You had a very humble beginning, having conceptualized your design career while working at your father’s saree store. Tell us about your journey and what made you become a designer.
AS an 8-year-old boy, sitting in my father’s small store which sold sarees, I thought that woman would move beyond georgette and chiffons sarees if presented with alternate fabrics, textures, and patterns. While growing up, my aspiration was to create sarees made in traditional weaves using eco-friendly techniques and natural dyes. To nurture my dream, after my college education, I travelled the country, and spoke to jamdani weaver families. I convinced them that there is potential for their craft if they were ready to transform their skills. I convinced them that my designs will change the course of their life. And, they were finally ready. I joined my father’s business after finishing my college education; and in 1999, I opened an exclusive store for sarees after identifying a weaver from Uppada in Andhra Pradesh, to source sarees from.
Initially, I noticed women were not interested in buying traditional sarees as traditional fabric lacked fashion appeal. The colour combinations were too unappealing. So I discussed with the weavers and motivated them to change the whole fabric colour palette to make the designs more contemporary, imaginative and vibrant. I modernized the material and design, making it an alluring wardrobe piece.
It was disheartening to see the art of hand-woven fabric fading away, as I love Indian weaves. It has potential to become a global trendsetter. I began my journey with weavers two decades ago. Today, I support a family of 800+ weavers across India in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
In January 2012, label GAURANG — a premium high-end couture store in the upmarket Jubilee Hills area in Hyderabad — opened its doors. Now, our label is available across seven cities in India — Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, and New Delhi, and also at Vaya by Heritage in Mumbai. Following that, we have a new store in the US this year, and Dubai and UK are next on my wish list.
What goes inside the mind of a designer? As in, how do you conceptualize, visualize, and most importantly, be confident that it is going to work with your consumer?
The foremost idea is to inspire awe. To make this a reality, the mind constantly processes several key elements – choice of fabric, texture, colour and weave patterns. The key is being able to visualize the choices a woman makes. I was immersed in the world of handlooms and sarees; I grew up understanding women’s shopping patterns. This obviously helped.
Nature, architecture and ancient forms or arts are my design inspirations. Over the years, I have groomed my weavers to adapt to modernity. I helped them redesign the looms and embrace newer weaving techniques.
Why do you think sarees can never go out of fashion? What is it about this garment that always makes it click?
The saree has legacy. It is iconic because it is timeless, elegant and versatile. It symbolizes tradition and shines the spotlight on the versatility of Indian artisans. The whole six-yards give designers like me an opportunity to break convention, be inventive and experiment endlessly. This has made the saree a sought-after fashion piece for centuries.
When I introduced the big border saree, though there were no takers in the beginning, it became a game-changer in a very short time. Women are hard to convince, but if you can bring fresh appeal into the six-yards, it will become an ageless piece of fashion art.
Why were you inclined towards hand-woven sarees?
I grew up watching my mother wear exquisite, stunning sarees. They stood the test of time and were always fashionable. They offered tremendous diversity and so much to discover and explore. While every region in India has a distinct draping style and weave, the soul of the saree remains the same — self-effacing, natural and stunning. That’s what made me fall in love with the saree. I drool over the nauvari drape, a signature of Baroda’s Maharani Chimnabai — it works well with a long jacket blouse. I love the saree draped as a gown, reminiscent of the style attributed to Suniti Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar. The classic Indira Devi drape is another favourite piece. Giving wings to my aspiration and love for handlooms is the jamdani weaving technique. It is the most versatile technique ever invented; it offers you tremendous variety and gives you the courage to dream.
What is so special about handlooms and textile art? And please tell us about your work on reviving handlooms.
In 2001, when traditional handlooms were fading into oblivion, due to declining patronage and an onslaught of growing popularity for embroidered sarees such as georgettes and chiffons, I took up the challenge of reviving the traditional handlooms to bring them back in vogue. It wasn’t easy; the weaver communities were mired in debts, with uncertainty, and hunger deaths. It took two painstaking years to widen my vision, and to regain the lost glory of our handlooms. My motto was to preserve and stress on the aesthetic appeal of our traditions and gorgeous fabrics.
How do you give back to the weavers who work with you?
I don’t outsource my work; my weavers are part of my journey and it is a collaborative effort. While they help me weave my design, I help them sustain their livelihood, and introduce their craftsmanship to the world.
You are also a designer who does not like to retail online. Why is that?
My clothes are high-end and intricate. They take months to come to stores as they are hand-woven, and don’t create huge inventories. When you pay a high premium, you wish to feel the material and see it in front of your eyes. So we opened seven stores in India and two stores in the US for customers to walk in and explore our collections.
Who are your favourite stars who give real meaning and elegance to your creations?
My favourite stars are my clients who await sarees from my loom, and every woman in this world who admires the saree and is ready to embrace Indian handlooms. While Kirron Kher continues to admire and wear our work, Vidya Balan is charming in our creations and chooses to wear them on several occasions.
Lastly, if you were not a designer, what would you have been?
I am a foodie; I would have become a foodprenuer with a restaurant serving traditional Indian cuisines.
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