Denim jeans are the most international of a travelling wardrobe. They were popularised as being “invented” in the USA during the Industrial Revolution and worn by the coal miners of South Carolina. China is the largest manufacturer of denim in the world. The next is India, mostly thanks to the superb manufacturing innovations of Arvind Mills. But the finest denims come out of — surprise, surprise — Japan.
One Indian designer is set to change that. That man is Rajesh Pratap Singh, a long-time lover and maker of jeans, and a rigid promoter of an Indian-made but globally-worn modernism.
Still mesmerised by his finale collection for Lakme Fashion Week a whole season ago (wherein Pratap Singh had silver and gold woven in the fabric’s warp and denim in the weft), I decided to accost the irritatingly reticent designer at his factory in Faridabad, Haryana, one hour outside the capital city.
A tall glass of nimbu paani, made from bite-size green lemons that he grows in the garden outside, is a happy welcome. But it is quickly abandoned for a walk into the designer’s large bright ‘Samples’ room. Bales of many-coloured denim twill lie by the full-length windows. Some are made on an industrial loom, but most are handloomed with a red selvedge along the length of it, showing off the reversing shuttle that only some machines bother with.
We are reminded about the Gandhian history of handspun cotton and khadi each year around Independence Day. But India’s story of indigo is barely remembered. India is believed to be the oldest centre of indigo dyeing on coarse fabric in the Old World. It was the biggest supplier of the dye to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era (hence the Greek word for the dye is ‘indikon’, and the Roman word is ‘indicum’). The British took it to the US where Levi Strauss used it on rough workers’ trousers and added rivets to it.
In the 19th century, India exported so much raw indigo to Europe that over a million people were employed in its production and transport. Our tradition of rope-dyeing in plant-produced colour is fast becoming a universal story of eco-consciousness and artisanal employment.
But Pratap Singh’s movement is concerned with a larger and more international format. He wants to produce the finest quality of indigo denim in the world, and Arvind textiles is committed to this dream. The designer has set up several looms in Neemrana, Rajasthan, where his ancestors hail from, to rope-dye indigo in large vats.
He shows me a video he’s made to show international buyers. Local women in bright saris and smiling faces man the looms. Men dip the roped yarn in large vats without gloves, as the natural dye is free of side effects, a dozen or so times. The ropes are at first an earthy green, they turn dark blue when they dry.
Pratap Singh’s dream is called The Indigo Project and tag-lined ‘Rare. Pure. Freedom’. He says it’s the word freedom that excites him the most here. It stands for the free-ness one associates with blue jeans. But it also gives a high-gloss touch to India’s denim story and brings it back home.