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Unfurling fabrics

Aboriginal art on Indian silk


When designer Roopa Pemmaraju moved to Melbourne, she was taken aback to discover how designers Down Under mainly worked with polyester. But that also gave her a chance to unfurl the natural fabrics of India.

Seven years ago, the Bangalore-bred fashion designer Roopa Pemmaraju felt her sense of identity and career slipping away. Love and marriage had brought her to the pretty if rainy Melbourne in far-flung Australia. But in turn, it had demanded the sacrifice of her fledgling designer label, Haldi (which had just debuted at the Lakme Fashion Week the year before), and her thriving factory of artisans in Bangalore. Moorless in an alien culture, she wondered if she would ever find her footing in the world of fashion again. Today, that anxiety is a thing of the past. Pemmaraju is confidently poised to show her line - simply titled Roopa Pemmaraju - at the Mercedes-Benz Australia Fashion Week this April for the second year in row. (The line includes works by herself and her design partner Sudhir Swain). Last year, her debut line of chic silk dresses featuring bold aboriginal art became the dark horse of the event, being snapped-up by David Jones, one of Australia's priciest department stores, followed by several exclusive boutiques. Pemmaraju, a slim, dusky 32-yearold, doesn't seem overtaken by her sudden success. "It is great that David Jones stocks my label, " she says. "But I still have a long way to go. " Dressed in a white silk top with flowing zebra-like stripes (one of her own designs) and black pants, she is sitting in her studio surrounded by rows and rows of her brightly patterned creations. Still very much a soft-spoken Banglorean, she attributes her success to most things she learnt to love in India: bright colours, natural fabrics and the handwork (beadwork, dyeing, weaving, etc. ) done by the artisans she employed in her factory in Bangalore.

It was her love of bright colours that first attracted her to aboriginal art, an art form practiced by the indigenous communities of Australia. Her fascination for silk made her choose it as her base fabric, instead of the polyester that dominates the Australian market. As it turned out, silk absorbed colours in a way that retained the rich vibrancy of the artworks, making her line stand out. And by setting-up her manufacturing in Bangalore again, she was able to get high-quality workmanship at a fraction of what it would cost in Australia.

But her success is not simply a case of a lucky alignment of stars.

When she first arrived into Melbourne, she was confronted with the unsettling realisation that her pervious experience in India meant nothing to Australians. "Even getting a job was difficult, " she recalls. "Let alone settingup a credible label. " Indian fashion was associated with the sari and salwarkameez, and Australian retail houses simply doubted if she could stitch a dress or a top to Australian aesthetics. Bollywood play a role too in exaggerating the stereotype. "They assume we only wear Bollywood colours: bright pink and orange, " she laughs.

She is quick to acknowledge that everyone has to start from scratch when they migrate to a new country. But the alienation is particularly extreme in creative fields such as art, literature and fashion, where the output has to arise from and cater to the prevailing culture.

So instead, Pemmaraju spent the next two years doing a Master's in fashion textile, and focusing on understanding Australian culture and the inner workings of its fashion industry. She noticed that few fashion houses in Australia used natural fabrics such as silk and cotton, which we take for granted in India. "Everything is made using synthetic fabrics, " she says with a slight grimace. Pemmaraju felt that if she leveraged her manufacturing experience in India with natural fabrics, perhaps, she could exploit this vacuum in the Australian market.

But there was still the problem of a lack of a credible vision or design concept.

Inspiration came in the form of the aboriginal art she discovered in the art galleries of Melbourne. Created by the marginalised indigenous communities of Australia, they are abstract imaginings of the stark and mesmerising landscapes of desert that these groups inhabit. Pemmaraju had an epiphany. Why not recreate these patterned artworks on fabric for contemporary dresses?

The idea was so simple that Pemmaraju couldn't understand why no one else had thought of it before. She soon found out why. Over the years, so many middlemen have exploited the communities in the name of promoting their art, that the word 'aboriginal art' itself has become a contentious, politicised word. Consequently, anyone dealing with the art immediately became suspect.

But Pemmaraju persisted with her research and relentless networking. She convinced art galleries that she would be scrupulous in her use of the artist's work (i. e. not copy the artworks in her factory in India to mass produce clothes) and give them full credit. She showed them how the patterns would be recreated on fabrics and how her garments would carry not just her brand name but also the name of the individual artists whose artwork it displayed. By and by, she got the artist communities and their representatives on her side. Her inspired hard work finally bore results at last year's Australia Fashion Week, where she became one of those rare designers to find success with their debuts.

Pemmaraju will unveil her Fall 2013 collection at the Mercedes-Benz Australia Fashion Week on April 8

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Reader's opinion (1)

Vijay SharmaMar 26th, 2013 at 22:43 PM

I read this article in The Times of India Crest Edition of 23rd. March 2013. I told Neelam about it. I do not open the Face Book daily. It is realy nice to know that we have budding writter in the family

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