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“Would you agree that Kareena Kapoor would add nothing to my brand?”

Why designer Sanjay Garg refused to have the actress as his showstopper.... and other little-known facts about the quiet little creative genius

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2018 23:22 IST
Shefalee Vasudev
Shefalee Vasudev
Hindustan Times
Sanjay Garg,Raw Mango,Kareena Kapoor
In an industry where being in the spotlight builds brand value, why does Sanjay Garg choose to take a back seat?(Photos shot exclusively for HT Brunch by Shovan Gandhi)

A few months before Lakmé Fashion Week’s (LFW) Winter Festive 2017 edition scheduled for August, I got a call from designer Sanjay Garg. “Would you agree that Kareena Kapoor Khan as the showstopper would add nothing to my brand, its definition or its influence – at least in the way I wish to evolve my signature?” he asked.

As always, he was restless and direct. Being offered a finale (or the opening show) is just the kind of homage to his work that would interest Garg. But accepting it with the existent formula – Kapoor Khan as the Lakmé Absolut brand ambassador is the de rigueur showstopper for all finales – didn’t appeal to him.

“I don’t see my brand that way. I don’t want the visual or associative messaging to get mixed up,” he said. “I have checked into a remote forest resort and am going to think it through in the next two days,” he said.

Keeping it real

LFW opened in August with Sanjay Garg’s collection Cloud People at the newly refurbished Royal Opera House in Mumbai. It was a Lakmé Absolut sponsored show – a finale repackaged as an opening show. It did not star Kareena Kapoor Khan. That evening, Royal Opera House throbbed with the expectant excitement of Garg’s guests – the who’s who, who’s new and who’s knew were all there.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Sanjay Garg’s hand-woven sari label Raw Mango that brought him attention and fame (Shovan Gandhi)

If the underlying context was about his branding, Garg got it right. His dissonance with the celebrity fixated ways of fashion weeks was the best untold story of LFW that season. In an era of clever, me-too marketing, lingering buzz still emanates from unusual choices. Besides, a majority of his female guests wore Raw Mango hand-woven saris or Sanjay Garg ready-to-wear woven garments. A recognisable subculture stamped with his design DNA was evident. Cloud People revisited chikankari on white mul without gluttonous excess and included androgynous silhouettes in weaves like gold brocade that are primarily associated with ostentation in India. Fit and anti-fit, plainness and prettiness, emerald greens and jewelled maroons, sheer and opaque, lehngas, short and long jackets and men’s kurtas on female models, midnight blue brogues, sleek hair and dark eye make-up on models were some contours of the show. This was just Garg’s fourth participation at a fashion week.

Sanjay Garg, the designer’s eponymous label of ready-to-wear (woven on specially re-set looms, not tailored on machines) is just four years old. But this year marks the 10th anniversary of his hand-woven sari label that brought Garg attention and fame. That rekindled interest in his handloom saris through their texture and fall, designs and motifs, parrots, cows or simple blue borders. Garg’s seductively reimagined grammar of colour that danced between his saris and boxy blouses (no bustiers, no plunging cholis with strings at the back) brought him clientele that ranges from 20 to 70 years old and beyond. It also changed the fortunes of the Chanderi village weavers in Madhya Pradesh. He was not the first to visit or rediscover Chanderi, but he certainly revitalised the weave with freshness design intervention and saleability.

Models showcasing Sanjay Garg’s creations at fashion shows (Getty Images)

In 2008, the year he launched Raw Mango, Garg’s annual turnover wasRs 90,000. It crossed Rs 10 crore in the 2012-13 financial year, he said in an interview in 2013. This year, all he says is that it has increased fourfold in the last four years. While Good Earth, the well-known design store, has been stocking Raw Mango since 2011, Garg now has three standalone stores – the first big “proper shop” as he calls it in Mumbai’s Colaba, a riveting space, a small one in Bengaluru, and the oldest and the quaintest in a farmhouse in Chhattarpur off Delhi. Far from any mall or market and a rather long drive from the city, it attracts more than 500 clients a month and about 98 per cent of the visits turn into sales, says Garg. The brand now employs around 120 people in its city offices and owns 500 looms that provide work to 1,500 weavers and other workers in different weaving clusters across India.

Out of Garg’s three standalone stores, the oldest and the quaintest is in a farmhouse in Chhattarpur off Delhi (Shovan Gandhi)

Out of the box

Those are only some of the reasons why it is time to observe Garg’s work and influence in a manner that pries itself free from the rubber stamps it has gathered so far. Profiles (include one written by me in 2013) that betray amazement about a small town boy from Mubarakpur who was educated in the Hindi medium and is today a household name in textile fashion need to be archived. The story turns now. “I don’t want textiles to be my design yardstick; I want to be able to design perfumes, puppets and much more,” says Garg. This 10th year will see a more layered design focus with announcements about new products. “I like to prove myself wrong. I am in a dialogue, in fact many dialogues with myself. I am not sure if handloom makes sense just because so many designers are working with it,” he says.

