VARANASI, India — Late into the evening, walking in the narrow streets of Lalbagh here, it is hard to ignore the clacking and heaving that resounds from behind the closed doors on each side of the street.
In many of the homes, which double as living and working areas, traditional weavers use an intricate and repetitive rhythm of leg, hand and eye to cast a single thread. They start early in the day before the heat begins, working day after day on the patterns they know will take them weeks — and sometimes months — to complete even a few meters of fabric, or a single sari.
In many of the adjoining rooms, opposite where the older weaver, usually the grandfather, works his handloom is a different kind of roar: The power loom, which their sons and grandsons have more readily adopted. These are faster, less fragile, and the resulting fabric is cheaper.
Upstairs, women work other jobs, such as hand embroidery, sewing on buttons and finishing work.
The Varanasi weave has long been coveted in India, traditionally a must-have in the trousseau of every bride. The exquisite brocades in silk and gold have tradition stamped all over them. Indian designers have espoused the fabrics in their creations long before they became a trend, including Ritu Kumar and Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
“But in the last couple of years, it [the Varanasi weave] has been the bandwagon that everyone has jumped upon,” observes a senior designer, who requested anonymity. “It has become the stamp of approval for basic recognition as ‘a designer who cares.’”
Whatever the reason, industry analysts agree there has been growth, leading to a slew of new luxury retail concepts that focus on the weave, on changing colors and on innovation in silhouettes that use these fabrics.
Some of this has been driven by the mandate set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last three years to promote Varanasi weavers, noting “textile workers weave not just cloth, but through the harmonious nature of their workplace, they also weave the fabric of a cohesive, harmonious society.”
Picking up on the government’s efforts, designers increased their focus on Varanasi, launching new collections based around the craft, driven by the threat that the art could die out. New York-based nonprofit Nest also has helped make connections between brands and Varanasi weavers to enable them to develop silhouettes that can work with the unusual fabric.
Known as one of the oldest towns in India, dating back to 1000 B.C, Varanasi, earlier Banaras, and long known as Kashi, is a city of more than 4.5 million people in Northern India. “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” Mark Twain once said.
It is a city that on the one hand is known for its abundance and vibrant life, a town for pilgrims, where the banks of the holy river Ganges provide opportunities for purification and prayer. On the other, it is equally known for death, with burning crematoriums by the Ganges where the last rites are performed.
“Banaras has been the buzzword. Initiatives have been taken by the government and by nongovernment organizations. There have been several brands and labels who came to Banaras because everyone was talking about it,” said designer Hemang Agrawal, who is known for his couture creations based in the Varanasi weave. “The ones who came with the aim and the conviction of working at the grassroots level, these are the ones who are sticking on. And these are the ones who will take it forward. There are several international labels, international NGOs who are working on the ground.
“As far as awareness, that has certainly gone up over the last few years, but the real danger lies in the fact that the number of weavers hasn’t gone up. In a few years, delivery of the products will be a problem, the numbers of those high skilled weavers will be an issue,” he said.
His designs are based on a family business rooted in Varanasi, which sold only traditional saris for more than two decades. “In 2003, we ventured into yardages, made-ups, wraps and garments. Since these were new verticals, I took care of design as well as business development. Over the years they have become our strongest division,” he said. While he has branched into design, his brother Umang takes care of more traditional retail. He pointed to the complexities of market issues that retailers and traders have had to deal with in recent years, including the goods and service tax, demonetization and a decline in consumer spending.
Ekaya, a modern retailer with roots in Varanasi, is an example of a company that has ignored these obstacles in its attempt to add a new wave of luxury retail. Palak Shah, a young entrepreneur, took her family business from Varanasi into the bigger retail playground of New Delhi with a three-story store in the prestigious South Delhi area of Defence Colony.
“I always pondered why can’t the sari be sold as a luxury item, why can’t it get the kind of importance that Louis Vuitton gives to its handbag?” she asked. “I felt the story was not told properly, it was an archaic way of narration — ‘that you know the weavers are poor, and we’re supporting the weaver.’ Why can’t we make it luxury?
“What you make as a wholesaler is very driven by what a retailer wants, and you can’t educate a consumer being a wholesaler. So we worked on all this evolution in branding, marketing, the way our store was built, our people are all in uniform, the way it is presented. We started selling it as a piece of art, hence Ekaya began,” she explained.
Ekaya now has three stores — in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Delhi — and has recently launched e-commerce.
