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Ritu Kumar: Crafting the Revival Story of Indian Textiles

CEO Tinh Phung
A Journey of Sustainability and Heritage Ritu Kumar, a renowned fashion designer and Padma Shri awardee, embarked on a journey of sustainable fashion long before it became a trend. Her brand's success story is not...

A Journey of Sustainability and Heritage

Ritu Kumar, a renowned fashion designer and Padma Shri awardee, embarked on a journey of sustainable fashion long before it became a trend. Her brand's success story is not only about her transformation from a historian to a pioneer in India's fashion industry, but also about the rise and recognition of India's heritage handicrafts.

Source: CNBC Source: CNBC

Ritu Kumar understood that sustainability is deeply ingrained in India's consumption patterns. All it needed was a refined touch, and she took up the mantle. With a degree in Art History and a deep understanding of global consumer psychology, Kumar built a fashion empire that encompasses four labels: 'Ri' for premium bridal wear, 'Ritu Kumar' for traditional semi-formal designer wear, 'Label' for contemporary pret wear, and 'Ritu Kumar Home' for home and living.

From Museology to Hand-blocking

The path to revival was not without its challenges. Ritu Kumar stumbled upon her passion for design during a museology course in Calcutta. On a visit to an archaeological site, she discovered a group of hand-block printers who had lost their jobs in the post-colonial era. Kumar decided to collaborate with them, printing her designs on sarees and opening a small store attached to a grocery store.

She reminisces, "India at that time did not have a retail infrastructure at all—zero. There were no shops. [It was] postcolonial times; India just got its independence. There was almost a freeze on all crafts, including the textile crafts in India. Most designs were taken to Lancashire, reproduced there, and brought back to India for sale."

Source: Ritu Kumar Source: Ritu Kumar

Securing a loan of Rs. 5000 from an industrialist and golfer was a game-changer for Kumar. With this investment, she sourced high-quality silk fabric in bulk, leading to the creation of luxurious hand-block printed silk sarees. These caught the attention of Trade Action, an Australia-based NGO, which placed an order for 1000 scarves. This opened doors to international recognition, with Ritu Kumar's designs making their way to London, Paris, and New York.

Promoting Sustainability Through Old Indian Textiles

Ritu Kumar played a pivotal role in India's textile revolution of the 1970s. As the Indian government rolled out initiatives to revive and promote Indian textiles, Kumar emerged as a prominent voice in the movement. Her premium bridal line, Ri, is a testament to her commitment to revive traditional crafts.

Kumar explains, "They [the embroiders] had no work for a very long time. They used to use pure gold to do the embroidery, but that had been replaced by plastic thread. So they did not have a market, nobody wanted them. And it just needed some sort of intervention and a catalytic effort from our design studio to revive the old aesthetic of the technique and the embroideries. And that has really exploded."

Source: Ritu Kumar Source: Ritu Kumar

Ritu Kumar's designs not only filled a void in the bridal wear market but also provided employment opportunities for skilled artisans. Overcoming the challenges of the retail industry and changing consumer preferences, Kumar's risk paid off, and the Indian bridal industry flourished. Today, Ritu Kumar is a sought-after premium brand in India and abroad.

The Label Life

In the early 2000s, Ritu Kumar's son, Amrish Kumar, launched 'Label', a modern ready-to-wear line that combines international silhouettes with Indian textiles. This contemporary line democratizes luxury fashion by making traditional textiles accessible to younger consumers who seek a modern twist.

Speaking about Label, Ritu Kumar states, "Label is inspired by Parisian shapes and designs, but our textiles remain grounded in our traditional strength."

By experimenting with cuts, fabrics, and textures, the Label brand expanded its reach and captured the attention of the market. With 30 Label stores out of their 90 stores, Ritu Kumar aims to continue expanding their retail presence globally.

A Lifelong Commitment to Tradition

Ritu Kumar's dedication to promoting Indian textiles extends beyond fashion. Her vision includes venturing into the home and living category, where she plans to infuse her knowledge of textiles into a furnishing line. With a deep-rooted belief in the potential of the handloom industry and traditional weaving techniques, Kumar envisions a revival in these forgotten arts.

As Ritu Kumar continues to write the revival stories of Indian textiles, both as a designer and a brand, her legacy will remain relevant for decades to come. With her lifelong commitment to craftsmanship and traditions, she shines as a beacon in the fashion industry.