Fashion designers from the Northeast weave their heritage into modern forms

Topics Fashion | Weekend Reads

An Easternlight Zimik design
With fashion, change is the only constant. Every few years, there comes a compelling voice, or concept, that fuels this change or offers a new narrative. Monisha Jaising, for instance, did this when she brought the kurti centre stage. Textile revivalists and designers engaged in slow, sustainable fashion are also doing this. And so are some voices from the fringes.

Among them is a handful of designers from the textile-rich Northeast who are making a statement with their modern interpretations of traditional weaves and cuts. Easternlight Zimik, who comes from Manipur’s Ukhrul district, has for example taken the traditional Assamese mekhela chador and turned it into a modern outfit. “Our region has a lot of potential,” says Zimik, 27, who trained at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi and has been living in Mumbai since 2016. He has a studio in Bandra and also retails out of Atosa in Bandra. Zimik experiments with silhouettes and his largely ready-to-wear collection (costing Rs 11,000 to Rs 25,000) is marked with colourful motifs from Manipur.

Utsav Pradhan and Teresa Laisom
Then there’s the men’s wear designer Jenjum Gadi. “For my last collection, I took patterns from various tribes of Arunachal Pradesh (his beautiful home state which is often his inspiration) and made a collage of them,” he says. “To give it a contemporary look, I went for golden embroidery all over.” The collection has a punk/disco vibe to it. Gadi retails out of his studio in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi, and his collection (starting Rs 9,000) is also available at multi-label stores such Aza.

Creations of Utsav Pradhan and Teresa Laisom
Like him, Utsav Pradhan and Teresa Laisom of munkee.see.munkee.doo say that though they do Western ready-to-wear, their approach and work process is rooted at home. They work closely with weavers and artisans from Manipur. “Textiles in Manipur are associated with social and ritualistic events from very early times. Without hindering the heritage of these beautiful textiles, we wanted to explore their commercial potential,” say the 32-year-olds. “Our vision was to introduce a modern and contemporary version of Manipur’s hand-woven textiles to a global audience and in the process improve the skills and working conditions of the weavers.” Pradhan is from Sikkim and Laisom from Manipur. They debuted at the Lakme Fashion Week Spring/Summer13 and now have a studio in Sector 6, Noida. Their designs (Rs 7,000 to 25,000) are also available online at Aza.

Jenjum Gadi
Munkee.see.munkee.doo began as an offbeat, high-street label with a modern, minimalist approach. The focus is on clean aesthetics with attention to detail. The label is a sweet mashup of contrasts — the old and the new, masculine and feminine, elegant and relaxed, sculptured tailoring and a rebellious edge.

Sonam Dubal from Sikkim, who was the first to bring Northeastern designs on to a mainstream fashion platform in 2003 with a debut at Lakme Fashion Week, says, “The world’s power centre is shifting towards Asia. And the Northeast is our doorway to the Asian market.” Dubal, who took his collection to Tokyo a few years ago, knows this from experience. Pradhan adds, “Northeasterners have an affinity for K-pop, Cosplay, Korean and Japanese dramas, films, animations and a variety of other Western sub-cultures.” This, and the personal familiarity with the look, makes it easier for us to figure out what will or won’t work, he says.

Jenjum Gadi’s men’s wear designs (below) have a punk/disco vibe with inspirations from his home state of Arunachal Pradesh
At home, Dubal’s label, Sanskar by Sonam Dubal, has been endorsed by director Deepa Mehta, actors Tabu and Sonam Kapoor, artist Mithu Sen, and also by the international icon Isabella Rossellini. 

He is known for creating stylish jackets, capes and kaftans, the kind that could be described as outer wear. The price of this nomadic look that appeals to luxury vagabonds starts at Rs 7,000. The label is available at various stores across India: Ogaan and Vayu in New Delhi, Amethyst in Chennai and Pondicherry, Verandah in Bengaluru.

Zimik says the popularity of designs from the region is fuelled by “this need to find one’s identity”. But so far, he adds, it is only a trend. “For it to stay, we need to make people aware of our culture.” He rues that sometimes well-known designers who are not familiar with the region take up the idea of showcasing these textiles and designs, but do a shoddy job and, therefore, a massive disservice to its people and culture. “I am glad that more designers from our region are making their presence felt, which might help in reigning in this cultural appropriation.”

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