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(Exclusive) Ritu Kumar: Designer of the textiles, by the textiles and for the textiles

Today with a slew of stores pan-India, Ritu Kumar is one of India’s best-known designers, she is one of the first designers to sell internationally and to put India in the global market with acclaimed people like Princess Diana and Jemima (Khan) Goldsmith buying her outfits from stores in London. By Shashi Sunny

Ritu Kumar’s incredible passion for her work has her visiting hovels and dingy by-lanes in the remotest parts of our country in her search to find the best craftsmen who are still practising their art form. Ritu’s endeavour is to keep them profitably employed so that the nation does not lose out on its craft heritage. It is this deep-seated drive that propels her to fashion the beautiful Ritu Kumar couture and Label collections that have today become both successful brand names and businesses as well. Ritu Kumar has not only given India’s crafts and craftsmen a new lease on life by providing them with an income but also offered the modern fashionista a chance to wear the kind of prints and embroideries our royalty enjoyed.

A doyenne of the Indian fashion industry, Ritu initially was a student of museology before she fell in love with designing and turned a successful fashion designer and entrepreneur. Today she is highly regarded for multiple achievements such as her contribution towards restoring traditional Indian textiles and crafts, her highly coveted fashion labels as well as her pioneering success as a fashion entrepreneur.  She has been acclaimed for authoring a book, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India which was launched by Maharani Gayatri Devi at Christie’s in London in 1999. She also has the honour of being the first Padma Shri winner from the fashion industry in India.

Ritu Kumar

Ritu Kumar at her residence in Delhi | IMAGE: FOTUWALLE by DHP Labs

Ritu Kumar’s incredible journey started four decades ago when she was visiting a small village, Serampur, near Kolkata, as a student of museology.  She recalls, “I designed my first sari because I was extremely impressed by the beauty of the block print designs that I had chanced upon in the village.” She began with four hand block printers and two tables in Serampur and managed to set up a brand name long before haute couture and fashion weeks were trending in India.

Now a respected revivalist in the Indian fashion industry, Ritu had her first exhibition of block-printed saris in Kolkata in 1970.  She says, “Actors Rakhee and Rekha began wearing the black print saris in the ’70s and that got my attention. Then I began experiments with Indian motifs like flowers, paisleys, and bootis. Very soon I got an order for 2000 pieces of a scarf sample that I was showcasing. For me, that was a big order which I could not manage on my own.  My husband, Shashi and I put our heads together to get it done and after that, the business just kept growing.”

Much of Ritu Kumar’s zeal to work with textile and craft came from people like cultural activists and writers like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar and art historian Dr. Jyotindra Jain. “These people, especially Pupul Jayakar and Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay were my role models. I learned everything I know from them and I think they were single-handedly responsible for reviving Indian craft and textile,” adds Ritu.

Ritu Beri

Ritu Kumar | IMAGE: FOTUWALLE by DHP Labs

In 1999 Ritu Kumar Bridals was launched and Label three years later. Ritu had initially opened a store in Defence Colony in New Delhi in the early seventies where people began dropping in initially because it was situated at a railway crossing and they wanted to while away time when the crossing was shut, but they always ended up buying! This was a major encouragement and Ritu soon had the buyers enthusiastically lining up for her zardozi bridal lehengas which became much sought after by celebrity brides like Lara Dutta, Manpreet Brar, Mandira Wirk and Kareena Kapoor.

By 1994, when both Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sushmita Sen were crowned Miss World and Miss Universe respectively wearing Ritu Kumar outfits, Ritu was officially appointed to do the wardrobes of the three Miss India winners and went on to design for over 80 contestants.  Though not a film costume designer, Ritu stepped and designed for two of cousin Deepa Mehta’s films: Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and Midnight’s Children (2012) for which she did the wedding scene.

Today with a slew of stores pan-India, Ritu is one of India’s best-known designers, she is one of the first designers to sell internationally and to put India in the global market with people like Princess Diana and Jemima (Khan) Goldsmith buying her outfits from stores in London. Looking back with satisfaction, Ritu says, “I feel happy and satisfied that I could demonstrate that products of the work of the hand can be as profitable and even more glamorous than that of machines and that Indian handwork is more than capable to hold its own in the international arena of haute couture. It is wonderful that there is a dynamic identifiable Indian fashion industry and that we have not lost our identity to the West. When it comes to luxury, the Banarsi brocade is the highest form of luxury and what can be more luxurious than wrapping six yards of handwoven silk around you. That to my mind is the ultimate luxury. It is because of our amazing textiles and our crafts that even today our own traditional way of dressing and our textiles are still thriving. The fashion industry and cottage industry based hi couture apparel are all very Indian and this is something that is not prevalent in any other country. We can all feel justifiably proud of this.”

Having been a part of this vibrant industry and especially now with the Padma Shri award, Ritu says she feels more responsible to do whatever she can to preserve this national treasure. As she puts it, “For me, the biggest drive has always been to highlight the rich Indian cultural identity woven into the classicism of textile. It’s been a never-ending process over years to redefine the term “fashion” in the Indian context. We have demonstrated that Indian fashion is more than capable of holding its own in the international arena of haute couture. And it is my endeavour to continue to do that. As we progress in the 21st century, we are looking at an India which has exponentially changed in its fashion.”

A word of advice from the senior designer for younger aspirants: “The way forward for new fashion entrepreneurs and designers really is professionalism and more pret otherwise one is in danger of running too close to the wedding market. Earlier one didn’t really understand what a great industry we are in. We need to widen our perception and pose a challenge to high street brands.”

Ask how she manages such a long and successful innings in the fashion industry, Ritu signs off saying, “If I was merely designing I would have run out of steam long ago, but there is so much more to do when one is working with textiles and crafts and there is a lot more to evolve you. In textiles, India has always customised, we knew the art to do that. You have to be innovative, open to new ideas and evolve with the winds of change and constantly be contemporary and fresh even as you work with traditional crafts. That is the secret to my longevity!”

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Written by

Shashi Sunny has been a writer and journalist working in a senior capacity in many leading publications such as People, Society, Savvy and Stardust. She has interviewed a wide range of celebrities, achievers and newsmakers for these publications. She has over 25 years proven expertise in writing and communications and organizing hi profile events. She has a background in a wide range of fields such as glamour industry, fashion, politics, films, publishing She is personally known to many well known personalities in the political lifestyle and business fields. A post graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College New Delhi, Shashi has also taught English Literature at Delhi University and has done a study on women's Journals for the Press Commission of India. She has been a guest lecturer at media institutes and has been on the student selection panel for Fashion Designing NIFT and on the panel of judges for various personality and contests and beauty pageants. She is currently freelancing for several publications and is also writing a book on the fashion industry in India. In her sparetime she enjoys reading, travelling and meeting people.

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