Nest’s Varanasi Project aims to save and rekin­dle the 500-year-old silk weav­ing tra­di­tion in In­dia by bridg­ing the divide be­tween trained ar­ti­sans and luxury brands.

Schon! - - Handcrafted Happiness - Words / Sheri Chiu Photography / Nest

Pul­sat­ing colours and pais­ley pat­terns – that’s what springs to mind when one thinks of fab­rics from In­dia, but not nec­es­sar­ily what one ex­pects to find on the run­ways of the big­gest in­ter­na­tional brands. All this is set to change with the spring/sum­mer 2016 col­lec­tions. Schön! gets an ex­clu­sive in­sight into a project that is trans­lat­ing cen­turies-old tra­di­tions into fash­ion­for­ward sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Varanasi, in ru­ral In­dia, is home to an in­cred­i­ble her­itage of ar­ti­san crafts, par­tic­u­larly cre­at­ing tex­tiles with the hand­loom, but this tra­di­tion is un­der threat from the in­ven­tion of the power loom and out­sourced labour to China. “We’re used to mak­ing wed­ding dresses and saris,” ex­plains Ji­ten­dra Ku­mar, CEO and Founder of In­dian tex­tile com­pany Varanasi Loom to Luxury. “Cuts and colours have changed. The busi­ness is get­ting slower. We need to de­liver a mod­ern de­sign as­pect to hand weavers to bring their jobs back.”

This is where non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion Nest comes in. The part­ner­ship was forged to pro­vide mar­ket ac­cess, bring­ing hand­made silk tex­tiles from In­dia to the fash­ion houses of Paris. De­sign con­sul­tant Megan Ry­ley has worked for the likes of Os­car de la Renta and Carolina Her­rera. She acts as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor for the Varanasi Project, but it’s not al­ways spo­ken lan­guage that proves to be a bar­rier. “It’s a de­sign lan­guage,” she ex­plains, “and that’s purely due to what your cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tion of de­sign is. In In­dia, they love a riot of colour. As Western­ers, we can ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­oti­cism of that, but how do we trans­late that into some­thing that we will un­der­stand?”

Fol­low­ing meet­ings with fash­ion houses such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Cé­dric Char­lier and Mai­son Margiela, Ry­ley re­ports an over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive re­sponse to the tex­tile col­lec­tion. “I was very con­fi­dent that it would be,” she says. “We want to make sure that the clients are pleas­antly sur­prised and im­pressed. I see a change of per­cep­tion of what peo­ple think they’re go­ing to see when I’m com­ing with fab­ric from In­dia.” Ku­mar and Ry­ley also set about ex­pand­ing clients’ mind-sets by show­ing them the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the hand­loom. To­day, most jacquards are pro­duced by ma­chine us­ing code, but with a hand­loom, no two pieces are alike. Also, un­like in other parts of In­dia, where cot­ton may be used, the base for Varanasi jacquards is al­ways silk.

“Loom to Luxury strives to pre­serve spe­cial­ity weav­ing meth­ods be­cause nowa­days ev­ery­one wants to make things quickly,” ex­plains Ku­mar. “In our de­signs, we are in­sert­ing pat­terns that ma­chine looms can­not repli­cate.” Ry­ley elab­o­rates by show­ing us a beau­ti­ful fab­ric of flow­ers and de­scrib­ing how each petal can be made in in­di­vid­ual colours by hand­loom, whereas it is only par­tially coded in the power loom. “A cou­ple of years ago, it was a trend to have metal wo­ven through fab­rics,” Ry­ley re­calls. “But in In­dia, they have been do­ing this with real fine met­als for 800 years. I’m happy to be in this project be­cause we’ve been able to help pre­serve a craft and bring pride back to the com­mu­nity.” Ry­ley shows us a fab­ric from The Car­a­van col­lec­tion. It seems sim­ple at first glance, but then she high­lights a ghosted ef­fect. As one of the most spe­cial tex­tiles from the col­lec­tion, five or six ver­sions were made be­fore ar­riv­ing at the fi­nal prod­uct. “When [the weavers] saw the fab­ric ex­e­cuted as a gar­ment, they jumped up and smiled with joy,” Ku­mar beams. “This is the rea­son why I work.”

“The weavers have this glow when they’ve come to­gether and used their hands to cre­ate this,” adds Ry­ley. “It’s com­pletely lost when you mech­a­nise it. The so­cial as­pect of be­ing able to em­ploy so many peo­ple and give them a sense of liveli­hood is amaz­ing.”

In or­der to en­sure this liveli­hood, Nest de­vel­ops each ar­ti­san project with a view to mak­ing it an eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able busi­ness, but it also con­sid­ers the wider needs of de­vel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Direc­tor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Kristin Lane il­lus­trates the plan for Varanasi: “We re­ceived a gen­er­ous grant from the Swarovski foun­da­tion that is specif­i­cally aimed at ad­dress­ing so­cial needs. Along with the con­struc­tion of a new work­place, there will be a com­mu­nity cen­tre. The goal is to bring clean wa­ter to the ar­ti­sans.”

Loom to Luxury al­le­vi­ates poverty by bring­ing em­ploy­ment to skilled women and teach­ing them to tackle chal­lenges. “Nest is work­ing within cap­i­tal­ist forces and ac­tu­ally lever­ag­ing them as a means to cre­ate so­cial change,” Lane con­tin­ues. “For ev­ery one ar­ti­san em­ployed, we es­ti­mate that as many as 20 ad­di­tional lives are im­pacted.”

Whether in Varanasi, In­dia, or the ate­liers of Paris, the art of fash­ion be­gins with the fab­ric. Loom to Luxury em­pha­sises a jux­ta­po­si­tion of worlds, demon­strat­ing the po­ten­tial for luxury brands and ru­ral ar­ti­sans to work to­gether. Not only does this mission help to pre­serve a tra­di­tional craft and the liveli­hood of those who prac­tice it, it re­stores self-con­fi­dence and hap­pi­ness to the ar­ti­sans who just want to weave more colour into our world – and this is per­haps the most pre­cious luxury of all.

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