With your label Abraham & Thakore, you have been committed from the start to incorporating craft as an integral part into your concept of contemporary Indian fashion. You were certainly one of the first to work with this emphasis on craft advocacy, and it has been at the heart of your creative process. For the last thirty years you have continued on this path very successfully, both globally as well as in India. What brought you to this approach in the first place, and what direction is your work taking today?
As students of the National Institute of Design (NDI) in Ahmedabad, the study of traditional Indian textiles was a key focus of the textile design programme. Surrounded by the rich and diverse textile crafts practised in Gujarat, we were introduced to the weaving, dyeing, printing and embroidery traditions that were being practised all around us. We were also fortunate to have frequent access to the renowned Calico Museum of Textiles, which has the most comprehensive collection of Indian textiles and costumes. The richness of this input helped shape our attitudes towards design and our design vocabulary. This still forms a key factor in our approach to design. However, we also believe that the traditional must complement the contemporary, and we are happy to work simultaneously with modern technologies, industrial fabrics and digital techniques. Our work continues to evolve as we constantly investigate different ways to articulate our sensibility.
To paraphrase Alan Moore, beauty as a principle refers to an essential quality of artistic work and handcraft. Beauty in this context goes beyond its aesthetic value. It connects us to age-old skills of crafts, to the planet and to each other. How do you feel about a statement like this in the context of your work?
The principle of beauty forms a key component in the aesthetics of a product, regardless of the manufacturing process. Beauty provides a compelling argument, adding value to a product whether it is made by hand or by machine. It imbues a product with an emotive quality and communicates a narrative. These are the narratives that can build the links that bind us.
“The exchange of ideas and design motifs between cultures has been one of the most powerful forces in the history of textile design.”
Crafts are rooted in the traditional skills of making. They are rooted and local. At the same time, an inherent part of is handcraft is that is must evolve with time. In other words, cultural exchange has always been an important part of handcrafts. Your work epitomizes this process. You have introduced new applications of traditional techniques (the houndstooth sari in ikat, for example) and you’ve used digital techniques on handwoven fabrics (as in your autumn/winter 2014 leopard print). How do you think process and innovation can keep handcraft relevant and vibrant?
We are very open to new technologies and changing narratives. We believe that design should present a fresh perspective and reflect the way the world is changing. Traditional craft and textiles will lose relevance if they are not adapted to contemporary needs and markets. We have to look back to a time in history when the versatility and adaptability of the Indian craftsperson helped make India the largest exporter of textiles in the world. The textile craftsperson was able to adapt their traditional expertise to meet the demands and fashions of the markets of the world. This led to the wave of Indian textiles that swept international markets. These ranged from the influential chintzes of the Coromandel coast to the famed Kashmiri shawls. It also led to the export of ikat weaves for the Indonesian archipelago and to the checked cottons hand-woven in South India for the African markets.
How would you describe the collaborative processes between you as designers and the artisans/embroiderers in the creation of your projects?
This depends on the designs we are developing. We usually start with a textile technique that we are familiar with and try to find a contemporary expression of that particular craft language that also fits in with the design statement of our fashion collection. In the case of the houndstooth ikat sari [in the archive of the Victoria & Albert Museum] we designed a collection that explored the relationship between menswear and womenswear as viewed through an Indian lens. Normally we create the first drawings or weaving graphs in our studio. These are then sent to the artisan to swatch. We develop the prototypes based on the swatches.
“We need to recalibrate our understanding of the concept of value.”
At the moment there is quite an intensive debate underway surrounding issues of cultural appropriation versus inspiration in the field of fashion and design. What are your views on this topic?
The exchange of ideas and design motifs between cultures has been one of the most powerful forces in the history of textile design. As traders moved up and down the great Silk Route they carried concepts and ideas from culture to culture, which led to cross-cultural exchange. We are first and foremost citizens of the world, and we are all beneficiaries of a shared cultural heritage. In India, as mentioned earlier, the great strength of the Indian textile craftsperson and trader was that they were able to adapt ideas and influences from around the world to meet the demands of markets that stretched across Europe, China, Africa and the Far East. A couple of centuries ago, this made India the most important textile manufacturer in the world.
Where do you see the future of handcraft? Is the luxury sector the only place where a sustainable future is possible?
In the present scenario, with cheaply made industrial products flooding our shelves, it is often difficult for handmade goods to compete. It is imperative that we develop appropriate strategies to share our understanding that the handmade product is a unique expression of individual human endeavour. These products are by their very nature examples of human skill and individuality. In a highly industrialised world, every handmade product should be considered a form of luxury. We need to rid ourselves of the misguided notion that cost, i.e., exorbitant pricing, is a necessary attribute of luxury. We need to recalibrate our understanding of the concept of value. With its uneven bumps and ridges, the humble mud vessel created by a potter to drink tea in India is a true luxury product when compared to the mass-produced styrofoam cup that pollutes our environment.