How small labels are reviving handspun khadi to traditional prints

  • Mitali Parekh
  • Updated: Aug 14, 2015 21:38 IST
On Independence Day, we see how small labels are reviving our dying techniques: from handspun khadi to traditional prints. (Illustration: Malay Karmakar)

The new online label, Seventeen05, did not start off as a body-type inclusive label. Creator Roxan Irani’s (33) agenda was actually to make something contemporary using the traditional block print technique. She asked her friend, Radhika Chaturvedi Kaushik (34), to try out a few samples. Serendipitously, the cuts worked on a curvy body, and the public relations consultant ended up modelling for the website.

Most budding designers now pledge to revive and sustain the handloom industry. And the likes of Aneeth Arora, Gaurang Shah, Sanjay Garg and Rahul Mishra actually work towards it. But their designs are out of reach for those who don’t spend a minimum of Rs 20,000 on an everyday work dress.

A quieter revolution, however, has been brewing, one that hangs muslin and block print in our closet. Not with a FabIndia or an Anokhi tag, but via independent online stores, through catalogues on Facebook and aggregators such as, and

As FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India) president Sunil Sethi puts it, “These smaller brands service the customer who is looking for a niche product. They focus on any one thing — production technique, or weave, or craft — and so may not be able to compete with the big high-street brands in terms of production scale.”

The clothes are priced between Rs 2,500 and Rs 18,000 for handspun wool, khadi or organic, hand-dyed cotton and silk. Their production scales are actually determined by the production capacity of a weaver cluster, a tailoring unit, or simply, the inventory capacity of the designer.

Runaway Bicycle’s creations borrow elements such as pleats, loose waists and pinafores from school uniforms

Going natural

The stores thrive because they fill a void left by industrial fashion — the need for natural fabrics. Brands such as Ekà, Runaway Bicycle, Artisau and Translate have found that their buyers don’t necessarily want trends. They want breathability and relative modesty — around the kernel of handloom, weave or printing technique. Not to forget, pockets.

Take Runaway Bicycle, for instance. Creator Preeti Verma likes wearing cotton and loose clothes, so her lines borrow elements from school uniforms — pleats, below-the-knee hems, loose waists, pockets and pinafores. Thanks to her background in advertising, she knows that people want to buy a story. So, her collections have unique names such as Dear Life and Rosie’s my Best Friend, and pieces called Steal a Sapling and The Alphonso at the Matinee Show. She also doesn’t reveal her models’ faces “because the expression has nothing to do with the clothes”. A story of afternoons spent squelching mud and climbing trees is what she sells.

Ekà, by Rina Singh, a 41-year-old from Gurgaon, has smock silhouettes in midi-lengths and separates that can be layered. Artisau’s maker, Simran Chaudhry, personally prefers men’s shirts for their leeway around armholes, and her clothes have the roominess of men’s kurtas (with a panel on the side with pockets) and the flair of Gujarati kediyus.

Ekà has smock silhouettes in midi-lengths and separates that can be layered

Ananya Chaudhari, a 34-year-old celebrity manager in Mumbai, is excited by clothes made out of natural fabrics that allow freedom of movement. She’s a fan of labels such as Péro and Payal Khandwala. But Runaway… suits her everyday need to be presentable, while being cool and comfortable in Mumbai’s sticky climate.

And though they might seem a bit basic, such brands are not behind on distinctiveness. Hyderabad-based Vinita Passary’s Translate takes colourful ikats and crafts them into structured- but-flowing dresses that can be worn as kurtas, wrap jackets that can be worn as shirts, and long shirts that can pass off for dresses or tunics.

Seventeen05 uses traditional blocks for contemporary motifs such as feathers, ladybugs, arrows, dandelions and stripes. To mimic the sheen of polyester, Irani blends linen, viscose, cotton and silk.

Blueprint Colección, by the Chennai-based Niranjan sisters, Divya and Navya, takes silk brocades and crafts them into coordinated separates, prom dresses with shirt-sleeve torsos and crop tops.

Preeti Verma, founder, Runaway Bicycle

Size that fits all

A major appeal of such brands is their ability to customise clothes and cater to diverse body types. India does not have a standard sizing, and that leads to vanity sizing. Even international high-street brands allegedly mark M as an XL, a size they often don’t make any clothes in.

