Twenty Five years in the limelight of Textiles

Nine years ago, while directing an elaborate feature on textile revivalists for Hi Blitz, I was piqued
Pic by Akash Das
about a label called Abraham & Thakore. My good friend, Pareina Thapar, filled me in on the two gentlemen and I set up a meeting with them at their Noida atelier. I returned overwhelmed at their stupendous body of work. 

Two weeks later, we conglomerated at the stunning Surajgarh Fort for a fashion shoot. In the excruciating month of May while the hot air of Rajasthan almost baked us, I studied how Rakesh Thakore and David Abraham take pride in sticking to their unique aesthetics. "Let the clothes own the show, no need for too much accessories," Rakesh instructed the stylist. The final shot showcasing a crisp white shirt and classy black trousers was stark, edgy and stylish, in tandem with the creations the two are lauded for. 

Over the years, the respect for A&T has grown manifold. Reason enough to pay this tribute...

Nothing excites David and Rakesh more than dabbling in the different vocabularies of handwoven textiles. In 1992, when the duo took tentative steps into the world of fashion, they presented their minimalistic yet sharp sensibilities to an audience still uninitiated to crisp ready-to-wear crafted from luxury handwoven fabrics. Their work grabbed eyeballs for being so unapologetically Indian at heart but international in look.

Twenty-five years, and in their words, many crests and troughs notwithstanding, they continue to be stoked by the idea of delving into the richness of textiles. Precisely why, A&T is toasted for inimitable deftness and chic creativity that transforms traditional handloom to suit global preferences. The joy of working on a handloom creation right from its inception to maturity is something that has driven the evangelists of textile revivalism in India. It has bolstered and consolidated their presence, and eventual success. The fashion revolutionaries call it a complete process: working with weavers of Andhra, Bengal, Odisha and Gujarat, on a particular fabric, charting the designs from the nascent stage to completion of a gorgeous garment.

Taking about this association, David says, “As batchmates of 1975 studying textile design at the
National Institute of Design, our thought process and aesthetics matched. But after NID we went different ways, only to unify a few years later. Kevin (Kevin Nigli is the third partner) joined us after six months.” Rakesh adds a cheeky afterthought, “Maybe it was also spurred by the fact that we both felt unemployed after my stint with Festival of India and he working solo.”

The formation of A&T in 1992 turned out to be fortuitous. Their body of work reflects the journey of the Indian fashion industry and also tells the story of outsiders who have steadily pushed the boundaries of fashion in India. Their work is symptomatic of a move away from the highly elaborate, traditional stereotype of Indian fashion to an international aesthetic based in the textile heritage of our country but not constrained by it.

Rakesh’s craft documentation in NID was on ikat and Chirala’s Rumal where he explored the diverse warp and weft techniques involved in the creation. “At NID, subjects like textiles and fashion are taught with a focus on ethnographic study. That to be a designer, you should look at your surroundings and be sensitive to it,” he says.

Thereafter, he worked with the late Martand Singh, who we endearingly called Mapu, on a series of touring exhibitions from 1982-92 that showcased the textiles heritage of India to the West. “This was Festival of India, the Master Weavers exhibition and Vishwakarma series,” Rakesh recalls, adding, “Those deep learnings about the textile crafts of India shaped up the foundation of the label that it is today. We built a brand that encouraged dressing according to a culture and climate, finding an Indian fashion identity that is beyond the ethnic stereotype and depended on craftspeople.”

Even while tapping into the aesthetics of their home country, they individually explored foreign shores. As part of a project, Rakesh designed a collection of ikats for the iconic Japanese designer Issey Miyake. David worked at New York-based clothing company Sandy Starkman for many years. Between 1991-92, he handled his solo label David Abraham, which sold through the stores Fred Hayman and Bergdorf Goodman.

After forming their label in 1992, making inroads wasn’t a cakewalk. A&T started by selling textile-based accessories like kimonos and scarves, then went into home collections and, finally, fashion, at The Conran Shop in London. “For the first 10 years, we had nothing to sell in India because nobody wanted to touch anything. They would think, ‘what is this boring handloom stuff?’ But we followed our heart. It helped that we had an export business to fall back on. The international customer identified with our sensibilities and would be willing to spend on a Khadi shirt,” says David.

