Anavila Misra gets candid about her linen sarees & more
On the occasion of National Handloom Day, on August 7, we had a very special guest with us at Sartorially Speaking on t2 Instagram Live. She is someone who can be credited for her extensive work with linen that has made it more wardrobe friendly and also inter-generation friendly. Her linen saris are a dream to drape and they feel like luxury on the skin. She is also a fierce proponent of slow fashion and has been walking the talk with season-less collections. She is not scared to repeat some of her classic designs and why not? Repeat value and mindful consumption are the most fashionable things that one can do in 2021. Anavila Misra (above) was in conversation with ANANNYA SARKAR. Excerpts:
You are very well known for your love affair with linen that has also extended into generations of people loving linen saris — younger people, older people, everyone alike. And you have also extensively worked to make the sari more wardrobe friendly, especially with younger people. What led you to start working with linen? You have also uploaded a very interesting IGTV video that features weavers from Bengal...
When I was kind of putting together my future work in design, I was thinking about the sari because sari is something that you take the length and breadth of India as a country and various craft clusters, this is something that binds all of us together. It has different connotations, different presentations, different ways of draping throughout India, but it is a common thread.
A couple of years ago it was kind of in your wardrobe, reserved for special occasions, some women were wearing it to the office but it was quite limited in its daily usage. So that got me thinking about what to do with the sari to make it more now, more comfortable, something which is very desirable to be worn every day and hence, I moved towards linen and my thought process in that direction started. And yes it was a challenging thought because there was no path to follow, nobody had made a linen sari before that. So to find the right weaver, to persuade them to weave linen saris, to take all the failures in your stride, to keep going and being stubborn about it, eventually that led to something that was very very beautiful.
As you said about experimenting with different styles of saris, as we went forward with the sari itself and women started showing their love for linen, I think it moved us in a direction of giving it a new meaning. I was just talking to my friends and we were saying that when you have created a series that is very very interesting, how do you give it new meaning every time. So you fall in love with it, like with your favourite movie and you want to see the second part of that favourite movie — the same characters, the same story, everything remains the same, but how do you change it, how do you add a new flavour. And hence, you know, we experimented with petticoats, we experimented with blouses, we brought in a lot of drapes from rural India and we re-did them in our more modern way, or contemporary ways, so that women in the cities can wear them to office.
So that’s a kind of work that goes on and doesn’t stop. You have to keep thinking and linen is a foreign yarn to the Indian looms, you keep thinking about experimenting. The first experiment was the introduction of a little bit of zari in linen, then came the jamdani weave, which is such a traditional weave to our cottons and silks, then later on, trying different textures like herringbones on the border. So we’ve done a lot but there is still so much that can be done.
And you were asking me about the video that we posted on our IGTV today, that’s just the process we follow in the craft cluster. We work in the Phulia region of Bengal and that’s where we made our first linen sari and we continue to work with the same set of artisans. Of course, from one loom, we stand at 200 looms strong and more families have joined us in our weaving of linen saris. But that’s the process we follow and it only made sense to honour my weavers, and dyers and spinners today on National Handloom Day because those are the hands that created this beautiful textile.
You just mentioned that linen is something foreign to the generational weavers and that is also I think at the beginning of the video that you have posted on your Instagram today where the lady at the beginning says something about how she was a taanti and then she got in touch with you and started working with linen. Is that a challenge to introduce these generational weavers to linen or newer design elements?
It was a challenge. When you go into uncharted territories, it is a challenge. And I always give this example of the first weaver I met and the one who said, ‘Yes okay fine let’s weave the linen sari together’. The first instance when I met him he said no it cannot be woven. I went to him because he was already working with linen and cotton and making stoles and hence, but he refused because he was experienced with weaving linen with cotton so he said that the width of a sari loom is 47-48 inches and you want to weave a yarn that breaks so easily on the loom as a sari, and also the texture of linen itself. So you know he was not ready to do that experiment.
