'Top Notch' is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion's elite and erudite club.
Designer Rahul Mishra has been a fashion hero ever since he made his debut in 2006, being among the early users of handmade textile (in his case pristine Kerala cotton) on the runway. Since then, he has continued to raise the bar for himself and, by extension, the industry by winning a scholarship to Milan, the coveted Woolmark Prize, and consistently presenting collections at the famed Paris Couture Week to an adoring international press. His chimeric three-dimensional embroideries stand out, quite literally, from the expansive sea of threadwork that bridal designers in India are famous for.
But what really makes Mishra stand out is his rather simple Gandhian philosophy: India belongs in its villages. His high-fashion brand is built on the belief system of supporting villages and their ways of living.
The artisans who work with Mishra
"Fortunately for India, we have retail slowness. Even in a madly industrialised world, craft survives," he tells me over the phone. I've just pulled him away from his kindergartener daughter Aarna and her online lessons in the rhythm of seasons. "Slow fashion is the power of rhythm. When humans were making things without machines, the production depended on natural rhythms, or seasons. This gave nature enough time to replenish herself. Even if you make organic cotton in an organic surrounding all through the year, it is done by the intervention of machines. It's the same with food, despite our GM foods, we still haven't managed to wipe out hunger, and have instead added to our waste. GM cotton has killed farmers and spoiled the land. Scientific reports are paid for by large businesses to give them a green certificate, and I don't trust them," he avers.
Mishra has long been an advocate of slow fashion. "It isn't rocket science: anything done by hand, and at a human pace, allows it to be in sync with nature. Nature takes time, craft takes time. If we need to slow down the consumption of fashion, we need to slow down the production of clothes," Mishra believes. "This doesn't mean everything that is handmade is good, and everything that is machine-made is bad. Sequins are plastic and made in factories, but organic yarn made on a large scale can help nature less than a sequins dress. What I am saying is that volume is key, we need to produce less and more mindfully. Even diamonds lose value when produced abundantly."
When Mishra speaks, the industry sits up and listens. His efforts in sustainable livelihoods and economic equality have made him a thought leader in the business. Mishra, who grew up in Malhausi near Kanpur, adopted the idea of WFH or reverse migration for his embroiderers and weavers in 2013. He sent almost 100 of his employees who lived in Mumbai's Dharavi and Worli slums back to their villages in West Bengal, continuing to pay them the commercial city's salaries. "This is what a circular economy means. If a weaver makes Rs 1,000 in a city, he will spend it most of it on rent and send his meagre savings back home to his village. But if he makes Rs 1,000 in a village, he will build a better home, employ the services of a carpenter, plumber and milkman, thus circulating the money into the village micro economy. I just called them a couple of days ago and asked them who they voted for," Mishra laughs, knowing fully well it's the villages that drive an election victory. West Bengal has held state elections for much of April 2021, with incumbent leader Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress being elected for a third term.
Mishra's reverse migration approach has held his business in good stead since the COVID-19 outbreak last year. Even in Noida, in Uttar Pradesh and an hour from the national capital New Delhi, where his studio is located, the staff comes to work in minuscule shifts, is discouraged to take public transport and maintains strict social distancing.
The lockdown has also allowed Mishra and his partner and wife Divya to pursue a long-held dream " a minimal-footprint home in Uttarakhand, where Divya hails from. With a lot of assistance from a nephew studying architecture at Ahmedabad's CEPT, Mishra is building a home that draws nominally from nature.
"I don't think that natural products like wood are sustainable, as our forests are depleting. RCC is too heavy on the hills and causes landslides. We have used recycled steel to build the structure. It has geater longevity and can be built or removed piecemeal. It doesn't exert weight on the soil either. Our glass is low emission, and traps in heat so we won't need heaters in the winters. Of course, the house will receive energy from solar panels too. We have also only used natural stone that was available on the site. None from the stone mafia that's destroying forests to cull out natural rocks. The little wood we have used is recycled or repurposed. And all our furniture will be pre-owned," he explains.
The couple is maintaining the trees in the one-acre plot. There's a 100-year-old walnut tree, a couple of peach trees, some silver oak and more than 20 apple trees. Only organic farming happens in the area.
Mishra says one could call his house a four-bedroom space but that would be a city term. "In villages, every room has multiple purposes. I've studied the vernacular architecture of the region for our home. Of course, thanks to COVID, it's taking a lot of time to build. But it's okay, I like it this way."