Fashionably late

Fashionably late

Designers from the North East are making a mark globally and giving a twist to local traditions, writes SUREKHA KADAPA-BOSE

Designer Daniel Syiem’s creations.

A decade ago it was almost impossible to imagine the British Council awarding a residency grant as part of an initiative — ‘Crafting Futures’ — to a designer from the North East Region (NER) of India to research and study the textile scene of the place. But when 39-year-old Ahmedabad-based fashion designer, Aratrik Dev Varman from Tripura, founder of label Tilla, received the grant in 2018, he firmly proved the fact that fashion designers from this region have not only arrived on the mainland fashion scene but have also established themselves as designers to reckon with.

Designer Utsav Pradhan and Teresa of Monkee Se Monkee Doo.
Creations by designer Utsav Pradhan and Teresa of Monkee Se Monkee Doo.


Even at the start of the second decade of this century, there were only a handful of them on the national scene; designers like Sonam Dubal, Daniel Syiems, Jenjum Gadi, Atsu Sukesu and a few others. Now, a Google search will throw up any number of names of designers from these eight states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. And their number is growing steadily.

”Handlooms and North-East are the new in thing!” says Delhi-based designer Jenjum Gadi, from Tirbin, Arunachal Pradesh. The NER is popularly known as the Seven Sisters. The Land of Seven Sisters, the term was coined before Sikkim too was added to this group. The region shares an international border with China in the north, Myanmar in the East, Bangladesh in the south, Nepal in the west, Bhutan and Tibet Autonomous Region in the north-west. The region is also one of the largest salients in the world.

Due to its geographical location and also because it is located far from mainland India, people here have a slightly different lifestyle than the popular desi version of India. They are more influenced by Western culture; pop music, especially Korean music, and their daily or even party wear echoes the Western dress sensibilities. They are known also for their brilliant-coloured tribal clothes. The radiant colours of red, black and blue on a background of white or off-white cotton woven in typical NER motifs are the famous marks of the region.

A model walks the ramp for Sonam Dubal.
A model walks the ramp for Sonam Dubal.


Fashion conscious

Enlightening us more on this, 25-year-old designer Easternlight Zimik from Ukhrul, Manipur, who has recently moved to Mumbai, says, “Our part of India has always been fashion conscious, dressing either in the best of Western-style or our traditional attire. So taking up designing as a profession comes easily to us”.

So when they design a simple tunic, skirts, shirts, tops, pants, gowns, dresses or any Western silhouettes, their clothes are just a bit more sophisticated, simple but elegant, and look classy. For many years, agriculture and textiles had been the main sustainable occupations of this region. And weaving on handlooms has been a part and parcel of family chores. Just like many villages in West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh etc., here too, every home in the villages has a place where women, after completing their household chores, sit with their looms and weave.

Earlier they even grew the required amount of cotton in their backyard and dyed the yarn with whatever natural dyes they could make from the surrounding trees. But back then, they wove to meet the needs of their family, now, by incorporating a few changes and contemporising their traditional methods, many of them have adopted new methods of weaving to supplement the family income.     

“Our women are sustaining themselves economically and are very happy and proud with what they are doing,” says Aratrik, who, as a part of the grant from the British Council, recently stayed for more than a week in Tripura. He says he rediscovered his native land and its craft as Aratrik, though born in Tripura, grew up all over India, from Chennai to Kolkata or wherever his father was posted.

Based on his studies and interaction with the weavers, craftspeople and his own relatives, at Lakme Fashion Week in 2019, he presented Tripuri, a collection in which he reinvented the age-old Riha, a hand-woven breast piece worn by women.  

Another designer, in fact, one of the seniormost designers, 61-year-old Sonam Dubal, who is a mix of Maharashtra (paternal) and Sikkim (maternal), launched his label Sanskar way back in 1999. He says, “We seniors created an audience and educated them about the clothes and designers of North-East region. You could say I was the first of the tributaries to join the main river of the Indian fashion world!”

Sonam is famous for his creations in Eri and Muga silk or the Assamese silk. “When we started, there were no design schools in our region. I learnt about the textiles, weaves, dyes on my mother and grandmother’s looms at home. When I started more than a decade ago, I acquired knowledge on the job,” says self-taught Shillong, Meghalaya-based designer Daniel Syiem.

Daniel is known to create magic through Ryndia, an organic and eco-friendly fabric which he came across when he visited the Ri Bhoi district in Meghalaya, whose technique of weaving is passed down from generations and is perhaps the only silk that is extracted from the cocoons without killing the silkworms.   

Designer Jenjim Gadi’s creations.
Designer Jenjim Gadi’s creations.


Business savvy

Except for Daniel, most of the designers, had formal training at institutes like IIFD (Indian Institute of Fashion and Design), NID (National Institute of Design), Pearl Academy and others. Nearly all of them are first generation designers from their family. In fact, most of them, now that they have tasted success, want to help the locals back home by making textiles and clothes of the North East popular not only in India but all over the world too. Many of them keep the basics intact and are reinterpreting even the Mekhela Sador, the famous traditional garment from Assam.

Earlier there was also the problem of communication and transportation to this belt which was hindering the NER and its people joining mainland India. So, though the clothes were produced, it was difficult to reach them to the mainland. But by the opening of India’s longest railroad bridge on the mighty Brahmaputra river, transportation of this region has become accessible to people.

This should help the designers and weavers not to feel left out of the bubbling mainland fashion scene in India.