Interview by Vanya Lochan. Pictures by Anish. Styled by Susan Thomas. Assisted by Aakriti Arora. All clothes and accessories, Susan’s personal. Location courtesy: NIFT Bengaluru.
“From my dwelling, I might journey 125 kilometres day by day to succeed in my workplace…generally battling the warmth of fifty plus, contemplating that it’s Rajasthan and in winter, throughout lush fields of mustard, nearly what you see in all of the Bollywood films. However not a person in sight, not a girl in sight, not an animal in sight. That’s exactly what the federal government does and the place the federal government capabilities.” I watch as Susan Thomas, who has been working with the Indian Income Companies for greater than 21 years now, tries to inform us “why working within the authorities is lit”. She continues matter-of-factly: “We like to hate all that’s from the federal government, and we like to hate the sarkaari babu.”
As somebody who had disowned a long-lived dream of becoming a member of the federal government out of utter disillusionment and college-learnt dismay in direction of, as my friends and I noticed it, “the colonial, feudal establishment of forms”, I comply with the administrator’s 2020 TEDx discuss half-sceptical, half-irresolute.
“When [the students’] dad and mom come to see me, as they stroll into the room, they anticipate to see a person — they anticipate to see an outdated and greying man, after which they anticipate to see a professor.” I pause the video and enter a seek for “Susan Thomas IRS” to seek out her Instagram account, and I meet @afsarnama, or “chronicles of an officer”. Now, I’m intrigued. I scroll by means of numerous vignettes — pictures of her in radiant peach kosa saris, kalamkari blouses, embroidered tussar and golden muga, adopted by detailed captions describing the wealthy historical past of the textiles and the sheer great thing about their selection.
The 44-year-old Thomas’ reels are all set to social media’s trending codecs and sounds as she seems to teach and have interaction her followers on a spread of matters like how chikankari and hakoba should not the identical factor, the fake pas in Gangubai Kathiawadi’s interval wardrobe design or how ikat, with its calculated warp and weft dye, an instance of utilized arithmetic. Over a Zoom name together with her, I uncover an sudden bond over a mutual love of contemporary Indian historical past, subaltern research, Instagram and what Foucault or Fanon can inform us about style. Together with her proper knuckle positioned fastidiously beneath her chin, she routinely smiles as she takes me by means of numerous eras throughout the historical past of India — not flinching even after I increase harder questions such because the implications of our so-called sustainable practices on manufacturing facility staff and artisans or after I badger her about her shirt tailors and the numerous saris in her wardrobe. She solutions thoughtfully, and the twinkle in her eyes by no means fades.
Susan Thomas isn’t just a bureaucrat: she is a storyteller, an educator and a style thinker — one of many few who’re speaking extensively concerning the many faces of Indian style in a method that the upholders of the business hardly ever do.
In Verve’s try to think about other ways of enthusiastic about style and our relationship to what we put on, Thomas directs our eyes away from the sparkly bits and exhibits us how intimately interwoven our on a regular basis lives and style actually are.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What does an administrator should do with style?
I get requested this so much, so let’s begin with the historical past of NIFT [National Institute of Fashion Technology]. It was established in 1986 by the federal government — a uncommon and dynamic feat for a younger resource-strapped nation that was simply studying to stroll by itself two ft. Regardless of the whole lot, it was formidable sufficient to begin a style schooling establishment to cater to the calls for of an equally younger garment manufacturing and exporting business and make skilled schooling, like design, accessible to all. The federal government joined fingers with FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], New York, and it was the AEPC [Apparel Export Promotion Council] that gave it a fillip. And, beginning out as a part of the Ministry of Textiles [Thomas has been working with them since 2018 — her current position is part of her deputation to Textiles], we had been at a really distinctive intersection. NIFT has by no means been simply concerning the slim definition of style that we affiliate it with — it’s not solely about clothes. Additionally it is about handlooms and handicrafts, which kind the spine of our export business, to not point out maintain emotional and historic worth. And so, NIFT has all the time positioned itself very robustly with the craft clusters. I believe that’s why the administration all the time rested with authorities servants — the primary govt director was Rathi Vinay Jha, an IAS officer. Campus administrators had been, once more, a part of the federal government equipment. We’re in all probability the one academic establishment that’s situated inside a authorities construction and imparts style and design schooling. In contrast to non-public design institutes, NIFT’s pupil profile is pan-Indian and cuts throughout courses. This is the reason directors from the federal government are necessary; we now have attain the place no person else does.
