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Master of Weaves: Designer Sanjay Garg on completing a decade in the industry

The talented designer talks about the politics of fashion and why he doesn’t care about celebrities wearing his clothes.

Written by Ektaa Malik |
Updated: February 11, 2018 12:05:49 am
Sanjay Garg Sanjay Garg at Angoori Badi. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In the Indian fashion industry, Sanjay Garg, 37, is an aberration of sorts. He speaks in Hindi, stays away from fashion weeks, and doesn’t count success in celebrity endorsements. In these 10 years of his label Raw Mango, Garg has given the sari, especially, traditional weaves like the banarasi, chanderi or mashru, a new lease of life, with his modernist interpretations. In this interview, he talks of why handloom is a luxury, the true count of popularity and why fashion can never be apolitical. Excerpts:

It’s been 10 years of Raw Mango. How do you look back at the journey?
I don’t think I have accomplished anything. I come from a tiny village, Mubarakpur, in Rajasthan, which is not even a tehsil. I am not known there. We think just because something is famous in Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru, it is big. There is a reason that I exhibit in Lucknow every year. We have no significance in the larger scheme of things. What’s our annual turnover? Even Nalli, which has been around for much longer, has no reach beyond Tier-I cities. We underestimate the influence of fashion on the aam janta. We think fashion is merely glamorous, we don’t think of it as art. I want fashion and design to be respected like an art form. Maybe in the next 10 years, Indian design might reach a stage when it can influence things.

Your saris were a part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, last year and at the Charles and Albert Museum (2015). In India, wearing your label is a style statement. Don’t you think you have arrived?
How about displaying my stuff at some museum in Nagpur or Kochi ? I derive no pleasure from a foreign validation. In India, we are obsessed with Belgian glass and Italian floors, we don’t value our own heritage. Besides, I will consider it a real success when the aam janta here understand the real value of jaamdani and the workers who make it.

Sanjay Garg, Raw Mango Outfits from Sanjay Garg’s recent collection, Cloud People.

The fight for giving the weavers their due, socially and economically, is something you have been addressing.
I have said this time and again — handloom is a luxury. Why do we talk about making it affordable? There is a bit of elitism within the handloom-wearing community, which is dominated by people from a certain educational background and class. All the people who are working for the weavers — be it NGOs or designers — have a saviour complex, but they want the children of the weavers to become weavers. I want to sell handloom because it’s doing well, it’s thriving. I want to promote fair practices and pay my weavers a viable remuneration, so that the more I sell, the more profits they make. We have to approach it like a business — make it sustainable by itself. Why should we be asking for government help?

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In India, design and politics make for an unlikely combination. But it’s always been at the centre of your creative narrative.
I was told by someone ‘If you don’t know the politics of your country, you have no right to design.’ Design has been defined in a narrow way in our country. Everything is interwoven and interconnected. Let me give an example. I work with mashru (a kind of silk) a lot. In the olden times, mashru was a fabric worn by women of the upper echelons of society because they stayed mostly indoors. They dressed up in silks and wore heavy jewelry. Mashru was woven in the Deccan area, in Varanasi, Patan, Patola. After the princely states were abolished, mashru was made cheaper after being mixed with rayon. It became the material from which chaniya choli — worn in dandiya and garba — was made. Look how a fabric comes full circle. We have to look at the socio-political-economic angles attached to a fabric. You can’t alienate design from the society it stems from.

Most designers prefer to be insulated from the politics of textiles and keep themselves limited to fashion weeks. You, on the contrary, seem to shy away from them.
I was recently discussing with my team how we should not do the fashion week. I have only participated thrice at fashion weeks and that, too, we displayed as Sanjay Garg and not Raw Mango. I am concerned more about what shape Indian design will take after 10 years. I don’t think I am able to answer on behalf of the fashion community, because I don’t think I fit into it.

Sanjay Garg, Raw Mango, Lakme Fashion Week A model in a Sanjay Garg ensemble at Lakme Fashion Week, 2016. (Source: Amit Chakravarty)

Another thing that you stay away from is Bollywood, even though every big star — from Alia Bhatt, Vidya Balan to Deepika Padukone — has been photographed wearing your clothes. Is that a conscious decision? You didn’t have a star as the showstopper for your Lakme Fashion Week finale last year.
I think it was the first time Kareena Kapoor was not the showstopper for a Lakme Fashion Week finale. The textile matters to me more than any Bollywood endorsement. There is a certain way I wish to be perceived, Bollywood doesn’t mesh with it. To me, a mother and daughter who step into my store in Bengaluru are as important. We share their pictures on our Instagram and social media pages, it’s just that people notice celebrities more. As for fashion weeks, the idea of creativity defined by a calendar, doesn’t work for me. Let’s say I only know how to dye indigo — if each year I bring out creations with the same art, they will say what’s new in this and question my creativity.

Your design sensibilities are said to be quirky, yet rooted in tradition, with heavy emphasis on handwork.
I used to get irritated when people would use terms like ‘boring’ for the sari and also categore it as a garment for older people or traditionalists. Why should traditional be passé or past?

To me, tradition is very futuristic, it evolves with interpretations. As for working only with artisans and not machines, it’s a practical decision. Haath ka kaam is based on originality. I only want to work with artisans because the work can’t be replicated — it’s a standalone piece of art. That gives me joy.

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