Her work with hand-woven Indian textiles is showcased in some of the biggest stores around the world. Her clients include Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi, Rekha, Hema Malini and Shabana Azmi. Yet, designer Neeru Kumar who opened the recent Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in New Delhi says she prefers to keep things simple. “I maintain a low profile,” she says. “I never attend Page 3 parties. I don’t even have a PR agent.” Over a caprese salad at Golfworx, a multi-cuisine restaurant in Gurgaon’s Ambience Mall, Kumar chats about the international appeal of her designs and the role of textiles in Indian fashion.
You’ve been a textile designer for 30 years and an FDCI member for 10. Why was this the first time you opened the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week?
I’ve just been extremely busy with my work and a lot of international fairs. Frankly, I didn’t think it was necessary to participate in the Fashion Week because they have never been taken seriously before. Plus, it is a lot of extra work. But this time, I thought it wasn’t a bad idea to break out of my comfort zone. Also, it was a great opportunity to make my brand stronger in India.
Why have Indian textiles largely been ignored on the Indian fashion circuit?
I’ve been trying to find an answer to that myself. It’s sad, because we have such a strong textile inheritance and diversity in our fabrics. I think it’s just a matter of contemporising your designs for people to like them.
You are a bigger name internationally than in India. Isn’t that ironic, since you work with Indian textiles?
I don’t see it that way because really, we’re taking Indian textiles to the world! We are showing them what we are capable of in terms of design. We didn’t have to tweak designs for the international market, they were accepted as they were. We managed to break out of this perception of being a back-end manufacturing hub where there was no originality in design.
Why do your designs have such an international appeal?
I think I always try to push the envelope and be original. We have an R&D team that works seven days a week – their only job is to brainstorm about how we can play around with fabrics, colours, materials, patterns to create something that is simple, stylish, wearable and will still stand out. That’s been the idea all along the way. Plus, the West buys stuff that they can relate to and all my designs are really contemporary.
What role do textiles play in Indian fashion?
Let me give you an example. Fifteen years ago, I started working with kantha embroidery. Nobody really knew about it at that time in a big way. But today, people all over the world can recognise kantha – I bet a lot of Indians wouldn’t be able to! – because it has been commercialised and marketed well. Today I’ve got weavers from Orissa who do ikat weaving on sarees and jamdani weavers as well..
Tell us about your work with the weavers.
I have been working with them since 1984. But let me be very clear – I’m not trying to be a saint, I’m not trying to save a dying tradition, because that’s something that I cannot do alone. It needs the patronage of the entire community. That said, there’s no doubt that it brings awareness to their craft and provides livelihood to a lot of people. That’s especially true for the kantha embroiderers because kantha was virtually unknown outside of rural Bengal about ten years ago.