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The K factor
Blood stains embroidered on a white pillow case with aari work provoke an effect that is at once morbid and delicate. Afshan Durrani, a Kashmiri artist who grew up in the Valley but now lives in New York, is best known for her edgy creations that surprise and stun with their beauty. Thus, her striking but disturbing line called 'Forensic', which includes pillow cases with blood stains and hair strands hand embroidered on them. Equally stunning are her embroidered floral motifs, which are inspired by the works of Wiener Werkstatte, an early 20th-century community of visual artists in Brussels. "I think the blood stains and flowers are contained within the same design sensibility, " she says. "It's really about straddling old-world artisanship and modern, urban design. "
Dualism is not just a design inspiration but a way of life in Kashmir. Peace and violence, ugliness and beauty, love and hate all co-exist in this troubled land. Perhaps this also makes it a great inspiration for daring fashion designers who are marking their presence at various fashion events and showcasing Kashmiri arts and crafts through their collections. Embroidery stitches from chain stitch and crewel (wool yarn on linen) to 'aari' and 'sozni' have found favour with leading designers like Rohit Bal and Manish Malhotra.
In fact, Malhotra's collection at this year's Will's India Fashion Week was dedicated to 'gulaala' and 'giltoor' - flowers from the Valley. The designer was inspired by his first visit to Kashmir while working on Imtiaz Ali's film Rockstar. During his stay he visited the Achabal Gardens near Srinagar where he saw these flowers and decided to create a collection around them. Malhotra presented saris bordered with Kashmiri embroidery;his dresses and the cuffs of his long coats were trimmed with 'aari' panels. Indeed, though Kashmiri embroidery and fabric have always been coveted, the credit for the recent surge in interest should go to Rockstar. Newcomer Nargis Fakhri, who played the female lead Heer in the film, exuded charm in beautiful stoles, kurtas and shawls made with Kashmiri embroidery.
Last year, during Synergy1 Delhi Couture Week, designer Rohit Bal made generous use of typically Kashmiri embroideries in his 'Shanti' collection. The flares and borders of the dresses - mostly in ivory and beige - were embellished with embroidered flowers, birds and vines in bright colours. The Valley was Bal's home till he moved to Delhi at the age of 17. He is a huge fan of the Jamavar shawl woven from the twilltapestry weave. The work is so intricate and the finish so perfect that the shawl has no right and wrong side, just two right sides. According to some experts, traditional Kashmiri Jamavar uses 250 colours. The designer is currently in the Valley studying and researching the various local types of embroidery - 'tilla' work, 'vata-chikan', 'zalakdosi', 'do-rookha'.
J J Valaya, the veteran couturier from Delhi, has in the past extensively used Jamavar in his bridal collections. Pakistani designer, Ali Xeeshan, presented his 'Pahalgam' collection at last year's bridal fashion week organised by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council. He draped Kashmiri shawls as blouses on his models. Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India and owner of an export company, says that Kashmir is emerging as an important design manufacturing hub. "For my export company I have had orders worth crores of rupees for Kashmiri carpets, shawls and papier mache products, " he says. "The region has a very strong tradition of arts and crafts and is much in demand abroad. "
The Indian fashion industry is waking up to Kashmir now but it was the Europeans who first tapped the rich textile heritage of this area. They have for centuries had a penchant for Kashmiri shawls. Under the British, shawls from Kashmir were taken to the UK and reproduced locally as a deluxe item. The paisley motif and the intricate weave of fine wool made it a fashionable wrap for English and French women in the 1700s and 1800s. Last month, Delhibased designer Zubair Kirmani opened the Valley's first designer store in his hometown Srinagar. Called 210A, it's a bespoke store for men, located in upmarket Raj Bagh. But Kirmani, surprisingly, likes to wear the burden of his heritage lightly. His designs, which have been worn by celebrities like music composer A R Rahman, eschew rich embroidery and embrace cleaner, simpler textures.
"It's about me rather than Kashmir, " says Kirmani. But he admits that growing up surrounded by strife pushed him towards designs "that are not chaotic, that are peaceful". His clothes are known for their impeccable finish and unique patterns. For instance, he has designed appliquê dresses using the 'khutumbandh' pattern. This architectural technique - mostly used in wooden ceilings - fits blocks of wood together like a jigsaw to create a pattern. Kirmani says that he's surprised by the response his store is generating. Casual shirts priced at Rs 1, 500 are the bestsellers, followed by suits that start at Rs 9, 000. "Instead of a traditional look, people are asking for Western designs and silhouettes, " says Kirmani, who is working on a collection that uses local fabrics like pashmina, rafal and blends of wool to meet these demands. "I want to merge contemporary construction with local work. "
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