INDIA’S LEAST-RECOG­NISED FASH­ION DE­SIGNER

IN AN INDUSTRY WHERE BE­ING IN THE SPOT­LIGHT BUILDS BRAND VALUE, WHY DOES SAN­JAY GARG CHOOSE TO TAKE A BACK SEAT?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - Text by She­falee Va­sudev // Pho­tos shot ex­clu­sively for HT Brunch by Sho­van Gandhi

PLUS! WHY GARG RE­FUSED TO HAVE KA­REENA KAPOOR AS SHOW­STOP­PER…

#Least­KnownDe­signer

A few months be­fore Lakmé Fash­ion Week’s (LFW) Win­ter Fes­tive 2017 edi­tion sched­uled for Au­gust, I got a call from de­signer San­jay Garg. “Would you agree that Ka­reena Kapoor Khan as the show­stop­per would add noth­ing to my brand, its def­i­ni­tion or its in­flu­ence – at least in the way I wish to evolve my sig­na­ture?” he asked.

As al­ways, he was rest­less and di­rect. Be­ing of­fered a fi­nale (or the open­ing show) is just the kind of homage to his work that would in­ter­est Garg. But ac­cept­ing it with the ex­is­tent formula – Kapoor Khan as the Lakmé Ab­so­lut brand am­bas­sador is the de rigueur show­stop­per for all fi­nales – didn’t ap­peal to him.

“I don’t see my brand that way. I don’t want the vis­ual or as­so­cia­tive mes­sag­ing to get mixed up,” he said. “I have checked into a re­mote for­est re­sort and am go­ing to think it through in the next two days,” he said. KEEP­ING IT REAL LFW opened in Au­gust with San­jay Garg’s col­lec­tion Cloud Peo­ple at the newly re­fur­bished Royal Opera House in Mum­bai. It was a Lakmé Ab­so­lut spon­sored show – a fi­nale repack­aged as an open­ing show. It did not star Ka­reena Kapoor Khan. That evening, Royal Opera House throbbed with the ex­pec­tant ex­cite­ment of Garg’s guests – the who’s who, who’s new and who’s knew were all there.

If the un­der­ly­ing con­text was about his brand­ing, Garg got it right. His dis­so­nance with the celebrity fix­ated ways of fash­ion weeks was the best un­told story of LFW that sea­son. In an era of clever, me-too mar­ket­ing, lin­ger­ing buzz still em­anates from un­usual choices. Be­sides, a ma­jor­ity of his fe­male guests wore Raw Mango hand-wo­ven saris or San­jay Garg ready-to-wear wo­ven gar­ments. A recog­nis­able sub­cul­ture stamped with his de­sign DNA was ev­i­dent. Cloud Peo­ple re­vis­ited chikankari on white

mul with­out glut­tonous ex­cess and in­cluded an­drog­y­nous sil­hou­ettes in weaves like gold bro­cade that are pri­mar­ily as­so­ci­ated with os­ten­ta­tion

“I DON’T WANT TEX­TILES TO BE MY DE­SIGN YARD­STICK; I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DE­SIGN PER­FUMES, PUP­PETS AND MUCH MORE”

in India. Fit and anti-fit, plain­ness and pret­ti­ness, emer­ald greens and jew­elled ma­roons, sheer and opaque, lehn­gas, short and long jack­ets and men’s kur­tas on fe­male mod­els, mid­night blue brogues, sleek hair and dark eye make-up on mod­els were some con­tours of the show. This was just Garg’s fourth par­tic­i­pa­tion at a fash­ion week.

San­jay Garg, the de­signer’s epony­mous la­bel of ready-to-wear (wo­ven on spe­cially re-set looms, not tai­lored on ma­chines) is just four years old. But this year marks the 10th an­niver­sary of his hand-wo­ven sari la­bel that brought Garg at­ten­tion and fame. That rekin­dled in­ter­est in his hand­loom saris through their tex­ture and fall, de­signs and mo­tifs, par­rots, cows or sim­ple blue bor­ders. Garg’s se­duc­tively reimag­ined gram­mar of colour that danced be­tween his saris and boxy blouses (no bustiers, no plung­ing cho­lis with strings at the back) brought him clien­tele that ranges from 20 to 70 years old and be­yond. It also changed the for­tunes of the Chan­deri vil­lage weavers in Mad­hya Pradesh. He was not the first to visit or re­dis­cover Chan­deri, but he cer­tainly re­vi­talised the weave with fresh­ness de­sign

in­ter­ven­tion and saleabil­ity.

