First, a quick word. If you haven’t read Counterfashion 1 through 5, please go to the home page, and click on the Everything—>Wearable tabs right beneath the ‘nerdydevi’.
This brings us to the end of the Counterfashion series, posts on brave, countercultural brands and designers that make clothes for the real woman, the sort of woman that is supremely comfortable in her skin. Not someone that attaches importance to labels, but prioritises craft and provenance over ‘with it’-ness. Someone that recognises that simplicity and austerity can, and does trump bling and bigness.
My own lessons in austere living come from my parents; my family has (an embarrassingly redundant) royal connection; Katoch royalty goes back to the great battle at Kurukshetra, and we’re mentioned in the Mahabharata as allies of the Kauravas, the bad guys that wore a lot of black, sported handlebars and kohl, and laughed evilly as a response to almost anything, even the question “Would you like to meet your cousins? They’re here for the friendly chess tourney you set up.”, if BR Chopra is to be believed. Today, all that remains of our heritage is a crumbling, mossy-walled fort in Kangra, a musty wood-panelled palace in Palampur that’s taken to serving chai and pakoras to weekend visitors, for financial sustenance, and the odd moth-balled relic in a museum in Delhi. Whatever was left of the clan’s lands was usurped by the British and later by the government, which means that over three generations have been left broke, title-less and entirely bummed. Which also means that you grow up watching grandparents, parents and their cousins get by with, say, three changes of clothes (but a ton of nostalgic anecdotes, seriously) and that you attend college wearing your mother’s old salwar kameezes and your dad’s old jeans, refitted to your tiny frame. You also walk 5 kilometres in Delhi’s punishing heat, from one bus stop to the next because you’re saving up 10 rupees for a pack of Kurkure, which you love more than anything else. Nothing builds character like poverty, and I say that with neither irony nor sarcasm. You learn to value and see beauty in worn things, stuff that people discard, stuff that people won’t give a thought to because ‘it’s not fashionable any more’. And that’s why my thrust on authencity, pared-down-ness, the fundamentals, the middle-finger-to-trends, value for money and versatility. I want every rupee to count.
PS: I’m ashamed that for a while, when I was working a brilliant job and living the dream life, I succumbed, idiotically, to the charms of high street shopping. On weekends, I’d shops armfuls of on-trend clothes that looked great but barely survived two washes, and I’d tell myself it was okay, I was earning now, and flimsy was fashionable. I’d bristle at the thought of buying stuff on sale- you NEVER bought sale stuff, especially not for loved ones- and I’d walk into DLF Emporio without a thought, loving how luxurious it felt to be loaded down with enormous bags, chugging at a tall, strong coffee between shops, and making ‘To Do’ lists on my phone that featured the words ‘brunch’, ‘dry cleaners’ and ‘fittings’ a lot. When I look back, I can barely recognise myself. Today, I’m obsessed with getting the most out of my three hundred rupee tee, and if it costs above five hundred, I’m not even looking. If it’s a sari, it better be re-wearable, and if it’s a dress, it better be re-purposeable. It’s the equivalent of a detox, and while I’m still ashamed at Past Nerdydevi, I’m also a happier and wiser person.
Here’s the last of the brands:
Masaba Gupta, golden kinky-haired child of India and the West Indies is ridiculously young and ridiculously brilliant. I’ve been following her since her debut two/ three? years ago, and when she took over as Creative Head at Satya Paul, I did a fist pump. Why? Because we need more people celebrating the indigenous aesthetic. If you were to map the world based on the predominant colour on its streets, London and Paris will be grey, navy and muted, and India and the West Indies a swirl of primary colours, mixing and clashing like the colours of an oil dispersion in a puddle.
Masaba is best known for her black & white obsession, improbable colour combinations, playful, quirky motifs, all on saris not meant for the wallflower or the faint of heart. Her stubborn refusal to follow colour and silhouette trends means that in her clothes, you stick out like a beer drinker at a wine tasting. They’re not easy to wear either. They’re best worn without jewellery or makeup, because the prints and colours are overwhelming, and they require tons of sass to carry. If you’re going to wear a near-neon yellow, you’d better know what you’re doing.
That said, she is prodigiously copied, and you will find replicas of her work in grimy little stores in any city, right up there with Sabyasachi and Anamika Khanna rip-offs. Her Nandi, camera, giant polka dot, rose and table fan motifs have sneaked into snaky gullies in Lajpat Nagar and Karol Bagh. I’ve had a greasy-haired, gold-toothed man at Frontier Raas (South Extension, Delhi) try to sell me one with a, “Masaba se better hai madam, unki toh plan hoti hain, ismein toh badhiya embrodurry hai, badhiya bareek bhara hua kaam hai!’ (This is better than a Masaba original, because her saris are plan (plain) and this one? It has great embroidery, it’s filled with embroidery, it’s Embroidery Central!) *FACEPALM* Frontier Raas, why you no get it?
And now, two words of caution. a. her saris aren’t very ‘repeatable’, which is always the case with bold, in-your-face stuff, so unless you’re really flush with funds, don’t go buying them and b. if and when you do, shop only at her own stores. Her Satya Paul work doesn’t impress me one bit; her big, paintbrush aesthetic doesn’t translate well on that sort of fabric (Satya Paul does a lot of crepe, crepe de chine and georgette). She was brought in to reinvigorate the brand, and she has done that, but I feel she’s constrained by their choice of fabric, because her work, which is mostly stark and clashy and eyeball-grabbing, shows up better on rough, nubby cotton and silk that feels raw to the touch.
