Opening the door of the white sedan, I instantly became self-conscious of my jeans and t-shirt. Staring at Asif, sharply dressed and poised, I couldn’t help but turn red at the thought of him looking my outfit up and down. Most people who come across me are quickly aware of how little I know, or care, about anything fashionable. My daily uniform of gym t-shirts and athletic shorts make the lack of diversity in my closet painfully obvious. My wardrobe can be divided into two main themes: things I bought at the Middlebury College Bookstore and items purchased for me by my mother. So, you can imagine the dread that consumed me when I had to decide what to wear for dinner with Asif Shaikh, one of India’s top fashion designers. As we sat in the car headed towards the restaurant, on my first week in Ahmedabad, I looked over at Asif and was at a complete loss for words, shifting in my seat in some feeble attempt to hide my apparent lack of effort in my clothing choice. In these initial moment of silence, I quickly blurted out “I don’t know anything about fashion, just so you know.” He slowly turned his head to me, smiling, “You don’t say.”
That night as I stumbled around my first Gujarati thali, mispronouncing everything on my plate, and tried to find some moderate amount of comfort sitting on the floor cross-legged, Asif never mentioned my style or lack thereof again. Instead, we found laughter and connection in everything from my 14-year-old sister’s Instagram account, to the fabrics of Kachchh, to Hillary Clinton. After our three-hour meal, I assumed that this would be a one-off dinner: an enjoyable introduction to Ahmedabad, but nothing more. But as the best laid plans of mice and men often go, five months later I found myself sitting front row at a premier fashion show, Asif waving to me from the wings.
“Craft is Culture,” Asif tells me, as we sat in his office a few weeks later. The way he said the words, I could tell that both nouns were capitalized in his mind. I was standing in a room decorated with hundreds of elaborate saris, pashminas, and dupattas—their colors and designs expressions of the artist in front of me. Carefully working on the stitching of a scarf adorned with bright green beetle wings, he looks up at me and continued, “In turn, if we lose our Craft, we lose our Culture.” I nod, distracted by the way the silken fabric glides through his fingers. Asif, a native of Ahmedabad, a city known for its textiles and crafts, has devoted his life to preserving Indian culture through the art of fashion. Sipping burning hot chai, Asif softly explained to me the effects of the modernization and industrialization of textiles, especially those used in the fashion industry. He explained in simple terms the stakes involved in this rapid, impersonal change consuming the fashion industry in India. Indeed, as I listened, I became painfully aware of the threat to the livelihoods of thousands of artisans across Gujarat and India. In a world that increasingly demands cheap fast-fashion, Asif has made it his personal mission to find a way to preserve the lifestyles, practices, and cultures of thousands of traditional artisans across India. To Asif, this preservation begins with the basic idea of walking hand-in-hand.
Two years ago, Asif founded the Craft Design Society, now registered as the CDS Art Foundation, with the purpose of promoting Indian culture through high-end fashion. From its inception, CDS sought to create a movement that would make India’s hand-crafted textiles as inspiring as any other global brand. Asif believed that this movement could be best catalyzed with a specific two-pronged approach. First, he would focus on the process of production. He would exclusively utilize traditional techniques in each step of creation. From the handwoven fabric to organic dies and homespun thread, each moment of creation would involve the traditions and long-held practices of local artisans. Second, Asif would put the artisans themselves in the spotlight. He would walk hand-in-hand with them down the runway to literally symbolize how credit can be equally ascribed to both the designer and the textile creator. In Asif’s view, it would be through this newfound focus and recognition that traditional crafts, and the people who keep them alive, could be better understood and, in turn, valued.
As I sit watching models walking down the runway at the Walking Hand in Hand Fashion show hosted by CDS Art Foundation, I am overwhelmed. The flowing works of art gliding down and up the stage are telling us a story. Each piece and, more specifically, each stich or block print tell the audience a hard-earned narrative of a community in Varanasi or a family in Kashmir. Each piece is moving proof that tradition and culture can exist in the realm of modernity. Clothing often finds a way to segregate—to divide us based on who we are and where we come from. However, the garments floating down this runway seek to actively unify. They boldly instruct the audience to take pride in the traditional art of their region and nation. The viewer is given the chance to bask in the wonder of a common clothing history: one that is rich in culture, tradition, and excellence.
As the last piece of history, of art, retreats down the runway, the designer emerges from the shadows, hand-in-hand with the craftsman, both resplendent in the glow of the multi-hued lights. They serve as a reminder that this is a story that is far more complex than a tailored suit or a perfectly-pleated sari. The story that walks past thousands of onlookers on a chilly February evening is not of one of times past, but of a present that is very much alive. What Asif and CDS provide is evidence that there is a modern market for what has been pejoratively cast as modes of yesteryear. That the artisanal creations of India can be integrated into fashions that are marketable to today’s millennial buyers.
So much of what this Fellowship has taught me is how to move through my daily life with intention. That is, to see each opportunity as a chance to actively learn; to prevent my mind from going on auto pilot; to be thoughtful as I work, interact, and travel. Upon meeting Asif, I presumed a few pieces of advice would be dispensed to me about how to navigate Ahmedabad, then he would move on. Instead, over the past months, through our dinners and weekly visits to his studio, he has served as a constant reminder and proof of how truly powerful intention can be. Of knowing what you want to achieve, and then actively creating that reality. As the lights fade over the runway, I can overhear my neighbours excitedly discussing the couture offerings and how they couldn’t believe how chic the block prints looked on the models. I am quickly repeating their comments in my head, recording them to repeat to Asif as soon as I get backstage.