In 2008, the year he launched Raw Mango, Garg’s an­nual turnover was 90,000. It crossed 10 crore in the 2012-13 fi­nan­cial year, he said in an in­ter­view in 2013. This year, all he says is that it has in­creased four­fold in the last four years. While Good Earth, the well-known de­sign store, has been stock­ing Raw Mango since 2011, Garg now has three stand­alone stores – the first big “proper shop” as he calls it in Mum­bai’s Co­laba, a riv­et­ing space, a small one in Ben­galuru, and the old­est and the quaint­est in a farm­house in Ch­hat­tarpur off Delhi. Far from any mall or mar­ket and a rather long drive from the city, it at­tracts more than 500 clients a month and about 98 per cent of the vis­its turn into sales, says Garg. The brand now em­ploys around 120 peo­ple in its city of­fices and owns 500 looms that pro­vide work to 1,500 weavers and other workers in dif­fer­ent weav­ing clus­ters across India.

OUT OF THE BOX

Those are only some of the rea­sons why it is time to ob­serve Garg’s work and in­flu­ence in a man­ner that pries it­self free from the rub­ber stamps it has gath­ered so far. Pro­files (in­clude one writ­ten by me in 2013) that be­tray amaze­ment about a small town boy from Mubarakpur who was ed­u­cated in the Hindi medium and is to­day a house­hold name in tex­tile fash­ion need to be archived. The story turns now. “I don’t want tex­tiles to be my de­sign yard­stick; I want to be able to de­sign per­fumes, pup­pets and much more,” says Garg. This 10th year will see a more lay­ered de­sign fo­cus with an­nounce­ments about new prod­ucts. “I like to prove my­self wrong. I am in a di­a­logue, in fact many di­a­logues with my­self. I am not sure if hand­loom makes sense just be­cause so many de­sign­ers are work­ing with it,” he says.

His words, ideas, imag­i­na­tions and per­plex­i­ties top­ple over each other to cre­ate an in­tense, stream of con­scious­ness con­ver­sa­tion. I ask him why he has re­cently be­come in­cred­i­bly fond of English as a lan­guage. He in­stantly switches to id­iom­pep­pered Hindi to de­scribe the fur­ni­ture and fab­ric of his mind. And his head.

Garg’s mind-head is a stormy, restive place. It is lashed by winds of tal­ent, am­bi­tion, un­apolo­getic re­bel­lion punc­tu­ated by un­cer­tainty and de­bate. The three an­gel-demons that pre­side here are named Chan­deri, Mashru and The Bro­cade Lehnga. The first is his flag­ship im­print of ar­rival, sur­vival and suc­cess. The sec­ond is a weave he brought un­usual in­ter­ven­tions to. The third, his ready-to-wear best seller also cre­ated in Ba­naras that be­came – af­ter the de­but of the San­jay Garg la­bel in 2014 – a “trend”. So much a “trend” that it spurred half a dozen other de­sign­ers to in­tro­duce bro­cade lehn­gas. It is a bride mag­net af­ter all.

But the way his ideas have been ruth­lessly pla­gia­rised by fel­low de­sign­ers and well­known stores makes him fume. “It’s taken me time to di­gest my work be­ing so copied; I will never un­der­stand how de­sign­ers can source from weavers who work with us or repli­cate de­signs. Chang­ing the size of a mo­tif or the colour is not enough – our en­gi­neered panel lehn­gas took months to de­velop. All of us who are widely copied say that this

“I AM NOT SURE IF HAND­LOOM MAKES SENSE JUST BE­CAUSE SO MANY DE­SIGN­ERS ARE WORK­ING WITH IT”

gives em­ploy­ment to a large copy­cat econ­omy. I un­der­stand this im­pact but it does not jus­tify in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty theft,” he says.