Shah said a collaboration, like the one in January with the Fédération Française de la Création Couture Sur Mesure during haute couture week in Paris, helped demonstrate how Indian fabrics can be a part of the French couture and wedding industry. The 14 members of the federation combined their skills with India’s textile heritage to create a collection of gowns related to high-end French fashion
“The people who came for the event said, ‘We never knew Banarasis could look like this.’ They had no preconceived notions of what it’s meant to be, no boundaries that zari [gold thread] will make it look too Indian-y, or which was the right side of the fabric or the wrong side, and the results were absolutely phenomenal,” Shah said.
It also brought up other points that the global market often stumbles over — color and price.
“India is not the land only of red, pink and yellow. We did a white palette for them, which we’re capable of doing. We showed how truly diverse the textile can be and what we can do. What most designers do is that they take a fabric from India and pump up the price by five or six times, thus making it very expensive for the international market. For us, it is right from the source, the idea is to make it more popular, so I’m not going to pump it up by five times,” she said.
Other obstacles to the popularity of the fabric include the relatively small production; the difficulty of exact duplication with handmade cloths; communication and the hurdles to sharing inspiration with weavers and receiving exactly what designers have in mind, and pricing, since there is a minimum that needs to be ordered to set up the weave.
Nicole Heim of the New York-based brand Cienne observed: “What I love about Varanasi is that they are very beautiful fabrics and you are able to elevate them a little easier, and naturally they are very elevated so that’s why we love working with them. There are challenges as well, which is why we haven’t worked with them more than we have. I know that Nest is working with them closely so we’re keeping our eyes on them for sure.”
Nest has been trying to answer these questions, with some success. Focused on working with artisans — now in 50 countries across the world — Nest took up Varanasi as a bigger project. Chief marketing officer Kristin Schneider explained the importance of helping the handloom silk-weaving artisans reclaim their livelihoods by providing them fair market access to compete with the increasing use of power looms and cheap factory labor. Equally important is elevating the perception and value of Varanasi handloom silk, and shining a spotlight on the talent of the artisans who created it.
After a series of experiments in market understanding, Nest’s chief operating officer Christopher van Bergen said the next big initiative is being developed. “After incorporating a local entity we are in the process of building a 450-square-meter [5,000-square-foot] atelier in Varanasi, with philanthropic dollars donated by funders and foundations,” he said. It is being designed by the nonprofit architecture firm Inscape Publico.
The building will be a space for weavers to work, but also for training both global and local designers to understand the weave better.
Nest partnered on the initiative with local entrepreneur Jitendra Kumar, whose company Loom to Luxury describes his intent. “We understood that it is about the entire supply chain, not just about the loom. You cannot think about the weaver without thinking 360 degrees. I learned from the international market, it pushed me to understand about innovation, about the importance of communication. I think consumer education is a very important part of it. Consumers have to understand why the handloom comes at a higher price tag,” Kumar said.
“We had a textile designer from Carolina Herrera actually spend four months in Varanasi working alongside Jitendra to help him launch his first solo collection featuring 60 looks. It had a very modernized aesthetic so that was very much a training process as well as a very beautiful collection of silks came out of it. But Jitendra was also able to learn new ideas around color theory and design to help innovate and contemporarize some of his work,” Nest’s Schneider observed.
Designer Kit Willow, whose label Kitx is based out of Sydney, said: “I fell in love with the silk crepe that they’re doing and that is really unique and I hadn’t seen that fine work anywhere in the world. I went in 2014 and these artisans — they’re old, and they’re doing very fine manual work and they’re trying to attract the next generation to do this technique with great difficulty because of the attraction in other industries in India. I really learned that it’s a critical moment to support the work they’re doing. Otherwise it won’t be around in another generation if we don’t.”
It worked for her brand concept as well. “Kitx is about consciously sourcing and leading fashion with positive impact. So this was perfect for that, creating beautiful, honest textiles with integrity and being able to create luxurious garments with positive impact. So I wanted to go there and discuss it and look at what they’re weaving and learn about it,” she said, having discovered it through Nest.
That was for her first collection. “Now we’ve just completed our 10th collection, and used these weaves in every one of them,” she said.
Willow recognizes the hurdles in using Varanasi fabric, but believes they are worth overcoming.
“No, it’s not cheap,” she remarked. “But it’s on par if not less expensive than European textiles. And you can buy synthetic polyester combinations from France and Italy at similar prices. I think the customer really responds to it because they see the magic in it, there’s so much soul in a handwoven piece,” she said.