“This is couture… for the David Jones collection,” Mishra says, examining a beautifully embroidered garment made from 85 per cent wool and 15 per cent silk. “See, look here. Feel it. Everything is hand done.” The lighter-than-air fabric for many of Mishra’s garments is called Chanderi, which is from Chanderi in central India. Traditionally Chanderis have been weaving a combination of silk and cotton for about 2000 years. “What we have done here is we have replaced cotton with Australian wool,” says Mishra. “The result is a diaphanous, transparent kind of garment.”
Part of Mishra’s pitch to the Woolmark judges was his conviction that he could make Australian Merino wool a spring-summer fibre, particularly for use in the southern hemisphere. “The southern hemisphere doesn’t have strong winters,” Mishra explains, “so how do you use wool there? I thought the best idea was to not make wool a trans-seasonal fibre but convert it to a summer fibre. That is what we tried to do.”
Mishra says that his big idea is to create “couture in volume,” as in offering couture at a ready-to-wear price. “That is where our strength is going to be when you compare us to those big, international brands. I think this is the strength that comes from being in India, from the vast knowledge of embroidery here. I know that nobody has ever done this. And it is difficult with this type of hand embroidery to produce the proper sizes and specs. But we know the trick and our team are masters of it now.”
Mishra’s “team” are the artisans spread out across the country, mostly working from looms in their family homes, as they have for thousands of years. Almost a century ago Mahatma Gandhi drove India’s nationwide rejection of British cotton, which was being grown in India, woven in Britain, then sold back to the Indians for use in dhotis, saris and scarves.
Gandhi convinced his compatriots to burn their British-made cottons in symbolic fires all over India in the early 1930s. It was the power-loom ban during the period that in part explains how the now highly developed hand-woven, hand-knotted and handicraft industries continue to thrive across India.
“My people have amazing skill sets,” says Mishra of his weavers. “I do not say they are workers; they are more like artists that are working. They are people who don’t practise craft just because craft gives them employment. For employment they can do anything that will give them money. For them, craft is a form of artistry that enables them to get social respect and respect from within. Craft is all about tradition; something that has been around for thousands of years. This is where the biggest challenge lies for designers – how can we create craft modern enough to be able to sustain multiple people? And not just for one season, but for the next ten seasons so my people are paid every year. How can we keep working with the same craft, but still look different, every time?”
Mishra is often quoted as saying that, “in the modern world, fashion is the enemy of craft.” His thinking is rooted in the belief that fashion eats itself from the inside out because of its obsession with “newness”. Every three months consumers want something new.
“I’m sorry, people may try to force sustainability and fashion together,” says Mishra, “but logically there’s nothing sustainable about it. Fashion is all about newness, hopping on from here and getting onto something else.”
Mishra, however, sees craft as the savour of fashion, due to the individualistic nature of handcraftsmanship. “Our universe is looking more uniform than ever before, which is not a great thing for clothing,” he says. “Variety is what makes us energetic – variety of language, human behaviour, of culture... this is what humanity is known for. Craft gives you that back.”
It’s the morning of the India and Middle East regional Woolmark Prize. Peter Ackroyd, Woolmark’s UK-based Global Strategic Advisor, CEO of the Campaign for Wool and man in the ear of HRH Prince Charles, is taking tea in his room at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace.
“This rain should tip down soon,” he says, wandering out to the balcony that overlooks the Gateway of India, the colonial monument built in 1911 to celebrate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary. The rain is intensifying, but from the balcony you can still see the harbour where ships are ferrying cargo to Bombay Port. The vast majority of Australian greasy wool passes through here and heads an hour north to Thane, where weaver and manufacturer Raymond, the Indian equivalent to Ermenegildo Zegna, has its textile factories.
Raymond will weave the majority of its Merino wool into worsted suiting cloth – it has the capacity to produce 38 million metres a year – then export it to the UK, US and Europe for use by international menswear brands.
“We would love to do more here in India,” muses Ackroyd. “The Indian market is huge. And it’s a market that’s under exploited, under developed. There is a lot of creativity here. It’s a very sellable nation.”
Ackroyd is a fourth-generation textile weaver from