The Kashmir connection
Speaks to Zubair and Renni Kirmani of the label Bounipun, which showcases the best of Kashmiri craftsmanship
Subtlety is a rare quality in Indian fashion. Certainly there are a few labels like Bounipun with an aesthetic so minimalist that most people would likely miss the painstaking and ingenious artistry that go into crafting its garments. Take the outfit — black wool jacket and pants and shawl to drape — that recently won Bounipun’s husband- wife designer duo, Zubair and Renni Kirmani, the International Woolmark Prize for the menswear segment from India, Pakistan and the Middle East.
The jacket is covered in a laser cut pattern, random squares cut into the padded wool. “It’s only when you pull up the zip that you realise that the little squares on the chest forms the face of a snow leopard,” says Renni. The shawl, too, is deceptively simple. It’s in fine cashmere wool, soft to the touch, dyed a muted camel brown and seems rather plain at first — just surface texturing, which to the eyes and fingers, feels like a self weave. But it isn’t, explains Zubair. “It’s embroidered using really fine, 16 micron wool by our artisans in Kashmir. We’ve upgraded the technique so the stitches form tiny loops.”
A bit of Kashmir is part of all Bounipun designs; the Kashmiri word means ‘ chinar leaf ’. Both Zubair and Renni, based in Noida bordering Delhi, trace their origins to the state — he to Srinagar, where his mother’s family ran one of the oldest Kashmiri craft businesses, and she to Jammu where her family shifted to from Multan after Partition.
Of the two, Renni has the formal training in fashion design, while Zubair dropped out of engineering. “We project who we are and what we’ve seen since childhood. As Kashmiris, we have a certain responsibility to showcase the best of its craftsmanship to the world,” he says. So all Bounipun’s garments incorporate Kashmir’s many weaving and embroidery techniques — sozni, kaani, aari, etc — which the Kirmanis get executed by craftspersons in villages around Srinagar. “We’ve also helped upgrade their craft, and get them to work on new designs and materials,” adds Zubair.
For one of the pieces for the International Woolmark Prize- capsule collection, for instance, Zubair has just got embroidery done on knitted textile — difficult to do since the knit cloth and thread used to embroider have very different tensile strengths. “You need patience to do this kind of work and Kashmiri craftsmen have it. They have golden hands.”
“Unfortunately, craft has been badly hit by all this disturbance. No one will give them work in this situation, especially since even connectivity lines are down in many parts of the Valley. Many of their sons and grandsons are now choosing to get a university education and find a white collar job outside the state. Besides, it’s a fine and timeconsuming craft and the artisans find that there are few willing to pay the right price for it. The government too hasn’t done anything on this issue. Sozni and kani and many other traditional Kashmiri crafts are protected by the GI ( geographical indications) tag but you go to Amritsar and everywhere you find machine- made versions,” he adds ruefully.
The Kirmanis tried to kickstart the fashion scene in the Valley when they opened a boutique in Raj Bagh area of Srinagar in 2012. But they were forced to shut it down in the 2014 floods when their store remained underwater for two months, destroying much of their stocks.
The Kirmanis are now hoping that the Woolmark Prize will help widen retail opportunities in international markets. Bounipun already has a presence at a few boutiques in France, Italy and Spain, besides all the major Indian metros. It is the foreigners, they know, who’ll have a taste for their mutedly elegant clothes in wool. That’ll also mean more work for the Kashmiri craftspersons.