“I don’t want textiles to be my design yardstick; I want to be able to design perfumes, puppets and much more”

His words, ideas, imaginations and perplexities topple over each other to create an intense, stream of consciousness conversation. I ask him why he has recently become incredibly fond of English as a language. He instantly switches to idiom-peppered Hindi to describe the furniture and fabric of his mind. And his head.

Garg’s mind-head is a stormy, restive place. It is lashed by winds of talent, ambition, unapologetic rebellion punctuated by uncertainty and debate. The three angel-demons that preside here are named Chanderi, Mashru and The Brocade Lehnga. The first is his flagship imprint of arrival, survival and success. The second is a weave he brought unusual interventions to. The third, his ready-to-wear best seller also created in Banaras that became – after the debut of the Sanjay Garg label in 2014 – a “trend”. So much a “trend” that it spurred half a dozen other designers to introduce brocade lehngas. It is a bride magnet after all.

Pieces from Sanjay Garg’s antique collection at his store-cum-studio in Chhattarpur (Shovan Gandhi)

But the way his ideas have been ruthlessly plagiarised by fellow designers and well-known stores makes him fume. “It’s taken me time to digest my work being so copied; I will never understand how designers can source from weavers who work with us or replicate designs. Changing the size of a motif or the colour is not enough – our engineered panel lehngas took months to develop. All of us who are widely copied say that this gives employment to a large copycat economy. I understand this impact but it does not justify intellectual property theft,” he says.

Independence movement

Garg suffers from chronic Karmic discontent. It is his quest to do things in his own way: his campaigns have all been shot by photographers out of the fashion domain, his Colaba store is managed by a PhD scholar, he served chooran in a brass box instead of chocolates at one of his shows, he doesn’t want to duck behind nationalism through handlooms to exploit workers or be spartan with his own money. These days he is gripped with the thought of writing a newspaper column on politics and about design through poetry.

“I am not sure if handloom makes sense just because so many designers are working with it”

Garg says he is viscerally spurred to elevate any idea that is socially looked down upon. “It is because the sari was seen as an inferior, non-modern garment in the years I was growing up, that I took to it with a vengeance,” he says. He disliked school unlike his two siblings and admits when prodded that neither does he always agree with his mother nor do his parents really understand his work.

All the same, he takes professional criticism well even when it needles him beyond comfort. One of the reasons why no publicist can never really represent Garg is because he has his own vocabulary; his expressions sit at intersections of questioning, creativity, puns and folkloric analogies. He is original. He can’t be pinned down to a press release. He wants to make brocades for khadi wearers, but only he can explain why.

Sanjay Garg is getting ready for a show at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad next month (Shovan Gandhi)

Unlike his mind, Garg’s surroundings are quiet. His Chhattarpur store has a white noise about it and clothes are stocked inside generous closets with his personally designed brass hangers. His work space is a white painted small house in another farm that stands at the end of the same street. While the media was crowing about his saris, he has turned into an ardent collector of antiques – textiles, unsewn fabrics, craft creations, brass, wood work and jewelled objects – anything that unravels Indian artisanal legacies, has a point of view through the name of the previous collector, or is an object of bygone whimsy. Like an Indian currency note from 1932 stamped with Queen Victoria’s face.

“I design all the furniture in my stores and my office... I have identified my carpenters and ironsmiths”

These artefacts sit adroitly in his store as well as his office – he has 450 pieces so far. An antique brocade sari from his private collection was chosen as part of Items: Is Fashion Modern? at the MoMA in New York. The exhibition that opened on October 1 ends today.

Garg’s wooden work desk is a large, wide arresting piece in the colour of ground cinnamon that he designed himself. “I design all the furniture in my stores and my office – I have identified my carpenters and ironsmiths,” he explains.

Across us sits a charpoy with some very old (and incredibly soft) handwoven saris. “I collect these as samples to show weavers; it is a piece of proof which is hard to communicate through books. If someone could do it hundred years back, surely a weaver can do it now,” he says. He is readying for a show at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad next month.

Now bearded and beginning to bald at 37, Garg who is dressed in wintry layers of deep indigo-dyed blue Himalayan wool stitched into a jacket and trousers, and an indigo khes (thick indigenously woven textile) ) around his neck looks like an artist in residence in his farmhouse studio. The E Class Mercedes parked outside is an industrial foil to his artisanal philosophy.

I ask him if he wants to be on the cover of GQ.

Time magazine,” he says.

From HT Brunch, January 28, 2018

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