Why did you decide NIFT, when you can have gone to any of the IITs or IIMs and even the much-coveted LBSNAA [Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration] in Mussoorie? Is it since you had been desirous about style? Or was it about handicrafts?
Sooner or later within the ’90s, I critically toyed with the concept of pursuing an schooling with NIFT. I’ve all the time had a really eager curiosity in style when it comes to its definition as a type of cultural expression, and the way it turns into an expression of a neighborhood’s creativeness greater than the rest, moderately than ramp style or designer put on, so to talk. I’m a historical past pupil, and I’ve studied trendy Indian historical past with plenty of cultural research thrown in. So, with the methods and the style of the occasions, a sure motif turns into necessary; all these items have reflection and are a mirrored image of the political and the financial, together with a mixture of different issues.
After getting back from my examine go away at Oxford [Thomas completed a master’s from the Blavatnik School of Government in 2016], I by some means had the power to return to an academic establishment. NIFT appeared to encapsulate all of my likings — I used to be fascinated by its imaginative and prescient. In fact, the additional benefit was that it was situated in Bangalore, so I didn’t have to maneuver cities; it was simply a very simple selection for me to stroll into NIFT, after which the whole lot else form of fell into place. I’m working with revenue tax, so I finally have to return to finance. Finance to textiles and style is certainly a shift and my time at NIFT is a short sojourn; nonetheless the chance to advance my information about textiles whereas situating it inside an instructional framework, as additionally to study a totally new discipline, is thrilling and enriching in additional methods than one. NIFT has opened my eyes to plenty of issues. One is the way in which that Gen Z and millennials are considering and the work tradition that we’re more and more transferring in direction of. And, second, the wealth of this nation — handlooms and handicrafts, the way in which textiles have exploded even into the medical and technical worlds in a post-pandemic world. Vogue institutes have solely simply began to review the tip of the large iceberg, and I’m glad to be part of this motion.
I believe what we’re getting at is that there isn’t a really clear definition of what style can entail, proper? I assume it’s not the identical as model, and it additionally goes past simply garments. So, I need to ask, how would you outline style?
Traditionally talking, the royals had been the “trendy” ones as a result of that they had the entry and the sources. Nonetheless, there have additionally been actions the place we now have tried to put in writing about subaltern style in the identical method that we write about subaltern historical past. At JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], the place I learn my grasp’s in trendy Indian historical past, one in all our pet matters was subaltern historical past — we have to transfer away from the tales of kings and queens and discuss what the farmer or the service provider on the road did. Clothes is the primary and an important technique of non-verbal communication, and, as a cultural expression, it operates on a number of ranges identical to the whole lot else, be it economics or politics. We can’t fake that we’re resistant to world tendencies, particularly now, when borders are fairly clear and we’re all travelling — each bodily and digitally — and have entry to what’s being worn all over the world. So, what any person is carrying on the pink carpet may have an impact in a small city. As shoppers, we’re additionally perpetrators: we generate style. Since we’re social animals, we consider in mimicry, and mimicry creates tendencies.
Might you inform me extra concerning the influence of sustainability and gradual style actions on the makers of garments? If I purchase much less and repurpose the whole lot, would a garment employee, who would in any other case have earned cash to supply garments, receives a commission much less? If my consumption patterns imply a lack of livelihood for another person, do I nonetheless get to say that I’m sustainable?
