Nitin Bal Chauhan did a curious thing after he finished his course at NIFT, Delhi, in 2002 with the Best Design Collection Award in hand.
Turning down a scholarship from the Domus Academy at Milan to pursue a masters in fashion design, he disappeared into the hills of Himachal for two years. "It was supposed to be a holiday" he says. "I just wanted to go home, relax and clear my head."
He didn't expect to stumble onto crafts that were dying out. Bringing these craftsmen out of obscurity became a priority. So he started the NGO SEWA Himalayas that created sustainable employment solutions for tribal weavers and tailors in collaboration with government employment programmes. He also created a database of artisans in the region and connected them to fashion students and designers across the country Suddenly villagers in the middle of nowhere were part of mainstream fashion.
It worked. Until the government changed and familiar faces were replaced by suspicious new ones who wondered if he wasn't doing all this "social work" for political reasons. It was time to disconnect and launch his studio in Delhi. But the ties remain. "Fashion to me is something very basic. The way we clothe ourselves is influenced by tribal fashion. The concept of volume, cuts, weaves, dyeing all come from an existing heritage.
His latest collection, Mourning, for the Lakme Fashion Week howeven seems a little removed from Indian crafts. The clothes he will show are formal, disciplined cuts with little unobtrusive details like overlapping pleats at the hem or fringed collars that bring the outfits to life.
"My Catholic schooling seems to affect the way I design. It is very structured and formal," he remarks. A throwback to his graduating collection that was dedicated to the soldiers at Kargil, this collection aches for soldiers whose one mistake can cost lives. "I wanted to encapsulate romantic, passionate idealism." The adjectives he uses to describe Mourning could easily apply to himself.