How this new exhibition at Design Museum London is helping give India its global fashion moment…
by Momtaz Begum-Hossain
“WHAT we are doing singularly and collectively as designers is smashing the glass ceiling.
“India has always been in the backyard of the fashion industry but not any more.”
Fighting talk from design impresario Sabyasachi Mukherjee who was in London for the launch of The Offbeat Sari exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
The flamboyant designer, one of India’s leading contemporary fashion icons, is showcasing several of his pieces in the first major UK exhibition celebrating the contemporary sari and was also in conversation with Head of Curatorial Priya Khanchandani, who conceived and created the show.
He’s referencing in particular, the impact one of his sarees had on a global scale when in 2022 he created the first sari ever to grace the prestigious Met Gala worn by businesswoman Natasha Poonawalla which is one of the saris you’ll see on display at the exhibition.
“Voices from the East need to be heard in a manner which isn’t condescending or needs permission from the West. Putting a sari at the Met Gala was my way of contributing to smashing the glass ceiling.”
There’s no doubt that he and fellow speaker Sanjay Garg founder of Raw Mango, an Indian brand that is committed to using traditional craft techniques and employing local artisans are changing the perception of what India has to offer the world from a creative perspective.
Fashion and glamour are currently key exports said Sabyasachi, “Deepika becoming brand ambassador for Louis Vuitton and Cartier, Alia Bhatt signed by Gucci as their first global ambassador, Dior’s show in Mumbai and a film of ours winning an Oscar, I really feel like India’s moment has come.” Khanchandani admitted: “I hope the exhibition plays a small role in that as well.”
You’ll find over 60 sarees by Indian designers on display at The Offbeat Sari exhibition, each with a story to tell.
From the unexpected fabric choices, like the distressed denim sari by Diksha Khanna and the stainless steel wires used in an extraordinary gold sari by Rimzim Dadu, to saris that tell political stories such as the pink protest saris worn by The Gulabi Gang who empower women by fighting against gender oppression – this is a version of the sari that breaks the stereotypes of them being a traditional garment worn for special occasions. Something that Sabyasachi is proud to see.
He explanied: “When people come to India they’re amazed that women are in sarees. They say ‘it’s so fascinating the way your culture is celebrated not just on an occasion but everyday people wear it in the streets’. Indian women even wear saris when they’re jogging – my grandmother slept in a sari and when she got up the pleats were still there, always in place.”
Sari and cultural traditions
For Garg, the motivation to create modern saris stems less from wanting to grace international fashion shows and more as a way of protecting culture.
He says: “I’ve never accepted ‘fashion designer’ as a title, I’m more of an activist because I felt an imbalance in the way the fashion market was going.
“Out of 100 designers, you’d get 80 who were designing gowns for Bollywood stars. So, I thought how can I contribute to my country? I do not like the designs I see – do I have to keep my mouth shut or tell my point of view?”
That was the fuel that kick-started his brand Raw Mango.
He said: “I wanted to create a sari as a voice that defines luxury – not us just recreating Jimmy Choo but an object of desire for the independent and active woman. We have the maximum handiwork in the world, so let’s use our artisans.”
The exhibition includes saris that have been worn by men and non-binary sari fans such as American comedian and poet Alok Menon.
There’s even a short film by indie Director Q where he explores the significance of the sari in India today, juxtaposing it being worn by women but sold to them by men in sari shops.
In the film, he even attempts to dress himself in a sari for the first time, something Sabyasachi has also done to help himself become a better designer.
He admitted: “The first sari I made, the pallu, was wrong. I had never worn a sari. I had seen my mum wear one and I’d seen my grandmother wear one but I had put it on the wrong side.
“I had to deliver it to a client, so I cut it off and stitched it on the other side. Then my grandmother told me ‘learn to wear a sari and then you’ll know where it falls.”
Future and fashion
“Post-pandemic people are moving towards wanting better quality, and being better consumers; pieces that are timeless yet sustainable,” says Sabyasachi. The sari couldn’t be better placed to fill this gap.
Whether it comes in three metres, six metres or nine metres, this unstitched fabric can fit all body shapes, is available in all budgets and comes in endless colours and patterns. How you style it, is up to you. There are over 180-recorded ways to wear a sari and each of the saris on display at the exhibition has been draped differently.
The Offbeat Sari may be the first exhibition to showcase contemporary Indian saris but in keeping it country specific (focussing on India rather than other sari wearing nations in South Asia) and by skipping on the historical context of sarees which feels like a missed opportunity, there is scope to create another future exhibition that fills in those gaps.
One of the most striking and memorable sections of the show is activewear.
On display are saris worn for cricket, rock-climbing and even skateboarding. There’s also a video of a hula-hoop dancer that wears saris for all her routines.
With the exhibition receiving much attention in the UK and beyond, it’s ignited a greater sense of pride and interest in the sari among fashion fans and young designers and it’s also reminded the global fashion industry that India has a role in it.
Sabyasachi concludes: “India is one the biggest consumer markets in the world so the West has to understand you can only win India by making us an equal partner, not by subjugating it. More young designers are defining what their notion of India means, they’re the new voice of India.”
‘The Offbeat Sari’ takes (from May 19) to September 17, The Design Museum, The Design Museum, 224 – 238 Kensington. High Street, London
Info/Tickets (£12.60) pre-booking: https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/the-offbeat-sari
Also a workshop: Sari draping Saturday June 17 2-4.30pm
On July 11 – On Fashion: Whose Sari now? panel talk
See here for more on these: https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/the-offbeat-sari