The Style Issue

A Stitch in Time

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And what it means for the contemporary sari

It is a garment that goes back at least a thousand years and there are over a hundred ways of wearing it. We are, of course, talking about the sari. The word ‘sari’ is derived from Sanskrit ‘sati’, which means a strip of cloth. While this beautiful piece of clothing may fast be losing its place as a daily wear garment in urban India, it retains its allure as special occasion wear.

The sari is currently the darling of fashion. Nearly all Indian designers have a version of it. By taking six yards of fabric and adding a tailored touch, they have transformed a strip of cloth into a constructed garment. The sari that you see on the ramp, on the red carpet and in advertising campaigns is rarely unstitched. For some, this means the essence of the sari has been stripped away. For others, it is progress.

“To call a garment a sari, it has to be unstitched,” says Rahul Mishra, a young designer known for his weaves, “Once you add a stitch, you cannot call it a sari. It is sari-inspired, but not a sari. It’s almost like adding a collar to a T-shirt and still calling it a T-shirt.”

Palak Shah, CEO of Ekaya, which has been in the sari business for four generations, agrees. “Once you put a stitch in a sari, it is a gown,” she says, “The point of a sari is that it should be able to be draped in many ways and should not come in a size. The same sari should be able to be worn by a mother and daughter. And it should be something that’s kept for generations. That is the beauty and DNA of a sari.”

While Shah believes evolution is necessary, she says this is best done with colour, motif and fabric. “There is no question that a woman wants a sari that drapes easily today,” she says, “so fabric experimentation is important.”

The classic unstitched sari is enjoying its own revival. Ekaya, which is now collaborating with designers Abraham and Thakore for a collection, is counting on the sari’s rising fashion profile for its retail push. Sanjay Garg’s Raw Mango has become a Rs 10 crore firm in just five years selling modern-weave saris. Then there’s Chic’s Ensemble, a pioneer in high fashion that recently ran a ‘Sartorial Sari’ promotion to celebrate the comeback of the unstitched sari.

The woven unstitched sari has never had so much attention from the design fraternity. The question is: has the arrival of the stitched sari brought about this revival?

Gaurav Gupta’s sari gowns are a regular feature of any fashion magazine today. His store in Delhi’s Emporio luxury mall has one of the highest rupee-per-sq-ft yield of any Indian designer. He started designing saris with his second collection and soon realised that these would be among his most popular pieces. “A lot of women tell me they started wearing the sari because of me,” he says, “It is about ease today, so we are just adapting the sari to fit our times. That is how fashion works.”

By using contemporary weaves, structures and embellishments, designers have made the sari a regular night-out garment for fashion-forward women and film stars. Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone are often seen in a pre-stitched drape. Meanwhile, the dhoti sari of Anamika Khanna and Shantanu-Nikhil and the lehenga sari of Sabyasachi and Manish Malhotra have given the drape a hipster touch.

To them, the sari is open to interpretation. Interestingly, most social historians acknowledge that the sari started as a garment that covered just the lower half of the body, with another drape for the upper half. You could argue that the single-piece sari in itself is not true to its original form. Also the length of the sari varies from state to state in India. “The embellished sari itself is not traditional,” points out Gupta, “Designer outfits are about fashion and fashion is about evolving.”

Designer Manish Malhotra considers both forms of the sari important: “I love the beauty of the pure form and enjoy the ease of innovations. One does not take away from the other. This is why I work with both forms of the sari.”

Perhaps the boldest avatar of the sari is Shivan and Narresh’s bikini-sari, which Narresh says stays true to the sari’s soul. “It has the modesty of the sari and functionality of the bikini, so if a woman wants to wear a sari on a resort, this gives her the option. It shows the versatility of the drape—which is the sari’s essence.”

It is versatility, ultimately, that will ensure the sari’s survival for generations to come.