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Meet The Indian Designer Weaving Modernity Into Her Heritage

Image courtesy of Bodice

Image courtesy of Bodice

After winning the 2018 International Woolmark Prize, Ruchika Sachdeva is taking her brand, Bodice, global. Here she reflects on her vision for contemporary luxury: a sustainably-sourced celebration of her heritage, executed with a modern finesse.

In a small town beneath the Himalayan foothills, a few hours from the tourist mecca of marijuana-scented Manali and aside some pretty spectacular landscapes, 30-year-old Indian designer Ruchika Sachdeva is sitting at a loom weaving the fabric that comprises her new collection. The man she sits beside, Labbo, has been working at this factory for 15 years; ordinarily, he spends his days tracing intricate traditional designs for shawls, but Sachdeva’s arrival affords him a creative autonomy – they developed this weave together, she explains, as “a modern interpretation of what he normally does.”

This factory, Bhuttico, has been running since 1944 and is one of the multitude of traditional textile manufacturers that Sachdeva has spent her career traveling her country to collaborate with: in contrast to the oft-exploitative textile industry, Bhuttico is an equitably-owned co-operative that offers maternity leave and pension plans, and is part-subsidized by the Indian government in an effort to sustain the handloom handcraft of the country, something inexorably interwoven with its cultural history. While the chairman of Bhuttico is a man, it is his daughter Shivani Thakur who oversees production here – a fairly unusual set-up for a country that remains dominantly patriarchal – and the combination of her powerful presence with the handwoven and sustainably-made textiles (there is only 2% waste here; all dyes are ASO-free; post-consumer products are upcycled into new yarn) present a pretty perfect reflection of Sachdeva’s brand, Bodice.

Over the course of its 8-year history, Bodice has become an insider favorite in her home country, its contemporary vision of femininity presenting a visible contrast to the heavy embellishment and Bollywood bling often associated with traditional design, and setting a local trend for a new style of dress. Her clean-cut aesthetic, Sachdeva explains, appeals to a new generation of Indian women seeking contemporary clothing: “a lot of creative women, a lot of working women… women like me.”

Sachdeva is 30 years old, unmarried, and proudly determined to maintain her independence within a culture that makes very particular demands of its women. Doing things differently has sometimes proven a struggle: most recently, the contractors she enlisted to build her artfully-designed, appointment-only store caused her delays, she says, taking far longer than they needed to in construction, “and I know they’ve done it because they think I’m a little girl. It’s taken me time to be able to prove myself here. My age doesn’t help, my gender doesn’t help, and I struggle with it every day. But I’m not going to give up because it needs to change, some day… and I am a fighter.”

In the meanwhile, that space is operating as a Pranayama studio: Sachdeva’s teacher, formerly one of her customers, held a class for us here this morning. That class was less, it turns out, a great activity staged for a Londoner visiting Delhi, and more a means of further understanding what Sachdeva loves about her country: she is a practicing Hindu, and Pranayama classes are at the core of her approach to creation. In spite of the fact much of her clothing is sustainably-made, using post-consumer waste and carefully-sourced fabric, she swiftly dismisses that label as a very Western notion, explaining that instead, “for me, it’s not about about sustainability – it’s about mindfulness, about karma. About questioning things, and making the right choices. If you are living a conscious life, and you know that something you do is going to have a negative impact, you’ll do it differently. Pranayama, and the pace that I live at allows me that freedom. Being in India allows me that freedom.”

The aesthetic she champions, and the clothing she designs, reflect that karmic spirit: it is considered minimalism imbued with quietly-executed handwork and craft. “I wanted to look at how I could simplify things,” she says, “and make clothing that appeals to a Western audience not just because it comes from an exotic place.” Her new capsule collection, which has been developed in collaboration with Woolmark after winning their esteemed annual prize, and which will now retail through their international network of stockists, comprises naturally-dyed burgundy shirting; gently-draped duster coats; merino wool box-pleated dresses. On whispered recommendations from friends and family, Sachdeva has travelled the country, seeking out the best – and fairest – factories to collaborate with on meticulous handwork – that’s the approach that won her the International Woolmark Prize, after all, and what better way to champion their fabric?

But in spite of the intricate sensibility, there’s nothing tight or rigid in the collection – a trait Sachdeva puts down both to climate as well as the demands of Delhi (“Delhi is not a very safe city for women,” she reflects, “And so I feel more comfortable, more at ease, in modest clothing”). Accordingly, the pieces appear effortless on the body. Even an indigo bomber jacket whose embroidery took 10 full days of handwork to complete is gently relaxed rather than overwrought; the expertly-executed tailoring softly cut. While skirts’ swirling silhouettes take inspiration from the costumes of India’s 18th century nautch dancers, they appear resolutely contemporary, constructed in graphic patterns from deep-dyed merino wool. You can imagine them making waves at Basel, finding fans among the same women who cherish the modern refinement of Roksanda or Rejina Pyo. When shown on a rail, they radiate: Sachdeva’s backstory is simply a bonus.

Part of Sachdeva’s story is rooted in London: while studying for her foundation degree in Delhi, she happened across a series of brochures “and London College of Fashion is the only one I recognized, because it had fashion in the name.” In spite of the fact that none of her family or friends thought she’d get in, she summarily applied, was offered an unconditional place to study, worked out how to get a loan and moved overseas. Here, she explains, she learned a new freedom, saw the fashion she loves examined through a different perspective; internships with Vivienne Westwood and Giles Deacon introduced her to an industry that had formerly felt impenetrable. After four years, she moved home, intent on marrying what she had learned with her cultural identity – and on translating that medley into her uniquely modern vision.

Despite the fact that the close-knit Indian fashion community operates in almost an entirely different sphere to its Western counterpart – meaning that expansion overseas can prove a tricky endeavour – Sachdeva has no desire whatsoever to move again. Living in India ensures close access to her production chain: her studio is filled with 15 pattern cutters and tailors and “I won’t outsource my production because this way we can control how much people are paid, how they are treated,” she says. Equally importantly, she explains, is the simple fact that India is her home and, much as she hopes to expand into the West, this is an Indian brand and her personal heritage is stitched into its every facet.

Talking me through her Woolmark collection, she gestures to that particularly lovely bomber jacket jacket: “here I wanted to take something traditionally Indian and reinterpret it”, she says. “This uses kantha embroidery, which traditionally is used to upcycle old saris into quilts for newborns; the women believe that their love for the saris will keep the babies safe.” “The way we do things… it can be more expensive, but it’s made with our heart,” Thakur had told me earlier in my visit. Pair that sentiment with the garments themselves, and you have a winning combination – and one which ought to resonate across the globe.

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