, which I didn’t want to be lost in the sea of fashion week madness. In lieu of the varying speeds of Asia from my trip and where fashion seems to be going right now, it feels appropriate to look at hands working away at cloth and making that connection between craft and consumer even more pertinent. I know I bang on about it to the point where it will bore some of you, but as fashion’s pace becomes ever more voracious, it’s worth reminding myself of the things that really get me excited in the creation of clothes. And that happens to be craft, skill and making. If that isn’t “fashion” for some people, then so be it. Maybe there will come a point where I won’t want to be part of a fashion landscape where the hands that went into a garment aren’t valued.
I have to therefore thank the V&A for giving me the opportunity to see an India that goes beyond the tourist flurry of colours and patterns and for showing me processes that would have otherwise been closed off to me. I’m separating out the posts by craft, beginning with tie dyeing. There would have been no way I would have found this tie dyer Haji Ahmed Badshah Miyan in a particularly run-down part of Rajasthan. Here, Badshah Miyan, who has been recognised for his skills as a master craftsman, showed us the myriad of examples of Indian tie dyeing. Like shibori in Japan, the indigo dyeing of Hausa in West Africa or pelangi and tritik in Indonesia, India – and in particular Rajasthan – has its own disinctive dyeing techniques. Bandhini is the name given to fabric dyed with tied up small dots and leheriya is a traditional style of tie dye where a wave like pattern is achieved with a tie-resist method and is meant to visually represent the flow of water. Older examples of India’s affinity with deep vermillion and indigo dyeing techniques can be seen in The Fabric of India exhibition but in Badshah Miyan’s workshop, we saw brightly coloured examples that you might see hanging up on laundry racks all over Jaipur, as dyeing fabrics is a regular commission that gives women a certain ownership over the customisation of their attire.
Badshah Miyan took us through the basics of tie dying, first prepping the dyes (mostly natural and azo-free) and then skilfully knotting the cotton with thread and a fine metal finger nail attachment. Building up the waves and lines of colour is a multi stage process and even though we were shown a very simple pattern in green and yellow, you could see how more complex designs could emerge from the process. Especially when you saw all the examples of fabric that had been knotted up and tied up in concertina folds, ready to unleash various patterns.
Throughout the trip, questions about how craft can be exported outside of India, or how it can be situated within a contemporary fashion environment were constantly asked. I found it interesting that in contrast to Japanese shibori or Indonesian batik, which has filtered into high fashion collections, Indian bandhini and leheriya hasn’t necessarily had that same West-wards cultural flow of direction. That’s also in comparison with India’s embroidery and block printing, which has had more of a design imprint. The setup of Badshah Miyan’s workshop felt like a craft showcase but the resulting textiles felt relevant and vibrant. Perhaps it’s the hand-led intricacy that makes this sort of tie dyeing confined to small tubs sloshing dye. And perhaps that in itself is a positive thing.
The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth India, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A until the 10th January 2016