Masculine brands reinventing South Asian craftsmanship
A new generation of South Asian menswear brands are reinventing textiles from the Indian subcontinent to create garments that are both a nod to ancient customs and deeply modern.
Although long celebrated for their traditional craftsmanship and often hired by luxury brands, South Asian artisans have not achieved the same recognition as the couturiers of Paris or the tailors of Savile Row.
But now, with a growing demand for transparency and craftsmanship in fashion – the ability to work with artisans without intermediaries and the ease with which designers can sell directly to discerning international customers – southern menswear brands ZnAli, Karu Research and Kardo are renewing traditional fashion.
“For preserve traditional craftsmanship, it is also important to challenge one’s potential.”
The oldest and perhaps the most accessible of these brands is Delhi-based Kardo, founded by Rikki Kher in 2013 and carried by some of the most cutting-edge boutiques in the world. The child of Indian immigrants, Kher grew up in the family’s Sari boutique in London, went to business school at NYU and got into the fashion business. A sourcing job brought him back to India, where he fell in love with the country’s seemingly endless variety of unique handcrafted textiles. “It was an incredible emotional reaction to be in the country where your parents were born,” he says. Grab. After years of working for fast fashion brands and international corporations, he decided to strike out on his own and start a business that makes clothes slowly and responsibly.
Using vintage fabrics, Chikankari embroidery and Khadi (the handwoven cotton once worn by Gandhi), Kardo keeps cuts simple and emphasizes the textiles themselves. Kher is particularly proud of his brand’s commitment to block printing, a technique dating back to at least the 12th century that requires fantastic patience and skill, but produces beautifully variegated fabrics with a human touch. “Every print they create is done in-house, so the blocks are made from scratch,” he says.
To design these prints, Kardo has partnered with the Indian textile brand Anokhi, which has been striving to perpetuate this know-how since 1970. approach to work with it”, explains Rachel Bracken Singh, design director of Anokhi.
A standout block print piece from Kardo’s Spring/Summer 22 collection is a lavishly patterned blue tracksuit with contrasting orange stripes along the legs and sleeves. Made from naturally dyed cotton rather than stretchy black polyester blends, this two-piece tracksuit is as at home on the streets of East London as it is in New Delhi.
“Using an attractive, retro-inspired and street-savvy contemporary style code, now is the time to merge the best of east and west,” says Ekta Rajani, Indian stylist and slow fashion expert . “As an alternative to the hyper-industrial western model” in India, “menswear is getting a boost”. For Rajani, this turn to India’s textile heritage signals a broader “change of attitude and pride” among South Asian designers and consumers who are finding a renewed appreciation for fashion traditions that had long been seen as exceeded.
In recent years, more and more South Asian menswear brands are beginning to find a global audience. Kartik Kumra launched his Karu Research brand just two years ago in a bedroom at his parents’ house in Delhi. He was halfway through an economics degree at the University of Pennsylvania, but suddenly found himself stuck at home on lockdown. Kumra was a longtime admirer of niche Japanese brands like Kapital and Visvim and sensed a similarity between wabi-sabi style boro and overdyed and embroidered Indian textiles like Kantha. Faced with the prospect of finishing a digital internship at an American company late at night, he decided to devote himself full-time to designing clothes.
“I just haven’t seen any Indian clothes in the stores,” Kumra says. “And not like Indian silhouettes traditionally, just anything representing India. So I was like, ‘Ok, there’s definitely room for that.’
“Quality, origin, and individuality.”
Without a driver’s license, Kumra convinced his mother to drive him to nearby towns in Uttar Pradesh and the city of Jaipur to meet local textile artisans. To buy their vintage fabrics, he used the money he had saved by returning Supreme products. At night, he watches YouTube videos on sewing and experiments with one-off creations. The biggest challenge, however, was convincing artisans to deviate from their usual way of doing business. Unlike his fellow Penn students, he says, “Artisans aren’t just about money. It’s very strange, because it’s a sector where people need money.
When Kumra started selling his pieces on Instagram, the response was much bigger and more immediate than he had anticipated. Two years later, he is working with around forty craftsmen and a team of tailors. This month, Karu Research is launching a 17-piece summer capsule exclusively through Mr. Porter, who already carries the brand’s main line. “Karu’s focus on quality, provenance and individuality of pieces, [and] the seamless fusion of workwear and age-old Indian craftsmanship is what makes Karu so interesting and why he had such instant success on Mr. Porter,” says Sammy Skipper, Junior Casual Wear Buyer for Mr. Porter.
The handcrafted and highly variable nature of each piece (especially those made from deadstock or recycled fabrics) will appeal to those who have outgrown their old hypebeast gear but are still looking for things no one else can ever copy. Kumra’s careful sourcing policies – it uses natural dyes and contracts directly with each artisan to ensure they are paid a fair price – ensure that Keru Research only offers the highest quality garments. . “I [quality control] every piece myself,” he says. This approach does not lend itself to economies of scale, but for Kumra that was never the goal. Instead, it aims to “create a community where people every season want this product.”
For people looking for even more original clothes, there is Zain Ali, the designer and namesake of the London company ZnAli. Like Kumra, Ali launched his brand during the pandemic and took the opportunity to settle in Lahore, in the Pakistani province of Punjab. For inspiration, Ali looked at the clothes worn by his Pakistani parents and grandparents in old photographs. It was a time when the country was still on the hippie trail, and young people were mixing traditional fabrics and patterns with groovy Western styles as a kind of “Pakistani nostalgia”.
Lace shirts and floral crochet flares reminiscent of Bode show a softer side of South Asian masculinity. There is an intimacy and vulnerability in the way Ali styles and photographs his models, all of whom are his friends. Most of his customers, however, live in New York rather than Lahore, communicating with Ali about the provenance of fabrics or the specifics of fit via email – a service he is developing in the sur- full measure. Ali aims to welcome them into its brand and its culture without claiming to speak for others. “I’m not trying to communicate this national identity,” he says.
The question of how to translate traditions from one culture to another is one Ali continues to wrestle with, especially when he feels compelled to sell an essentialized view of India and Pakistan. He recalls being told by a PR agency once to “talk about the bazaars and the smell of spices” during a pitch meeting, but he felt that was not the way he was. wanted to build their brand or connect with an audience. “I want South Asian designers to retain their distinct personality,” he says.
Ultimately, Ali hopes new brands emerging from South Asia will be judged the same as brands from anywhere else in the world – on their own aesthetic and design merits. It may take a few years for the rest of the world to grasp the fantastic fashion coming out of India and Pakistan, but they prefer it to happen organically rather than force it. The clothes speak for themselves.