IN­DE­PEN­DENCE MOVE­MENT

Garg suf­fers from chronic Karmic dis­con­tent. It is his quest to do things in his own way: his cam­paigns have all been shot by pho­tog­ra­phers out of the fash­ion do­main, his Co­laba store is man­aged by a PhD scholar, he served

chooran in a brass box in­stead of choco­lates at one of his shows, he doesn’t want to duck be­hind na­tion­al­ism through hand­looms to ex­ploit workers or be spar­tan with his own money. Th­ese days he is gripped with the thought of writ­ing a news­pa­per col­umn on pol­i­tics and about de­sign through po­etry.

Garg says he is vis­cer­ally spurred to el­e­vate any idea that is so­cially looked down upon. “It is be­cause the sari was seen as an in­fe­rior, non-mod­ern gar­ment in the years I was grow­ing up, that I took to it with a vengeance,” he says. He dis­liked school un­like his two sib­lings and ad­mits when prod­ded that nei­ther does he al­ways agree with his mother nor do his par­ents re­ally un­der­stand his work. All the same, he takes pro­fes­sional crit­i­cism well even when it nee­dles him be­yond com­fort. One of the rea­sons why no pub­li­cist can never re­ally rep­re­sent Garg is be­cause he has his own vo­cab­u­lary; his ex­pres­sions sit at in­ter­sec­tions of ques­tion­ing, cre­ativ­ity, puns and folk­loric analo­gies. He is orig­i­nal. He can’t be pinned down to a press re­lease. He wants to make bro­cades for khadi wear­ers, but only he can ex­plain why. Un­like his mind, Garg’s sur­round­ings are quiet. His Ch­hat­tarpur store has a

MAS­TER STROKE

Mod­els show­cas­ing San­jay Garg’s cre­ations at fash­ion shows white noise about it and clothes are stocked in­side gen­er­ous clos­ets with his per­son­ally de­signed brass hang­ers. His work space is a white painted small house in an­other farm that stands at the end of the same street. While the me­dia was crow­ing about his saris, he has turned into an ar­dent col­lec­tor of an­tiques – tex­tiles, un­sewn fab­rics, craft cre­ations, brass, wood work and jew­elled ob­jects – any­thing that un­rav­els In­dian ar­ti­sanal lega­cies, has a point of view through the name of the pre­vi­ous col­lec­tor, or is an ob­ject of by­gone whimsy. Like an In­dian cur­rency note from 1932 stamped with Queen Vic­to­ria’s face.

Th­ese arte­facts sit adroitly in his store as well as his of­fice – he has 450 pieces so far. An an­tique bro­cade sari from his pri­vate col­lec­tion was cho­sen as part of Items: Is Fash­ion Mod­ern? at the MoMA in New York. The ex­hi­bi­tion that opened on Oc­to­ber 1 ends to­day.

Garg’s wooden work desk is a large, wide ar­rest­ing piece in the colour of ground cin­na­mon that he de­signed him­self. “I de­sign all the fur­ni­ture in my stores and my of­fice – I have iden­ti­fied my car­pen­ters and iron­smiths,” he ex­plains.

Across us sits a char­poy with some very old (and in­cred­i­bly soft) hand­wo­ven saris. “I col­lect th­ese as sam­ples to show weavers; it is a piece of proof which is hard to com­mu­ni­cate through books. If some­one could do it hun­dred years back, surely a weaver can do it now,” he says. He is ready­ing for a show at the Kas­turb­hai Lalb­hai Mu­seum in Ahmed­abad next month.

Now bearded and be­gin­ning to bald at 37, Garg who is dressed in win­try lay­ers of deep indigo-dyed blue Hi­malayan wool stitched into a jacket and trousers, and an indigo

khes (thick in­dige­nously wo­ven tex­tile) ) around his neck looks like an artist in res­i­dence in his farm­house stu­dio. The E Class Mercedes parked out­side is an in­dus­trial foil to his ar­ti­sanal phi­los­o­phy.

I ask him if he wants to be on the cover of GQ.

“Time mag­a­zine,” he says.

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