Fabric for thought

Fabric for thought

Fabric for thought

Her beautiful silk creations have taken the international fashion world by storm. Hema Vijay talks to Neesha Amrish, who has made a name for herself with her organic ‘ahimsa’ silk collections...

It sounds incongruous and illogical, but such are the dynamics of modern haute culture. It is rare to come across a great looking object of fashion value that is good deep down. Like Neesha Amrish’s ahimsa-organic silk garments which have become an international rage now, and are to be showcased at the forthcoming Hong Kong Fashion Week in January 2015 and the New York Fashion Week in October 2015.

This Chennai-based designer of Punjabi origin burst into the fashion scene a few years ago, and has been going places, thanks to her exquisite fabric that is a happy meeting ground of art, philosophy and style. Neesha’s stunning designs in stoles, sarees, palazzo pants, blouses and other attire under her label Aeshaane are now stocked at high-end boutiques across Europe and India, and she is sought after by institutions like the Victoria & Albert Museum to develop limited edition lines.

Hand-spun, hand-woven, hand-printed, Neesha’s garments are organic from start to finish. This includes the organic procuring of silk fibres, the use of Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-approved dyes, the hand-block printing, organic and environment-friendly packaging, labelling and transport.

Ahimsa silk

The silk making process takes off from obscure villages in Chhattisgarh from where Neesha sources her organic ahimsa silk, with silk fibres gathered by villagers after the silk moths naturally break out from their cocoons. “Actually, this was once the natural order of things. When people acquired a desire for speed, they began the macabre process of boiling live silkworms in their cocoons to lay their hands on its silk,” she points out.

As a matter of fact, ahimsa or wild silk is of a superior texture than gruesome non-organic one. While organic ahimsa silk has a subtle sheen, a wonderful fall and a graceful drape, non-organic silk tends to be stiff, and is loud in its glitter. As Neesha puts it, “In place of glitter, organic silk has something greater and far more sophisticated — character, texture and the feel-good factor.” And the imperfections arising from the hand-printing process only makes the design more interesting and refreshingly unpredictable.

From fibre to fabric, it takes Neesha a month or more to arrive at the finished product, depending on the cocoons, the seasons. And it took five years for the inspired designer to fine-tune her processing methodology. “We went through thousands of yardages before we arrived here,” she says.

While her colour palette includes a significant dash of black and white, there are the cobalt blues, the rani pinks, the vivid magentas, and the lemon yellows too. “I was surprised to find out that loud colours sell fast in European markets,” shares Neesha, who works with hand-block printers from Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal.

Neesha avoids embellishments and ‘bling’, preferring to let the print and the fabric do the talking. When it comes to motifs, it is inspired by nature that she encounters in everyday life, be it twigs in the garden or the potatoes in her kitchen. But subtle is the name of the game, and abstraction and geometric designs rule her fabric largely.

Textile odyssey

“Textiles always intrigued me, but nobody at my home took fashion seriously. I don’t take fashion seriously either, by way of trends that come and go. I rather believe in timeless fabric with character, and designed for the individual,” she says. 

When Neesha began her organic odyssey, people told her there was no market for organic ahimsa silk. When she decided to put in her entire savings towards funding her trip to a Paris pageant, her husband thought that she “had totally lost it”. But Neesha persisted.

“I am not afraid of failure. I told my husband, if it doesn’t work, we will have a holiday and come back,” reminisces Neesha.

So, who was Neesha’s inspiration? “My grandma used to stitch clothes for us,” she shares. Neesha herself had been doing that as a young girl, but it was only later, after several detours that included a job with a private airline that Neesha turned back to fabric, her first love. After marriage, she took formal training in fashion design.

“But I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who has a passion for working with fabric; the training is a far cry from what you really want to do. I have now come to believe that if you have a deep passion, simply plunging into the work and struggling it out works,” she says. 

For instance, while trying to figure where to get her silk printed, Neesha heard that Calcutta was a city where printing thrived. She simply packed her bags and went to Calcutta, lived there for a month and explored the hand printing that happened in the nearby villages. “I came back with 30 hand-printed saris and checked out if it worked,” she says.

Later, after several months, call it coincidence or the draw of conviction, one of these master printers suddenly called up Neesha out of the blue, saying that he was in Chennai, and would she want his services? “My work suddenly fell into place. We put together a thatched roof and one table for printing, and got started,” she shares. But the going was tough, with local clients yet to understand and warm up to Neesha’s creations. It was then that Neesha’s printer propped up the idea that Neesha take her work to Paris.

“I was flabbergasted. Here was this villager from Bengal, who was talking about exporting and European pageants,” she grins. Neesha took the advice seriously and began exploring the possibility. Her search led her to meeting an official from the Handloom Export Promotion Council, who said that she could display her work at the Who’s Next exposition in Paris (for three consecutive years from 2012).

As it happened, at the Who’s Next 2012, a Spanish lady looked around her booth and bought the entire stock she had taken to Paris. “That is the difference between Indian and European pageants. Here, it is all about a few Bollywood stars and a few outfits that cost the heavens. There, sales, deals and far-reaching collaborations are forged,” she avers.

And when a foreign buyer remarked, “How do I know that your silk is organic?”, Neesha applied for the international GOTS certification. Now she is one of the few and first designers in the country to have this coveted label that involves a high level of scrutiny of the entire fabric-making process.

“While organic clothing is associated with social activists and the aged in India, the global appeal of organic Indian textiles is incredible,” she muses. The one thing that worries her now is the trend that is seen in every discipline that involves manual labour — from agriculture to handcraft. She poses the million dollar question: “My weavers don’t want their children to continue with this profession. Who will do handloom weaving in the future?”

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