When they started there weren’t many doing crisp ready-to-wear ensembles. The scene has changed
making work more exciting. “Labels like Doodlage and Lovebirds are balancing expression and efficiency. There is a marked shift in the sartorial sense of millennials. They want sharp, comfortable clothes. When we interacted with discerning youngsters at the Rajasthan Heritage Week last month, we sensed the nerve for chic options,” says Rakesh.

Last year, A&T toyed took khadi to the realm of glamour. “We laminated it with gold and copper metallic foil and distressed it. The patches were then appliqued on cottons and silks for a playful, glamorous yet earnest makeover. It’s about changing perspectives from the hackneyed because the world of textiles is a smorgasbord,” adds David.

Revered for their work with traditional ikat the duo has been diligently experimenting with techniques, designs and patterns to infuse a new perspective into the dying art. The ikat creations of A&T are fresh, stark, edgy and universal in appeal. “It’s the outcome of many processes. The final product is not merely a culmination of a plain yardage and a few designs. Months of research and sittings with artisans give birth to an extraordinary piece of fabric. Ikat, as a genre, has always fascinated us because in both the single and double ikat techniques there is scope for experimentation. But double ikat is more challenging as the avenues to toy with the warp and weft and play with colours, yarns and resistances are manifold,” explains Rakesh.

High on block prints as well, A&T have been creating separates and saris using the technique with their innovative inputs. “For our last collection called #BLOCKBLACKWHITE for Amazon India Fashion Week Spring Summer 2018, we worked with textured backgrounds using the gadh technique done with uncarved blocks. The florals motifs and the stripes were added on that. The wood block became a starting point in design that focuses on the irregularity of the handmade textile,” David points out their innovations with standard techniques.

Their repertoire involves working with handloom and traditional textiles. They’ve built a practice by reinventing Ikat, Jamdani and fine cottons by engineering the weaves. Most significantly, they design for a refined woman. Their fusion of modernity and tradition has attracted the attention of museums and curators. A dramatic houndstooth double Ikat silk sari from their 2011 collection was part of a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition titled The Fabric Of India, held from October 2015 to January 2016 in London.

Over the years, A&T has churned out classy handloom apparels that have warmed the cockles of a
connoisseur’s heart. Their work sells in USA, China, Japan, France and Russia. The brand ideology has permeated into products other than apparel because luxury is an experience. “We incorporate our designs into different products, such as fashion separates and home furnishing, producing bed covers and cushions, as well as scarves in these techniques over the years,” elaborates Rakesh, going on to talk about their collaboration with Obeetee Carpets recently. “We never explored floor furnishings and this was a learning curve. We deviated from the Middle Eastern sensibilities and took inspirations from textiles, Indian motifs and all that has been the mainstay of our work. Right from ikat, calligraphy to textural treatments, the idea was to challenge the creative limits,” he says. Exactly, why their work is so elegant yet edgy. They have always pushed the envelope of stereotypical expectations. 

"What do you unwind with," I ask. "Netflix," David retorts instantly, only to add, "Also, with my dog and a good book." Rakesh on the other hand destresses with gardening and films, and Adele! “I loved Tumhari Sulu for the brilliance of Vidya Balan and Newton for being just perfect. I am waiting for Padmavati to get cleared from all the unnecessary controversy,” he quips, adding “I don’t read much because I tend to fall asleep. It’s a terrible thing to tell, but it’s true,” he laughs.

And, they are always travelling... “Travel makes you humble. When you witness the gargantuan amount of talent the world has in realms of art, culture and fashion, it eggs you to do your work better,” they say.

Handlooms, feels Rakesh, have limitations, but thanks to the flexibility of the weavers and their faith in A&T’s methodology, they have been able to weave some of the most exemplary works without sacrificing quality. “Speaking the same technical language and a sound knowledge of textile production breaks down barriers. We have artisans infusing our innovations into the old structure,” explains David.

Generally, opines Rakesh, handlooms tend to get mundane. Clever designs can tweak here. “We simplify traditional motifs and play with proportion for a modern spin. The weavers work in tandem with our ever-evolving design principles amalgamating new structures, elements, yardages, blends, textures and warp and weft combinations. Their conviction in the novelty of our design makes them experiment without apprehension,” he elaborates.

There is a richness to natural fabrics that no power loom can attain. The final product merges the styles of many hands making it multi-textured. “What you call the flaws of weaving turn out to be its beauty. With every wash, it attains a new luxurious sheen. It’s classic, rich and magical. It is this aura we aim at conjuring,” round off the duo. Here’s to many more milestones in the journey of the crusaders of textile-oriented fashion in India. 


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