Let’s outline sustainability first — it’s concerning the practices that the wearer makes, equivalent to not ordering an excessive amount of and repurposing their purchases. Sustainability may also imply, perhaps, limiting myself to pure dyes or not utilizing artificial supplies. So, what’s the influence these fancy phrases have on the employees, the artisans, the makers? Sadly, once we discuss sustainability at this time, we’re solely concentrating on the manufacturing processes. As an example, shopping for clothes produced from pure fibres could be sustainable, however the level is misplaced for those who’re going to be shopping for a whole lot of those on a month-to-month foundation with out repeating the clothes or getting right into a aware consumption sample. The era that’s reaping the advantages of liberalised, globalised India by being in its workforce — the city elite — has plenty of disposable revenue, not like the earlier generations for whom new garments had been reserved for festivals, birthdays, anniversaries and different particular events. Now, procuring is an on a regular basis, every-minute affair, so we’re accumulating much more than what we want. Neuromarketing makes positive that you simply’re perpetually procuring. It then turns into very troublesome to swim in opposition to the tide and be consciously conscious of how a lot bang to your buck you’re going to get.
India has had a tradition of repurposing textiles brilliantly, however I believe it was the need of a globalised world to speak in confidence to manufacturers. As soon as the manufacturers enter, and you’ve got season gross sales, and when there are excessive net-worth people who journey so much and have disposable revenue, then clothes is not only a necessity.
By way of sustainability affecting staff, it’s essential to first realise that manufacturing facility work has develop into a pressured necessity. Staff can migrate to different fields and small companies, and that’s the place the assist have to be supplied to them — however we additionally want to think about who we’re benefiting by shopping for extra, the employees or the multimillionaire multinationals? I might in all probability limit the “purchase extra to assist” logic to serving to artisans in small haats [local rural markets] and consequently the native economic system. Selecting to purchase greens from native farmers or Diwali decor from native potters not solely helps the economic system and helps their livelihoods but additionally reduces one’s carbon footprint.
You’re a lover of saris. How lengthy have you ever been fascinated with the garment? And what first obtained you curious about textiles?
I’ve been fascinated with saris ever since I can keep in mind. My earliest journeys had been to Handloom Home with my mom, and Handloom Homes, for those who recall, had been the retailers of the All India Handloom Board, they usually used to inventory a reasonably good illustration of handlooms from throughout the nation. I can keep in mind myself as a child of six or seven speaking to the salesmen in these outlets and the way they might indulge me and reply my questions intimately.
Did you ever raid your mom’s or grandmother’s closets? Additionally, what did you put on to JNU? As a Delhi College pupil, I used to be all the time in my kurta, denims and chappals. Did you costume equally in school, or had you already developed a love for saris?
I used to put on saris to varsity solely throughout ceremonies as a result of I used to be a member of the coed council. My grandmother solely wore all-white and was not a sari particular person. I belong to the Syrian Christian neighborhood, and we put on the chatta, mundu and neriyathu — it’s a three-piece garment. My mom did put on saris, nonetheless, and that’s how I learnt to put on them. Hers and my aunts’ kanchipurams had been the primary ones I attempted, after which there have been cotton saris. JNU was an fascinating sartorial experiment. Winters had been spent largely in denims and tees. In fact, it helped that Delhi can be the mecca of producing surplus, and then you definitely had Sarojini Nagar, which is sort of pleasant to pupil budgets. Summers had been positively in salwar kurtas. I don’t assume I wore a sari casually even as soon as in JNU.
What do you assume the long run holds for the sari? Does it want one other interpretation? Why is it necessary to “save the sari”?
I utterly disagree that the sari must be “saved” as a result of an enormous share of the inhabitants nonetheless wears them to work in. I see BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike] staff within the mornings carrying saris. Our housekeeping women at NIFT put on saris too. Possibly they’re carrying georgettes or artificial materials, however the garment is certainly right here to remain. So, “saving the sari” is a really uppity, snobbish method of it as a result of it simply doesn’t should be saved. I additionally assume the sari doesn’t want any reinterpretation as a result of it’s one of many longest unstitched clothes, and every particular person can personal the sari in his or her personal method. So, you can, say, drape it as soon as within the Nivi model or the seedha palla [wherein the loose end is draped over the right shoulder back to front] or, perhaps, put on it like a skirt or a sarong! In truth, the current era might be much more open to drape experimentation, and that’s a very good signal.
