During a visit to Shillong last year, fashion designer Hemant Sagar of Indo-French fashion house Lecoanet Hemant got to know something surprising. He found out that Meghalaya grew India’s first crop of ramie, a flowering plant used to make textile fibre of the same name, in 2017. Native to China, ramie is a linen-like fibre and makes for a great sustainable alternative to the many artificial fibres flooding the Indian market today. Plus, the monsoon-favouring plant provides Meghalaya new hope for business opportunities. So when the state government approached Sagar for assistance in exploring the potential of the fibre, he jumped at the chance. “When I got to know that they (Meghalaya) are growing a linen-like fibre in industrial proportions and it may have close to four crops a year, I felt the Indian market could really benefit from it,” says the 50-year-old designer, who roped in 17 contemporary designers from across the country (including Rajesh Pratap Singh, Payal Khandwala, Alan Alexander Kaleekal of KALEEKAL, Priyanka Ella Lorena Lama of P.E.L.L.A., Shristi Arora of AKIHI, etc) for the project, sending them ramie samples woven by eri silk weavers of Meghalaya. The designers, in turn, experimented with the material to create either apparel or decor using their imagination.
The result of their efforts was presented last month at the residence of Alexandre Ziegler, ambassador of France to India, in the national capital. The exhibition, which showcased the work of the 17 fashion designers, examined the potential of ramie through drape, cut, colour, design and dispensability. “When we first got it, it took us a while to understand its potential,” says Rekha Bhatia of Mumbai-based clothing brand KISHMISH, which was part of the project curated by Sagar. Used to working with natural fabrics such as cotton and khadi, Bhatia and KISHMISH co-founder Kikki Kalia decided to experiment. “We dyed it in a couple of colours and the samples came out looking so great that we decided to create a garment from them,” says Kalia, adding that their interpretation of ramie as a patchwork dress is intended to capture its versatility, as well as its natural ability to create a fall similar to linen or silk.
Highlighting its benefits, Alan Alexander Kaleekal of Kochi-based fashion label KALEEKAL says, “Working with silk is lovely, but it’s an expensive affair. Ramie, on the other hand, could be looked at as a potential cheaper alternative as it’s a plant fibre.” Kaleekal’s namesake label is driven by unconventional designs, anti-fits and a reinterpretation of tailoring techniques by the 28-year-old. The designer, who creates clothes that question beauty, fit and tailoring, works with natural fabrics such as kasavu cotton and silk. “As it’s a plant fabric, I was expecting ramie to be like hemp… but the weaving gave it a smooth finish. It looks like linen, but acts like silk,” the designer says. Kaleekal, who came up with a deconstructed blazer and a pair of pants for the exhibition, feels that the defining feature of the fabric is how it can be used to create ethnic Indian-wear. “Even though it has been around for centuries and is an old fabric, it has only just gained recognition in India. The best part is that you can make any Indian garment out of it because it drapes so well,” says the designer.
There’s more. While working with ramie, Bengaluru-based designer Priyanka Ella Lorena Lama discovered that the cloth has an astonishing resistance to creases. It was, in fact, easier working with ramie than silk as the cloth doesn’t crease, says the designer, who drew inspiration for her work from a friend’s dream about Bastet, a cat goddess from Egyptian mythology, to create an interweave of ramie and Darjeeling rice paper. The result is a feminine silhouette patterned with hieroglyphs along the edges. “It has the significance of hope… that things will work out,” says Lama, the founder and creator of clothing brand P.E.L.L.A., adding, “I always try to envision the finished product before I start working on an idea. Using ramie came very easy to me, as I am used to working with similar textures.”
Then there is Jaipur-based fashion designer Srishti Arora, who crafts jewellery pieces adorned with embroideries and fabrics instead of gemstones under her label AKIHI. For someone who works regularly with silk, ramie was a great find. “Not only is the textile very similar to silk, it’s also a stronger material. This obviously increases the life of the products made out if it, something that’s essential for designers and patrons,” she says. Ramie may have just made its initial foray into the world of fashion, but it sure has the potential to rewrite the Indian fashion story.