Snakeskin zari, khadi trenches. / by Rashmi Varma

Designer Rashmi Varma says her clothes are utilitarian yet elegant, with luxury in the crafting and details

A weaver in the ancient city of Varanasi sits at his loom weaving a shimmering silk crepe. As the afternoon sun glides across the window, it falls upon the silk, gold threads catching the light. The fabric isn’t decorated with buti motifs traditional to Benarasi saris.

Instead, it’s a glistening play of gold on ecru silk, resembling the patterned skin of a snake. It’s destined for the Delhi-based studio of Rashmi Varma, who worked on it in collaboration with Varanasi-based weaving company Loom to Luxury, founded by Jitendra Kumar. Whilst Loom to Luxury regularly produces silk jacquards for international designers including The Row, Maiyet and Behno, Varma is one of the first local designers Kumar has worked with.

It’s a working relationship at the cutting edge of contemporary Indian fashion, where fresh interpretations of weaving and craft articulate a new Indian aesthetic. Meaning beautifully-detailed clothing that crosses continents: speaking a global language of fashion with uniquely Indian inspirations encompassing local dress, craft and weaving.

Finding her path

Crossing continents is a theme central to Varma’s life. Born and growing up in Montreal, frequent visits to her grandparents in Bihar forged early impressions of a continent she would later make home.

As a child, she rebelled against conservative family life in Patna. She travelled extensively with her parents, yet it was while back-packing across India as a young woman, that her eyes were opened to India’s infinitely rich cultural heritage and textile traditions.

This ignited Varma’s dream of becoming a fashion designer, but her parents insisted on a political science degree. On graduating, she veered back to design, but for interiors, believing this to be a pragmatic choice. However, fashion’s pull persisted. She gained experience and learnt about making garments and running a fashion business working with Canadian designers, while taking night classes in sewing and pattern-making. Opportunities for designing costumes for films opened up.

Self-styled

Varma returned to Delhi, launching her eponymous label in 2013. Her experience as a costume designer on films, including Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth in 2008 and Cooking with Stella in 2009, honed Varma’s ability in creating storytelling through a character’s clothing.

For her label, this manifests in cohesive capsule collections, weaving narratives through details and colour. Whilst her clothing has a global appeal, textures and embroidery lend a refined Indian twist and understated luxury. Sujani embroidery, for example, is distilled into graphic stripes; khadi lends unique texture to deconstructed military trenches with kedia-inspired flaps in place of sharp lapels; skirts have inset drapes and pleats inspired by the way the sari is pleated at the front.

Of the woman who wears her clothes, she reflects, “She’s strong, independent, cultured and travelled. I love that a lot of women in the arts are wearing RV. The clothes need to become part of her own style when she wears them.”

Versatile drape

One of Varma’s most commercially successful innovations are sari-dresses. One was part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Fabric of India exhibition in London, 2015. Combining versatile drapery with the ease of a dress, each season brings new detailing, including shisha work, batik prints or graphic embroidery. For SS/17, the collaboration with Loom to Luxury resulted in snakeskin silk crepe suited to complex draping for sari dresses as well as luxurious bomber jackets and camisole tops.

“How Rashmi interpreted my textiles in such a unique fusion saree collection really impressed me. She understands our vision and challenges,” says Jitendra Kumar, reflecting on their working relationship. The collaboration also resulted in a heavier ‘tiger’ pattern silk jacquard used for tops and skirts. Kumar notes these fabrics take enormous skill not only for the weaver to realise, where around half a meter per day can be woven, but also in the pre-weaving stages.

“We train our weavers to accept challenges. The major challenges are in the development phase, including graph development and loom set-up. Without these people, it wouldn’t be possible. We all have to be on the same page before we start to weave,” says Kumar, explaining that punched pattern cards determine the placement of the warp (vertical threads), and these create patterns that machines cannot replicate. He adds , “Rashmi works on very small details, which we love to craft.”

Paradigm shift

As Varma adds, “I design clothes to be utilitarian and elegant at the same time. Luxury is in the crafting and details.” Varma and Kumar are part of an exciting paradigm shift in contemporary Indian fashion. Both mine tradition for inspiration and legacies of craft: instead of remaining static, they breathe new life into heritage craft skills with design-led innovation that reveal India’s heritage luxury crafts to global audiences.

In India, the collection is available in stores at Ogaan, Ensemble, Jaipur Modern, Jaipur and Bombaim, Calcutta. The silk crepe saris cost ₹49,000 and separates range from ₹6,000 to ₹25,000.