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Smriti Irani: Judge me by my work, not my footwear

The feisty Minister of Textiles silences detractors; says what matters is capacity, not appearance

more lifestyle Updated: May 26, 2018 19:05 IST
Sonal Kalra
Sonal Kalra
Hindustan Times
Smriti Irani,Minister,Cotton
Smriti Irani says that the tragedy of Indian fashion is that it is treated as fluff, and not given the respect that it deserves.(Arun Sharma/HT PHOTO)

Armed with domain knowledge, trademark witty comebacks and self-deprecating humour, Smriti Irani can be a force to reckon with. The Union Minister for Textiles speaks candidly to us about the potential and the challenges – for both Indian fashion, and herself.

Q: The textiles ministry’s mandate seems like a dichotomy –the urban audience is focusing on fashion and apparel, and the rural on weavers and craftsmen. Which one is priority?

We prioritise every segment. One segment doesn’t grow at the cost of the other. The complexity of the textiles industry is such that everyone looks at it through their personal lens. So you may look at it as simply apparel, but one of biggest segments in the industry right now is made-ups, or the home textiles, and the future is technical textiles. There are so many pieces in this jigsaw. When it comes together, it fits. One of my most blissful moments of being the textiles minister is to see all the silos of the textiles industry sit together on policy issues and put up a united front, which is very positive.

Read more: Celebrating Indian craftsmen: This is why #CottonIsCool is trending on Twitter

Q:What changes have you witnessed in the fashion and textiles scene in India?

Everyone today wants to sell their wares to India. And magnificently, most of the big brands source their stuff also from India. So they are rather sheepish when it comes to disclosing the origin of their product, especially if it is from India. Because they are getting a product made here, and then bringing it back to sell it here – with a mark-up! And they know that Indians will look at it and say, ‘Arre, yeh toh ghar mein bana hai. Why should I pay more for it?’ That awareness is a big change. Also, more and more people in India today are experimenting with their clothes. Gone are the days when a person would say ‘I have a good suit. It’ll last me two or three years.’ In fact, I see more and more men in India becoming fashion conscious. It has been presumed that experimenting with textiles is primarily a woman’s domain. But men are catching up! An aspiring India is aspiring for better textiles.

Q: How is the textiles ministry contributing to that change?

You know, it was supposedly a dead ministry. People felt ki kya hota hoga textiles mein. Not realising that a huge potential of employment, of imagery, of cultural legacy of India, lies in textiles. Textiles as a sector has an industrial facet to it, a design facet to it, and a cultural facet to it. One of my first experiments in my ministry was to start the #iwearhandloom hashtag. Who would have thought that wearing handloom could be turned into a movement on social media? And it became one of the largest trends, not just in India, but in the world. And then we started #CottonIsCool. Now people keep asking me, ‘When is your next hashtag coming?’

Q: And have you thought of the next hashtag?

I actually have! Just the timing has to be right. Because you see, it’s not something superficial. As we saw with #iwearhandloom, the minute that collective activity happened, the sales actually went up. We had people understanding the legacy of handloom, right at home.

Q: Was the Prime Minister involved with the movement?

Well, the Prime Minister actually started the India Handloom brand. Can you imagine the foresight? I mean, here were those la-di-das who, for 50-60 years, never thought of positioning handloom as a brand. And here comes a gentleman who said, ‘Make it into a brand and be clear about what it stands for.’ We figured that there were mainly two issues: handloom clothes had colour that ran, and kapda that shrinks. So quality hallmarks were created under the India Handloom brand. A conscious push was given to using natural colours, organic dyes. And we connected the simple weaver to the bigger market. Even brands got involved – I remember, Allen Solly did handloom shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons for men. Biba took out a special collection... every player in the industry did their bit. Then we managed to put together the Textiles India show (in Gandhinagar, Gujarat) in just over a month. Just imagine, 100 countries participated, 1,200 buyers came, and the entire fraternity got together. Sone pe suhaga was that the minute the Prime Minister heard of it, he said, ‘I am coming for it.’

Read more: One for the weavers: #iwearhandloom is trending

Q: What’s your take on the fashion weeks in India?

I think the tragedy of Indian fashion is that it is treated as fluff, and not given the respect that it deserves. Because when fashion weeks are held, they are done after a lot of research to give a platform to genuine talent. The organising bodies of fashion weeks know that if they pick someone who is not good, it would spell doom not just for the designer, but also for the platform. That’s why I feel those who do not take these platforms with seriousness are doing a great disservice to Indian fashion.

Q: But politicians in India never associate themselves openly with fashion. Isn’t that a paradox?

I don’t think so. In India, politicians generally do not like to talk about personal choices in the public domain. Nobody beats a drum in the middle of the road about their likes or dislikes; you get to know about their choices only when you get to know them personally. Despite being the minister, even I don’t talk about it. Only if someone would tell you would you know that I attended international fairs such as Heimtextil or the Maison et Objet. It is for the business and the administrative side of my sector to know about my involvement and knowledge.

Q: Do you have an eye on elections while announcing big plans for the sector?

Evolution of the industry is not connected to one election. The Prime Minister announced a 6,000-crore package for textiles. Its benefits will go way beyond the 2019 elections. It has already got 27,000-crore worth of investment. Take skilling, as another example. Between 2011 and 2014, one lakh people were trained. Between 2014 and 2018, we have already skilled over 6 lakh people. Six times the number! PM says that the biggest disservice you can do to a sector is to look at it through the political lens. It should always be looked at through the lens of what the country needs. The textiles sector has tremendous potential. Par hum yeh sab kaam jo kar rahein hain us pe logo ka dhyaan tab jayega jab unka dhyan mere flip-flops se hatega (laughs).

#throwback to a time when kids and weight were under control 😂#tbt 💖💖💖

A post shared by Smriti Irani (@smritiiraniofficial) on

Q: You are alluding to a recent opinion piece in Mumbai Mirror, questioning your dressing sensibilities and weight gain...?

I recently put up an old photo of me and my kids on Instagram, and captioned it as ‘Throwback to a time when kids and weight were under control’ (laughs). To answer your question, I have always believed in one thing, especially as a woman, and an actor – always be judged on your talent, on your capacity to make a difference, and never for anything else. Gender, looks, weight – that should not matter. You can gain fashion sense, you can lose it, or have no fashion sense at all – what you can never artificially gain is your capacity, which you build yourself. Talent is not something you wear, talent is something you have.

Interact with the author on Twitter/ @sonalkalra

First Published: May 26, 2018 18:53 IST