Then I had to assure him that the loom will be under me and that if the experiment fails then it is my cost. And he undertook that experiment — it was not easy. It took us several months to get the right weave, and then the right pegs for that particular loom and then to wash it in a particular way so that the sari has a fall, it has a drape. It was difficult but you know, first loom, first sari, and then he sent it to me and I was elated, it was just what I wanted and when I called him, he was like see what has happened. (Laughs)
You know, he was not very happy because he has never seen a sari like that. And I said you know, let’s start new designs, I’ll send you more colour ways, and this is how we’ll start working so he was very hesitant. But once the orders started coming in regularly to him, he saw that it was not a one-time experiment. And we’ve also kind of sustained that cluster with us. Now if you go there every child will know what linen is, what a linen sari is and it’s become like a part of their culture in that village and the villages around that space. So to begin with, it is difficult but once you sustain yourself, you sustain their livelihood, you sustain the kind of business that comes to these weavers and they see success and they grow with the brand, it becomes more and more easy.
You also mentioned some of the signature design elements that have now become synonymous with your brand, which I’m sure had a painstaking beginning but now look where you are! Elements such as the peeping petticoat, pockets, or woven jackets — how did those things come about and were you ever worried because the sari is such a classic, were you ever nervous about how those things would be received or even having to tell your weavers that this is what they will be making?
With weavers doing new weaves and trying new textures and yarn lengths, I am always there. Any time when we are starting a new design element or we are doing something new, I’m always there at the beginning of any design collection and we work together for three-four days or if it takes weeks because it’s a new design, we’re together and I’m staying with them. And now, they are confident in the design language and what we do so that doesn’t take a lot of trouble to persuade them and take them with me.
But when it came to peeping petticoats and the kind of blouses we did, and pockets into the petticoats, I think it is an evolution of design when you are very close to your consumers and you know why they come to you. So a young girl has come to your store and she’s looking for a certain kind of design in her sari and over that conversation, you understand that this is the challenge she’s facing and how do we overcome that challenge. I think that leads to a lot of innovation itself. Your closeness and your openness to what your consumers are demanding and asking for and if there are any challenges they are facing with the design.
About the peeping petticoats, my mother used to have these beautiful satin petticoats which I think they used to wear with those chiffon saris at that point of time and it used to show a little bit and that was a design element. That was an inspiration because if you are creating a very Bohemian look... so in the collection the petticoats were first introduced in, we were creating a very Bohemian traveller — a lot of elements put together in the design itself, and that’s when we thought that the sari is a plain sari, finely woven, that is just playing with colours. So a petticoat with pleats that are coming under the sari just gives that design element to the sari itself so it just starts looking like something else. It elevates the whole style and it’s very desirable to a young girl who maybe wears boots with it. In winter we did sweaters, jackets so we kind of completed that look.
And for your recent campaign, in the pictures you had the models wear the saris with canvas shoes, which is also very interesting...
There were so many queries for the shoes after we put them in the campaign pictures! (Laughs) So those were basic, you know, canvas shoes which you wear on Fridays and Saturdays to school and we painted them because we couldn’t get the colours we were looking for. So we hand-painted all the shoes in the colours we wanted. That was also, as you are rightly saying, an example to show that saris are not limited to heels or formal slippers, but you can always wear these shoes and be on the move, be on the go with the sari itself.
In your years of working with the weavers, it’s only been very recently that we have a National Handloom Day. What do you think the struggles of that sector are?
You rightly said that there are certain sectors, certain clusters that are more exposed to the design community, to younger designers, or entrepreneurs going to those clusters and working in partnership. And they get that exposure to the market, which then kind of pumps in that kind of value into the cluster but there are a lot of marginalised weavers or craft clusters who are not linked to the city so much and are far away. I think it’s a huge huge sector and the handloom sector itself is only second to the agriculture sector in our country. To reach what we can do as consumers is to understand what handloom stands for.
Sometimes you compare two fabrics, a mill-made fabric and a handloom fabric, and in mill-made fabrics, you can churn out a hundred times more than what a weaver can churn out in a day. That’s the kind of comparison, or even more if it’s not a complicated weave. So when we see this, there is a cost advantage on simpler designs that the mill-made fabrics have. Having said that, the handloom clusters of various parts have evolved special weaves and techniques and they are known for those weaves. So I think it is only just for us to give that value to handlooms, to be open to the idea that this is how much a handloom piece will cost.