I own four Masaba saris, all gifts from Husband, who is inexplicably un-miserly when it comes to birthdays and anniversaries. He has an excellent eye for detail, which means that I own some gorgeous prints- my favourites are a camera print (worn by Dipannita Sharma, below) and the hand print and black-and-green beauties (worn by Sonam Kapoor, below). Masaba also makes palazzos, blazers, kurtas and lehengas, all featuring her famous black-and-white prints, offset with beautiful, bright swatches of colour. A sari can set you back by well over twenty thou, and her other pieces by well over ten thou.
Here are my favourite Masaba looks from the ramp:
And here are my favourite celebs wearing it like only they can; I especially love Sonam’s styling-
Delhi Masaba stores I haunt– Meherchand market, Khan market. She also retails online at Pernia Qureshi’s ‘Pernia’s Popup Store’
What I mostly buy– Their saris
Similar brands I love– Nikhil Thampi, which brings us to…
13. Nikhil Thampi
Nikhil Thampi’s clothes- specifically his black-and-metallic saris- could be worn by a ninja on an assignment that involves seducing handsome men and killing them off with a tiny poisoned dart hidden in the yellow diamond on the ring finger. They could also be worn by Uma Thurman reprising her role in an Indian remake of Kill Bill. His garments are rich, dark and mysterious, and if you’re the sort of person that people call ‘enigmatic’, you’ve hit the sweet spot.
If Masaba does a hyperbolical, dramatic interpretation of her inspiration, the street, Thampi draws on the dark nooks and the sharp, cruel edges of the urban landscape. He disembodies and reinterprets beloved Indian motifs- the kathakali dancer’s mask, the matsya (fish) by rendering them sterile and unrecognisable, much like the lives of the citizens of Gotham City. (Waddup Batman reference!) In this removal from context, this reinterpretation, lies his genius: he shows you that alienation and solitariness can be things of beauty.
Thampi’s work has longevity and serious classic appeal. I don’t own one of his designs yet, but actively stalk his work. His saris cost upwards of thirty thou.
My favourite looks, filched from Pernia’s Popup Shop. I wish I remembered where the last image is from- random blog reader, if it belongs to you and you’d like me to credit it, please do let me know. Aren’t these stunning?
Delhi Nikhil Thampi stores I haunt– He retails online at Pernia’s Popup Store
What I mostly buy– Haven’t bought anything yet
Similar brands I love– Masaba (see what I did there?)
14. Abraham & Thakore
I will now proceed to shamelessly quote from their website, because they’ve put it better than I ever could:
‘Each Abraham & Thakore collection continues the exploration of developing a quiet and modern design voice while simultaneously drawing on the rich traditional vocabulary of Indian design and craft. The design sensibility is low key yet highly distinctive, with a strong respect for material, form and craft. In a consumer world of mass-produced fast fashion, Abraham & Thakore reiterates the belief that real luxury lies in specially crafted product in limited numbers of high quality.’
Abraham & Thakore garments are underunderstated (this word needed inventing); I’ve actually seen two Burberry-clad women at their Emporio store wrinkle their noses in puzzlement and disbelief at their garments- one of which was the colour of muddy water and the consistency of worn muslin. Their sensibility is hard to understand if you equate luxury with sensorial opulence. Their clothes are mostly rough to the touch, and look like they’ve been through the wringer. Their favoured palette is shades of black, white and brown and goes best with humble footwear- kolhapuris, Birkenstocks, tan juttis, and silver, cloth or wooden jewellery. If you wear their clothes, you’re never going to be mobbed and asked where you shop. But you’re going to feel quietly confident, sure of your place in the world- and in a few cases, you’re also going to intimidate. Personally, that’s a feeling I love. I’m often mistaken for an extrovert, but I’m terrified of letting people in easily, and so I resort to intimidation- both verbal and sartorial.
I’ve visited their store at DLF Emporio many times, only to return empty handed, because I can never seem to find a garment I want in my size. I believe they’ve now moved to Defence Colony. Their saris are upward of ten to fifteen thou and their garments upward of five to seven thou.
My favourite Abraham & Thakore looks from the runway (images via fdci.org, stylemag.in and hindustantimes.com)
Sonam Kapoor killing it in Abraham & Thakore at Anuja Chauhan’s book launch:
Delhi Abraham & Thakore stores I haunt– formerly, DLF Emporio. They’ve moved to Defence Colony, the address is on their website
What I mostly buy– Nothing yet
Similar brands I love– James Ferreira’s work with linen and khadi comes close
There are so many designers/ brands I haven’t covered; the ones I have drive the visibility for their ilk. Forgive me for what I’m about to do next; it isn’t because I’m lazy, it’s because I’m really pressed for time.
More designers, brands and stores that are contemporizing the handloom sari and making it cool (click on the arrows on the pictures to read further)
The Sari Warriors- revivalist designers who count
Udd- an excellent sari brand that incorporate folksy motifs in their saris. They retail at the odd curated exhibition, and on their Facebook page
Rani Pink’k- maker of pretty, edgy saris with lots of character, inspired by patchwork quilts and traditional Indian prints. Visit their Facebook page. I especially love their styling; they showcase their work on the Average Anjali. 🙂 My favourite piece is this sky blue georgette beauty that costs around eighteen thou:
Aaaaand it’s a WRAP! Thank you for the love! To end this with style, here’s a blurry picture of me from 2012, just before my wedding date. I’m trying on a gorgeous green dhakai cotton Sabya lehenga (who else would dare to make cotton bridal wear) in the vast trial room at Aza, South Ex. Since he custom-stitches the blouses, I’ve tucked my slouchy cotton shirt into the skirt. This is a few minutes before I sent these pictures hopefully to mum, and she exploded on the phone with “What is this…a Pakistani wedding? Why is this so green? And why don’t you just buy a cotton skirt from FabIndia and call it a lehenga!?” Jeez Mum, you misinformed cutie pie! :-*