What’s your favorite kind of sari?
It could be easy mull cotton in primary colors as a result of then the choices for styling, just like the shirt variations, are infinite. Coming from a particularly organised sector just like the Civil Companies, I nearly all the time put on the Nivi drape to the workplace, and it’s solely after coming to NIFT that I’ve loosened up slightly and develop into a bit extra experimental, say, by carrying crop tops or kurtis as blouses.
I’m consistently fascinated by your minimalist accessorising as properly. Take me by means of your styling course of.
My styling course of within the workplace may be very conservative. In a typical authorities workplace, it’s very troublesome to seek out individuals who put on heavy equipment, however there are events after I do put on chunkier items. I actually wish to preserve it minimal and useful as a result of if I had been to put on chunky bracelets and bangles, I might battle with dealing with recordsdata and so forth. So, until an event calls for in any other case, I wish to preserve it very, quite simple for the sake of performance.
What’s the consensus amongst college students within the present NIFT batches in direction of sustainability?
Thankfully, there’s a pretty sturdy and stable consensus that sustainability needs to be about a way more aware consumption sample than the rest. The scholars go for smaller manufacturers, and thrifting is a significant follow. We encourage clothes exchanges on NIFT campuses; we now have common drives for swaps and trunk gross sales. Our style college students are conscious about the processes, and there may be positively an impetus to create extra clothes with sustainable supplies and assist acutely aware consumption, pure dyeing processes, zero-waste patterns, and so forth.
You had put up a put up on how Indian brides comply with a sure aesthetic template. I’m afraid that almost all girls do the identical factor each day — all of us have that one indie costume (a Jodi or a Chidiyaa), the identical Zara trousers, and, after all, “faucet to view/store” solely signifies that emulation is feasible, simply obtainable and perpetually inspired. How, in your opinion, has Instagram modified our philosophy of style? Can we keep away from wanting like everybody else on social media?
What I lament essentially the most about bridalwear following a template is the homogeneity being assumed — the lack of native tales and communities from the style map. For instance, a typical Kerala bride who would in any other case put on both a cream-and-white or white-and-gold sari with conventional jewelry could be giving approach to Banarasi and polki. It’s well-nigh potential to not comply with tendencies as a lot as it’s to comply with them always. We aren’t the identical particular person by means of the day or by means of the week, which signifies that our work wardrobes may carry the most recent tendencies however our night put on may very well be one thing completely totally different — maybe a wonderful costume made from an area handmade khana cloth, which we may pair with handcrafted silver jewelry. It’s fairly potential to not take a look at social media consistently, however we will additionally achieve this with our ft firmly on the bottom and method style in a extra aware method. I believe there may be an immense chance to get artistic!
What’s our relationship with the historical past of style in India? How can publications and the media do justice to this heritage?
Sadly, one seldom sees the historical past of Indian textiles in style editorials. A dialog about silhouette and not using a dialogue on the material or yarn is sure to be reductionist and lopsided. That’s one thing that I would love style writing to choose up on — to attach the dots, to speak about motifs and historical past, to speak about how tradition has travelled from one continent to a different. Vogue has all the time fomented a sure possession craze. Vogue writing wants to tell us that liking one thing doesn’t essentially imply having to own it. I do know it goes in opposition to the commercials as a result of income depends on promoting, but when in any respect we may determine on a sure portion of our tales to be about heirlooms, passing on traditions, about investing and shopping for consciously, and likewise, private tales, then we could be a brand new sort of philosophy of style. And for those who take Instagram — which didn’t matter or affect my very own decisions to a big extent as a result of I solely took to it in my 40s — the style neighborhood there may be responsible not solely of propelling the business in direction of elevated consumption and not using a aware understanding of whether or not one actually wants a lot but additionally of buckling to tendencies. They need to right that course.
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