Fashion with a conscience

Bibi Russell showcases traditional Indian fabric in the West.

Fashion has to be affordable while being eclectic, stylistic and wearable. A strict eye on quality control, especially USE of chemical dyes, is routine.

IT is not every day that new yarns are spun in the glitzy world of haute couture; a yarn that makes a weaver’s hand loom a style statement. Bibi Russell’s show in Jaipur, “Renaissance Weaves” put the weavers in the front rows to be showered with applause and accolades. They pointed excitedly, as their handiwork passed by, “wo mahro haath ko che, chokho laage.” (I made that; it looks beautiful.)

Magical threads

It was not just another show. It spoke of Bibi’s tryst with the magical thread. Shobha De in a cream and gold khadi sari, again Bibi’s weave, told the audience what Bibi was made up of, “Bibi ruled as a model in Paris but she came back to Bangladesh to give the weavers a life of dignity. Bibi does not belong to Bangladesh, Africa or Rajasthan, she is a global citizen.” For Bibi, fashion has a conscience. She makes sure her weavers get their recognition and a sustainable income. She made sure that, in one evening, the rustle of silks and the whisper of chiffons was blown away by the khatak of Khadi. Bibi made Kota Doria go contemporary and Khadi go trendy. Not surprisingly 45,000 weavers in Bangladesh have escaped the web of poverty. Bibi’s journey to present the beauty of Bangladeshi fabrics began in 1994. With three successful shows in Paris, Spain and London, Bibi went global with Indian handloom. Bangladeshi cotton Jamdani is a fabric that “people save money to buy. I want that happening to Kota Doria as well.” It’s traditionally woven on the banks of the Sitalakha. “It’s an art that belongs to that area. Jamdani from U.P. will not have the same look. The culture of the place speaks and breathes through the fabric.” A bundle of all-heart-and-hard-work, Bibi’s eyes light up and her hands fly saying much more than her words. She told of how she discovered a craftsman near Jaisalmer who had left the loom for doing beldaari. She showed him his self-realisation lay in reviving his passion for the cloth he wove. Machine-made textiles, lack of resources, no access to information and technology left rural weavers in dire straits. Bibi took it on herself to remedy the situation, wanting to “preserve my heritage, foster creativity, provide employment, empower women and contribute towards eradicating poverty”.

Grassroots sustainability

Reviving Khadi came later. Four years back, Bibi spent two months researching on Kota Doria to “understand this magical fabric”, though those were difficult days. Her dream was to give people at the grassroots a sustainable income. “The day they realised that I respected their dignity, I was there to understand, to assist them. They are the ones with magical fingers.” She’s been there, seen and done it. The first woman from Bangladesh to study at the London College of Fashion, model for YSL, Armani, Kenzo, Karl Lagarfield, she used her experience to link culture and creativity with development. “Modelling made me understand different cultures and grasp the diverse ways in which designers work. To others my country may be poor, but to me it is rich in art, craft and culture. I am what I am because of these people. I keep returning to Rajasthan to make sure creativity rises above poverty.” No wonder then, Bibi was awarded with the UNESCO Peace Prize in 2004. “Today if people want something that shows off their well-sculpted bodies, they don’t have to buy French or Swiss lace. Kota is the fabric. I make men’s and women’s wear, funky stuff for our Gen X all from Kota. Crafts have to be revived and carried into contemporary spaces.” Bibi does not play with traditional methods of weaving or patterns; she’s added the zing of modernity by using vibrant colours. No other country has a more exotic range of textiles in the world. “You just have to be sophisticated to conquer the international market. I’ve never changed the traditional ways of weaving or played around with the motifs. People want elegant simplicity, accessorising, mixing and matching… A thicker thread for the jaal or stripes is the only innovation that’s been done. If I’m selling in Spain, it’s splashy and colourful; the accent is different for London.”

Strict quality control

Recycling is not unheard of in Bibi’s production line. While weaving silk, threads break. The broken threads are woven into the cotton yarn to make Khadi. This mixing of a heavier count with a lighter count is accepted internationally. Fashion has to be affordable while being eclectic, stylistic and wearable. A strict eye on quality control, especially of chemical dyes, is routine. “I’ve never used synthetic thread ever.” To create 500 different fabrics with raw materials sourced from Rajasthan saw her grappling with diverse extremes like delicacy of aesthetics and socio-economic conditions. “We can rant about healthcare and education for backward areas but unless we work towards eradicating poverty, we cannot do anything. Khadi is the fabric of the future; you empower a whole family since human resources are used from weaving, dyeing, stitching to making the last button. Micro-financing is our tool towards a sustainable income,” Bibi echoes Muhammad Yunus. “I feel for my craftsmen, I live with them and for them.” As UNESCO Ambassador for Development, she is “cut-out” for the job. Competition from the machines “makes you go forward. As a designer I can’t just do a collection only of one fabric. I have to use khadi, kota doria, jamdani, silk, organza. I’ve made organza by hand, it took me years of research but I did it. My collection has to have variations for everyone to like it. I’ll take Kota Doria to Europe for my next big show.” She’ll carry the grassroots of India to the ramps in the West. Threaded in will be a million dreams and aspirations of people who live in mud houses with thatched roofs and rest a careworn finger on the loom. This lady walks tall…on and off the ramp.

This entry was posted in Fashion. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.