I think the premise of my brand as I always say is that mindful creation leads to mindful consumption so as designers, and especially with designers working with the handloom sector, it is our huge responsibility, apart from looking after our brands, to push them forward and sustain the communities we work with. And if we come across, through NIFT or the ministry of textiles, any projects or inputs which can be given to weaver communities which are not maybe linked to the cities that can lift their designs, simplify their design to something which can be really contemporised or a product which can be given to the market, we should do it. I think there are various steps that the government is already taking, which a lot of entrepreneurs are taking, and as consumers, we have to value the handicrafts and handlooms and kind of be able to give that value back to the weavers when we are purchasing something.
Do you think that this awareness has already started amongst consumers? Do you think consumption-wise also this awareness is spreading and if not then what more could be done to sensitise people about the need for mindful consumption?
I think awareness is really spreading. There is a lot of awareness on handlooms. We interact with a lot of consumers and there are so many women promoting handloom saris, wearing them on various platforms. So I think that awareness is already there and weaves are being adorned and it’s just not one handloom, people know this is batik and this is jamdani, that kind of awareness because of social media is really prevalent now. And as you rightly said, so many home-grown brands working on handlooms and creating all these interesting designs with these textiles, have led to an increase in that interest in the consumers.
How are you approaching season-less fashion and your subsequent collections?
So for me, design has always been about creating classics. It is very, very important. Of course, we have summers when we all look for pastels, and then into the festive we all look for brighter tones, a little bit of glitter in what we wear, the introduction of zari. But it’s the same every season. So if I have these classic, solid, just selvedge which is in a bright colour or a silver selvedge, or a sari which is pink or off-white — there are so many ways I can redo that sari next season. The ivory sari, when worn with a silver blouse into the evening with jewellery, pearls, or silver, is formal wear and you wear the same sari with a T-shirt or a top or a very casual blouse in the morning, it is office-wear, or you can wear it with a printed blouse to a brunch.
We have quickly spoken about three looks with just one sari. And season after season when you want to elevate that sari, or you want to do something new or redo that sari, you look for a trendy blouse, you look for a blouse that’s new and then just accessorise. Just changing the accessories, the colours, just completely change the look. So I think when you’re building your wardrobe, it is very important to have these classic pieces and every season you can add on new things — a blouse, or like the canvas shoes, something in your hand, or a scarf. It just kind of changes the garment altogether.
So will you be looking at more accessories for your future collections or how one can style existing pieces from your brand?
So what we’ve started doing with Bloom, which was our spring-summer collection, is we had two edits, Bloom 1 and Bloom 2, and we kind of did some new blouses and we actually shot them with saris from our older seasons. Even in our festive lines, we take saris from the older seasons and we do new blouses for customers who already have those saris in their wardrobe but they want something new. So you take this blouse and you can wear the same sari or you can wear a new sari with a blouse you already have. So we will definitely keep working on this and when I’m designing my new collection when the festive is almost done now, and when we are putting it all together we always see what was done last season and what consumers will have already and how do you bring in new elements in your collection which can be added to the same wardrobe.
Do you think this pandemic is setting us back in our journey towards circularity of the industry and if yes, then what can we do to address the issue?
In so many ways, this year has just taught us that so much can be done long-distance and virtually. We did that with my weavers for one year, because we could not travel and they could not travel but the villages were still working. You would know, West Bengal was hit very very late in terms of the pandemic and for a very long time the villages were working and we were working with them online, sending them pictures, drawings and whatever we could. So there is so much learning that has come in. Work from home is actually possible, and lucky for us, we had actually started our online store in 2019. So the consumers who had already kind of felt the fabric knew the textile, it was very easy for them to buy online.
And going forward, it’s also important for us through the video that you spoke about just now, to take the consumers through our journey, to invest that much in what happens behind creating that particular piece. If they cannot come to the store, or if they can’t go to the clusters or understand how it is done, to be able to capture the essence of the brand and to be able to present it to the consumers in a certain way. I think that can bridge the gap of actually feeling the textile. And for people who have already bought into your brand, understand your textile, it becomes very easy for them. Some customers would make a special trip from Hyderabad or from different parts of India to come and buy those saris from us and now within this one year, they have become very comfortable in buying online. We show them videos or they’ve seen the pictures on Instagram. It becomes easier. So I think it’s also challenging us to kind of take a relook at our product and the presentation of our product.
Pictures courtesy: Anavila
Transcribed by Faiza Hazarika (t2 intern)