'Gandhi chic' luring Indian fashionistas

by AFP/Sailendra Sil, Sep 27, 2009 | Destinations: India / Calcutta (Kolkata)

'Gandhi chic' -- wearing hand-woven fabrics championed by India's independence leader -- will be on fashion's cutting edge if the Communist government and leading designers in West Bengal get their way.

The eastern state, a region famous for its traditional weaves, hosted a fashion show last Saturday night to promote homespun fabrics, or khadi, made famous by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s.

He wore them as a statement of national pride during his struggle against British rule and a new generation is hoping to revive them in a display of "Indian-ness" as Western styles make ever-deeper inroads here.

"The show reflects a new trend. Indian youths are taking it as new fashion," said Tajas Gandhi, a well-known local designer who is not related to the Mahatma.

Tajas, 32, who paraded his collection at Kolkata Fashion Week earlier this month, was a guest of honour at the event in a newly-constructed fairground near a five-star hotel in central Kolkata.

The vibrant fabrics on display were a far cry from the modest, plain cloth worn by Mahatma Gandhi, but the principle of supporting village skills remains the same.

Other leading Bengali designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who has dressed leading ladies in Bollywood, have been promoting homespun fabrics as a unique Indian look.

"It's a show with an Indian soul," he told AFP. "Hand-woven fabrics are set to hit the international market."

For the state's Communist rulers, showcasing the fabrics is an important way of sustaining jobs.

"The government is promoting 'Gandhi chic' to rejuvenate the hand-woven cotton and silk industry in the state, where unemployment is growing," West Bengal small cottage industries minister Mamabendra Mukherjee told AFP as the show kicked off.

Thousands of people thronged the venue to watch the show, which featured well-known film stars and actors in this city of nearly 14 million people.

"It's not a revolution, but the show has swept the heart of the people," said Mohammed Salim, chairman of the government-run khadi and village industries commission, which organised the show.

Most of the fabrics are woven on handlooms at villages in rural Bengal using wooden wheels.

The glamour and glitz of the catwalk is a far cry from the existence of many of the weavers, who often live in abject poverty in villages, dependent on money lenders who give them loans and raw materials.

Demand for hand-woven fabrics has suffered over the last few decades as synthetics swamped the market. But Bengali designers say new styles and bright shades are increasingly attracting young people.

"We know weavers are in a sorry state. They don't get what they deserve. We are trying to improve their condition," added Salim.

Wearing red-bordered white cotton saris, one of West Bengal's best-known film actresses Locket Chatterjee was one of the stars of the event as she strode down the catwalk.

Other models displayed mixed Indo-Western designs, with red, green and black shades in handspun silk.

"Designers have tried to give a new look to the hand-woven fabrics which many people think outdated," designer Lima Dev told AFP.

"We have tried to use the show to change that outlook," he said.

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