In an uber-chic Mumbai concept store hangs an off-white cotton dress with a plunging neckline. Scraps of colourful cloth pepper the bodice. The shapes of the scraps resemble none that you would readily recognise. Shapes best described as misshapen. But each bit is neatly sewn, hand-sewn, and impeccably finished. Clearly, thought has gone into the placement of each fragment. Turn the dress inside out, and more hand stitching becomes visible. It appears as though the entire outfit has been pieced together one stitch at a time. Even the letters on the label RaasLeela are hand embroidered. If one were to play on the idiom ‘the devil lies in the detail’, then perhaps this RaasLeela outfit, and all the others on the rack, could be described as an enjoyable prêt edit of, well, hell.
Beautiful, conscious, sustainable and very friendly to the Earth above all. Each item on the rack – unisex shirts, pear-shaped midis, shepherd’s jackets, flaring skirts and carrot pants – is made from kora or unbleached, undyed, unprocessed cotton. Some of it is fashioned using a coarse form of organic cotton that’s indigenous to the state of Gujarat, India. The five-year-old brand, RaasLeela, calls the state’s principle city, Ahmedabad, home.
but also keep costs down. Fashion, as an industry, not only pollutes the planet (second only to the oil industry), but is also notoriously investment intensive. Here, Shrivastav points to her own upbringing, as a daughter of weavers, members of India’s large middle class. ‘We would always mend and use a product for a longer period of time, valuing it and not buying something new unless necessary. Passing on still usable products to others has been a way of life. So, my sense of design and material usability developed from there.’ Her technical skills, on the other hand, were honed through training at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar. Looking at the work she produces, and her #zerowaste practice,
you’d be fair to presume Shrivastav had planned her trade around handcraft. ‘Craft was a byproduct,’ she responds. ‘When we started out, finding good tailors was a problem. On the other hand, there were skilled artisans who knew how to sew and embroider, and who needed work. Then there were those who were willing to learn. So, we switched to hand-stitching of clothes, like they did before machines were invented.’
Each piece is painstakingly handstitched by rural and suburban women, working from home. Some received training in the crafts of hand-stitching, appliqué and embroidery from their mothers, a form of tangible culture if you will. Others were taught through intensive workshops, with experienced women playing mentors. It’s common practice with communities across India, to turn old saris into quilted blankets; to use embroidery to hide blemishes; and employ appliqué to give items past their prime a new lease of life. These technical skills, in tailoring and embellishment, have been handed down, over generations, from parent to child. In fact, communities across Gujarat have had a strong tradition of practising a variety of arts and crafts – printing on fabric, pottery, leatherwork, and embroidery. ‘Design sensibility, use of material, almost zero waste production, ways of upcycling old fabric – for the artisans these things have always had meaning and purpose.
Sustainability is now fashion
buzzword, but it was always present in their work,’ remarks Shrivastav. ‘Our artisans are involved in deciding what kind of stitching is to be used, where a motif is to be placed and the size of it,’ she says. ‘We even leave the colour of thread to be used up to each artisan to decide.’ Reducing wastage, she reiterates, starts from patterning and extends to sewing large pieces of fabric debris together to create interesting yardage, which is then turned into more product. Not wasting also means accepting that each artisan’s work, even on the same design, is going to be different from the other. And that blemishes may arise, but that they add to the allure of a handmade product. Shrivastav attributes her own orientation to the business potential of craft to time spent at the Alba Collective. It’s an international NGO co-founded by Harvard Law School professor Jacqueline Bhabha and works to enhance the financial security of rural women in developing countries. During her three-and-a-halfyear stint at Alba, Shrivastav worked with artisans from the craft-rich villages of Gujarat to fulfil orders from international designers. That experience not only prepped her to start her own business, but also to pack it with women. RaasLeela is run by 13 of them. Women designing for women, albeit in the urban context. For RaasLeela is stocked not just across India, but also in Asia, Europe and the USA. What’s also unique is that artisans are given products based on their individual ability. And, Shrivastav insists, she not only never turns away anyone seeking employment, she also creates products for specific talents. ‘There is a group of differently-abled boys who had the ability to create balls of fabric. So, we designed these neckpieces, where fabric is bundled into balls and strung together. As and when pieces are ready, we sell them.’ RaasLeela’s labels and visiting cards are similarly hand-embroidered by another differently-abled teenager.
On the hanger, and off it, RaasLeela’s story is that of a thought-provoking experiment in mixing craft and trade in ethical ways. And it’s certainly producing beautiful results.
This article was previously published on issue 95 Heritage, available for purchase on our website. Text by Prasad Ramamurthy.