In India, if there is any fashion designer who has introduced a completely new era of fashion to the country and who still rules the industry with her couture, it is Ritu Kumar. In 1970 when Indian handicrafts had come to a standstill, the only fashion Indians were buying was made 5,000 miles away in Lancashire, England. The was the time that then 30-year-old Ritu Kumar, along with Martand Singh and Rajeev Singh made reviving India’s lost craft their mission statement. And today, at the age of 76, the celebrated courtier has a long tale to tell. “When I started, I had four hand-block printers and two tables. I opened a small store in Kolkata to sell our wares. I have seen the time when there were no retail spaces, and the marketing agencies only word of mouth worked for us,” recalls the celebrity designer.
Heritage journey of designs
Ritu emerged as a brand in Kolkata with her reliable couture made with hand block and silk printing. However, it was in 1966 that she opened her maiden boutique in Delhi, following it up with one in Kolkata in 1968 and later an export company. She says that these moves allowed her to establish herself as a full-fledged designer label. “We grew rapidly. Everything seems to have happened so quickly,” enthuses the designer, who has aimed to work with craftsmen of India ever since she moved to Kolkata. “Everything I have done as a designer and a manufacturer is an extension of that idea,” she clears.
With an illustrious list of collections to her credit, Ritu has recently forayed into homeware and loungewear, deviating from her usual offerings. “We are still true to our ethos 50 years later and always will be,” she says matter-of-factly. And we couldn’t deny the fact knowing that Ritu is one of the first designers who recognised the beauty of India’s handicraft heritage, which she proudly calls her muses since the beginning of her career.
“I have been inspired by fabric and technique as much as by nature and architecture,” says the recipient of the Padma Shri award. She further adds that Indian crafts and fabrics have been passed down for centuries. There are beautiful designs and techniques in Indian architecture that can be reimagined to create something new and beautiful, rooted in history, “but with a contemporary tone.” Ritu also attributes her success and inspiration to weavers and handloom workers with whom she spent most of her time during the initial years of her designing career. “Every person I worked with or witnessed had something new to add to my learning. Entire communities have mentored me over the years,” she shares.
Experimenting with the craft to make a big splash
There is no doubt that Ritu has made her mark as a designer and inspired many fashion enthusiasts to follow her lead. She is one of the pioneers and favourites among Bollywood celebrities. It is hard to point out any name in Tinseltown who hasn’t been spotted wearing Ritu Kumar. Curious to know how experimenting with celebrity clothes works for her, she shares that the idea of the experiment is to give freshness to a style. “Fashion has always been unpredictable and ever-evolving, which makes it interesting, and Gen Z is all about curating far more experimental looks,” she explains.
Although Ritu has been the name behind most of the actress’ couture in big Bollywood movies, her big splash, Ritu shares, was refurbishing Kareena Kapoor Khan’s wedding lehenga. “We worked closely with Kareena for her wedding outfit. The refurbished outfit was a rust-orange sharara set that her mother-in-law wore at her wedding ceremony and inherited from the Begum of Bhopal — this was the third generation wearing the same outfit. We worked tirelessly for six months to revive and restore the outfit, encouraging it to maintain its ancestral charm while fitting modern aesthetics,” reveals the designer.
Another piece that she says will forever be etched in her mind was the simple blue suit that Lady Diana wore during her visit to Pakistan. “Lady Diana had a unique quality of making the most simple outfit stand apart with her grace, which is exactly what happened with that simple suit, hand-blocked in a shade of blue,” she recalls.
Everything is in the roots
When it comes to the label Ritu Kumar, it is clear that the designer behind every collection (Ritu herself) strives to create clothing that is deeply Indian in terms of crafts and designs, which makes the label rooted in Indian style. Her traditional saris and lehengas with contemporary shapes and silhouettes feature intricate embroidery and handicrafts. On the other hand, the sub-brand Label flaunts the modern collection, and the Label Basics fulfils the demands of the work-from-home generation. “While we do a little bit of everything, I would say our signature style is contemporary Indian with the garment being rooted in India,” she elucidates.
While Ritu emphasises on inclusivity and experiments in fashion, we ask if she has any denials when it comes to individual clothing. However, to our surprise, she tells us, “As a designer and a fashion lover, it is important to keep one’s heart and mind open to new fashion and trends, provided the clothes are made with the approach of sustainability.” She further adds that fashion sensibilities are drastically changing.
The pandemic punch
It is well documented that the pandemic has impacted the fashion industry globally, just like everything else. And Ritu Kumar as a label is not an exception. Ritu tells us that craftsmen and weavers suffered the most since stores and factories were closed following the lockdown. “We had been making some progress for them in the past few decades, but the pandemic has turned the clock back. I am hopeful that their plight might encourage more brands to source locally, and we can collectively help the community stand on its feet,” hopes the designer.
Being in the industry for over five decades, Ritu has seen all possible evolutions in the fashion world; however, she confesses that the last two years have been different and positive in terms of people’s clothing demands. “There is a rise in the demand for more functional, utilitarian clothing. I am very happy to see that there has been a surge in demand for sustainable clothes. People, now more than ever, are interested in the manufacturing of the garment and care that what they wear is produced ethically and sustainably. There is a renewed focus on longevity — people want clothes that last longer and which they can pass down to their next generations,” she observes.
She further tells us that more people have started asking designers to store heirlooms, alter them and stitch new blouses. “Hopefully, this changed mindset will also help the weaving and handloom communities as people increasingly see value in what they do and create and fight to ensure that they are paid fairly,” she says, adding that this new sensibility could be a turning point for the welfare of the communities.
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