Blueprint beats the size issue by using Facebook to catalogue new designs, with the implementation coming only after you order. Which means you can have this dress, in that silhouette, with a shorter skirt, made in your size. They also leave a margin in the samples they make for retail stores: “We usually send a size M,” says Divya, “with enough margin for it to be turned into an S or let out to become an L without compromising on finish.”

Ekà, too, posts catalogues online, and custom-makes even a back-dated item from a past collection if the fabric is available.

What makes it interesting

These brands do not satisfy the hyper-buying consumer. Their inventory is small (Artisau makes about 30 pieces in each pattern), their collection sizes are not set, and there is often a waiting period of a week or more. Some, such as Translate, operate through exhibitions such as Design One and the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, so exposure to the physical items is restricted.

Long shirt by Artisau

Further, Translate does not experiment too much — they have set patterns, which means you can repeat a dress you bought two years ago in a different print and colour, but there’s nothing new in silhouette. Runaway Bicycle actually shuts down their website for a month or more while they work on a new collection.

But what sets them apart from other brands is how personal journeys make their way to the designs. For instance, Artisau’s recent tops and kurtas came out of a trip to Kutch. Their kediyu tops are based on the traditional male blouses of the region, but made in Bengal muslins.

For its more recent collection, Runaway Bicycle ventured into premium organic cotton and khadi silk, taking prices to Rs 10,000 from the earlier Rs 3,500. They, however, retained the basic line of mul and gamcha fabrics. Ideation at Translate is a continuous process — they provide colour and design input to weaver centres in Andhra Pradesh — and new pieces are added as they are ready.

The result of all this is a more digestible pace of fashion instead of click-happy impulse buying that happens online. There are no sales or discounts, mainly because there is no huge inventory to empty. Naturally, it forces the consumer to contemplate their purchase.

Jacket dress by Artisau

Thinking woman’s clothes

If there is a target customer for all this affordable handloom and prints, it’s the accomplished, intelligent woman with a social conscience. Filmmaker Kiran Rao has recently been celebrated as an Ekà champion. Passary profiles the Translate buyer as a more mature woman whose tastes don’t waver according to trends. An oft-travelling lady prefers to wear the ikat-based label while flying not only to put her ethnicity in a modern context, but because she always gets compliments.

Chaturvedi Kaushik is originally from Delhi, which has a culture of block prints and traditional clothes in the workspace. “Seventeen05’s clothes don’t look like typical block-prints of Jaipur. The roots are Indian, but it’s modern,” she says.

Kurta by Artisau

Social conscience

While it may not influence the buyer’s decision, the social conscience of these brands is what really sets them apart. Translate uses AZO-free dyes (AZO dyes are synthetic, and the components allegedly cause certain kinds of cancer) that are good for the skin, while giving steady income and innovation to weaver clusters. Seventeen05 works with block printers from Charni Road’s (Mumbai) Weavers Service Centre to employ the ancient technique in a modern role. Weaver clusters in Bihar who were only weaving gamchas and lungis are now forced to stay relevant. Not to mention the sustenance of handspun khadi. On their websites, each brand details the production processes and the location of the weaver centres and their challenges.

It’s certainly not what consumers are looking for when browsing for a nice frock for Monday mornings at work; or when looking to make the most of the Independence Day sales on the online retail giant websites.

But it makes for a happy ending after the card is swiped.

Several of the brands work with traditional weavers

Several of the brands work with traditional weavers

Several of the brands use ethnic block prints

Several of the brands work with traditional weavers

What the big guys are doing

Anita Dongre
Her latest label, Anita Dongre Grassroot, aims to empower craftsmen. Features weaves such as Benarasi and ikat.

Ritu Kumar
Signature collections launched under the Revivalist by Ritu Kumar banner brought traditional handicrafts and textiles into the mainstream.

Ritu Kumar at the LFW winter festive 2015. (Photo: Yogen Shah)

Sabyasachi Mukherjee
A pioneer in reviving Indian textiles in a modern context. Uses indigenous methods such as bandhani, gota work, block printing and hand-dyeing.

Gaurang Shah
The Hyderabad-based designer is known for his handcrafted saris. He supports more than 500 handlooms across India engaged in Jamdani weaving.

Designer Gaurang Shah with Chitrangada Singh at the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2013. (File photo: Amlan Dutta)

Raghavendra Rathore
The Raghavendra Rathore Foundation uses Benarasi silk in its signature style. Rathore also works closely with artisans to reinvent khadi, silks and other hand-woven fabrics.

(Photos: Simran Chaudhry; courtesy: Ekà, Runaway Bicycle, Seventeen05)

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