Mother India

Ritu Kumar is India’s best-known fashion designer, a design mogul whose label, unlike most currently famous fashion designers, has been both hers and successful, since the 1960s.

The word “artist” is a broad term which is often applied in a rather slapstick fashion to anyone who does a good eyeliner flick or spray paints underwear and glues them to a canvas.

And the question, “What is art?” is one which has yet to be satisfactorily answered by philosophers and sociologists; so this humble journalist won’t attempt the daunting feat. However, if we’re going with a broader definition of art as a visual undertaking after a formal education in art, then Ritu Kumar, far more than any other fashion designer of her calibre, is a true artist.

Studying first art history at Briarcliff College (an old-fashioned women’s college in New York which closed in 1977), Kumar went on to study museology at the Asutosh Museum of Indian Art, and from there to set up her first ever business in the ‘60s, using only two small tables and hand block printing methods, with four craftsmen as part of her team.

"I set up my first stall in Paris at the pret-a-porter in the early '70s when it was unheard of for an Indian designer to take a set of scarves and just go display them in Paris."

But this kind of self-belief – which is evident in every word she says – is what led to Kumar’s company having, at one time, the highest turnover of any Indian fashion label. And while the doyenne has revived a worldwide love for the traditional Indian fabric craft, she’s also competed heavily in the international fashion world, dressing Princess Diana, Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith), Priyanka Chopra and hordes more. 

The Label by Ritu Kumar line is the more “Western” or international one, which incorporates some truly marvelous designs – the kind of thing Westerners just LOVE to wear after a trip of the Eat, Pray, Love sort to India. But this time, an Indian designer has predicted exactly what the rest of the world wants from India, and has designed it and shipped it all over the globe. 

Kumar’s SS17 Label collection is inspired by “Urban African chic”, with fabulous tropical prints, long silhouettes, the use of tribal patterns specific to Zanzibar, and a feminine flow that’s perfect for holiday attire.

The multi-talented madame of Kolkata spoke with La Femme about being a powerhouse designer at the age when most people are retiring, and how India has influenced fashion around the world. 

At the age of 72, you just designed your latest collection for SS17. What keeps you going? 

My interest in Indian textile keeps growing, and the amount of information and beauty I keep finding in this is endless – the journey has been a fulfilling one. So I have no plans for retirement as long as I find my work exciting and fulfilling. I have many plans for the future, including writing another book based on my personal textile journey in the Indian subcontinent.

Would you like to see more people worldwide wearing Indian fashion?

I think this has already started to happen. Dressing has become more globalised… and it has become more casual, layered and individualistic. The lines are blurring between what we consider as Indian fashion, and Western fashion - you can see this in our latest collections. Contrary to belief, I do two international collections every year - one in Europe and one in America, and have been doing this for the last 35 years. I think this gives me a perspective of world fashion and further defines the organic and individualistic nature of Indian fashion. 

“The lines are blurring between what we consider Indian fashion and Western fashion

Can your lehengas be mixed and matched with other modern international styles, or are they best worn in a traditional manner?

The lehenga can be mixed and matched with traditional and modern pieces, as they embody classic aesthetics that work well across the globe. I don’t indulge in fast bridal fashion; I like to ensure my textiles are timeless.

In 2013, Ritu was presented with the Padma Shri award, the fourth highest award a civilian can receive from the Indian government, in thanks for her work in bringing Indian culture to the world.

As one of the most powerful women in India, what’s some advice you give to young women who are trying to make their success?

My advice to women is that yes, it is hard work trying to marry your career and a home, but it is not impossible. This is not different anywhere in the world, and remains a woman’s choice to do both.

Do you have plans for more international expansion?

Yes, I have already opened two new Dubai stores, in addition to our three Mauritius stores, this year. We plan to bring our designs to new markets in 2017 and beyond.

What’s something from Indian fashion that women around the world should incorporate into their style?

I think the tunic is a great choice, or variations of the kurta [the long-sleeved, straight tunic ending at the knees worn by both men and women of the subcontinent]. Long or short, slim-fit or loose, this garment is versatile and functional and can blend in with a variety of looks. Crinkle skirts and crop tops are another good choice.

What’s the news from the Ritu Kumar brand for 2017 and beyond?

There is a lot on the horizon, we have launched our Ri Occasion line to great success, and our Benaras revival line has done a lot to shine the light on this traditional craft. We are also working to shine the light on Odisha ikat designs. Label by Ritu Kumar will soon launch its Spring/Summer 2017 collection as will Ritu Kumar. We are expanding into newer markets, and the sky is the limit! 

Ritu Kumar’s lines can be found in her Dubai stores in BurJuman Centre and Dubai Festival City, or online at www.ritukumar.com

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