In Conversation with Anavila Misra | ÉTÉ: Flower of Love | at Rithihi

The saree is one of the most potent cultural symbols on the Indian subcontinent. Whether elegant, ornate, minimalistic or vibrant, sarees are an ever-evolving medium of expression and style with an enduring ability to merge tradition with modern ingenuity. Anavila Misra is an accomplished fashion designer hailing from India who is well-versed in the art of handwoven Indian textiles. With an illustrious career dedicated to innovating sarees for the modern woman, her latest collection ÉTÉ: Flower of Love is a love letter to Indian weaving techniques, textiles and classical French design motifs. It was launched at Rithihi on 31st May and was exhibited until 2nd June. Ahead of the launch, ARTRA Magazine had the privilege to speak with Anavila, where she discussed the Pondicherry influence behind her latest designs, the laborious creative process involved in producing the collection, and mused upon her vision as a designer in a historically significant industry. 

Q | What inspired your latest collection ‘Été: Flower of Love’?

A | Travel. When you travel to places you see that they are not completely one identity, such as the South of India where this idea germinated. You can see the fusion of different identities and cultures, and over time you see that it becomes a unique space in itself. For example, Pondicherry was where the French came through India in the 1850s. If you go there now you’ll find lifestyles, habits, aesthetics and spaces which can be found anywhere in France as well. It is a place that is a unique combination of Tamil and French culture. When the French came they imparted their way of life, you’ll see locals in Pondicherry now enjoying food and aesthetics that are rooted in French culture. A lot of lace work was done in Ceylon and the South of India and that tradition has continued to be carried forward. A lot of their everyday life objects use laces, or the way they use flowers, even the old-era architecture is Franco-Tamil. You see that it is neither French nor Tamil, it is a fusion of two which has beautifully come together. That was the idea we explored with this collection– how two very distinct cultures mix and create something which has parts of both but is ultimately something very unique. 

Été is summer in French– this is a high summer collection. We chose rose as the motif we wanted to work with for this collection. It is on sarees which are Indian textiles or Indian garments, but the way we have used the motif is quite French. Some examples are the French lace used to create a block for specific garments, a saree blouse made of organza with khadi silk mixed in, the pintuck detailing and lace insertions– you’ll see these small things in all of the sarees in the collection.

Q | Was merging Tamil and French design elements in your sarees challenging? Where can we see aspects of cultural fusion come through in the designs?

A | The saree is a very unique piece of heritage for India as a country. It has been with us for a very long time, been explored and has been part of our identity in so many ways. To experiment with an outside influence on that particular garment, I felt like I had to do justice to what I was attempting to bring in. It was challenging to think of the different variants you could create from these two cultures, but once we put our heads down and started thinking about what we had to do, it became clearer.  The techniques we used such as block printing are very Indian and traditional to us, but the motifs were French. Then the appliqué work which we did with our artisans in our workshops were again, very Indian. But if you look at the sarees presented in this collection, it feels as if you are looking at a rosarium. When you look at the sarees, they are very well balanced even though they are embroidered pieces, and are still beautiful sarees. One cannot say that we just took some French lace and pasted it on a saree. It shows how we’ve done justice to the craft and the techniques we work with but also taken influence from our point of reference and inspiration.  

Q | Your latest work has a romantic aesthetic to it– was that intentional? 

A | Yes, when we say ‘Flower of Love’ we mean the rose. Across cultures and references all over the world, the rose is a unique symbol of love and romance. It was because of this flower and the way we portrayed it– the subtlety of colour and the pastel shades– that the whole thing became very romantic. That’s what we wanted.

Q | What was your creative process like when designing this collection? 

A | So, how it started was the idea: French in Pondicherry. That was the first thought and a very basic thought at that. That started our research completely on the 1850s and the French occupation in Pondicherry– when they came, what they brought, what they did and what they changed. In Pondicherry, the French tried to create gardens, and things like the architecture changed. We also looked at what people were wearing in France at that point in time and what people were wearing in India at that point in time. In a different space, we researched how mulmul went from India to Europe and how there was this muslin fever because the French discovered this really thin, fine fabric from India which was transparent and showed the body. There was this craze for Indian textiles to the point where it was banned at times because nobody wanted European textiles in favour of the beautiful textiles which were coming from India. We did a lot of research on French apparel, home linen and even crockery– how roses were put together, how the links were formed, how anchors were created and how they would interact with each other. 

So, all of that data was collected. Then, one of the team members in our design team started painting roses– she painted roses for I think a month and a half! The rose gave us a type of freedom because it has so many varietals, particularly French varietals. There was a freedom in the number of shapes, colours and varieties we could play with. Once the painting was done, we spoke to a block-maker. Block-making took another 15 days, 20 days, 1 month or 2 months depending on the complexity of the block. After that our experimentations with placement started. So this collection, after the motifs were ready, took a long time to do. For this collection, I think we must have gone to that cluster 10 or 15 times. After the motifs were created, only the fabrics took 6 months to come and then the production of garments and all of that. Once printing was done we started working on the appliqué pieces, and how we would translate the motifs into more detailed sarees which were appliqué. 

Q | What would you say is your philosophy or vision as a fashion designer, especially one within the rather traditional art of saree-making? 

A | My reference point is India where so much has been done with the saree and all of us love the saree– any age group. My son has just graduated from school and I attended his graduation just this month. At the ceremony, I saw all these young girls who were 17 or 18 years old wearing sarees for their special day. They’ll wear it for any traditional occasion at home or festivities, so the saree will always be a part of us. The saree is a part of our identity and our culture. If you take the linen saree as an example, it is now such a known and done form even though that idea is only 13 or 14 years old. Before that, there were no linen sarees in India. If an idea like this was non-existent 14 years ago in an industry like saree-making which has been around for such a long time, imagine how many more ideas are waiting to be executed, nurtured and imagined? 

As a fashion designer, I wanted to create a saree-wearing experience that was more comfortable, international and applicable for any space. The sarees in this collection can be worn anywhere in the world, they represent Indian heritage but are still very modern– from the motifs to the way the fabric moves around your body. But there will always be room for innovation in this industry. We’ve only scratched the surface of textiles, yarns, fibres and techniques we see. In the coming times where sustainability, upcycling, recycling and using waste materials are so important, you don’t know whose mind is working on a very modern, contemporary or completely out-of-the-box saree. My generation may not be able to think of that because we are of a certain age and we see textiles in a certain way, but these young designers coming out of design schools now might be able to give us something completely new.  

Known for her handwoven linen sarees, Anavila Misra is an Indian fashion designer based in Mumbai who has been innovating sarees for the modern woman since 2011. Having graduated from a course in Knitwear Design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) New Delhi in 2000, Anavila launched her own label in 2011 following her inception of the ‘linen saree’. Her lightweight and innovative designs have been worn by a plethora of celebrities such as Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Dia Mirza and many more. Her latest collection ÉTÉ: Flower of Love is a cultural fusion of Indian and French design features with a distinctly French floral motif. The collection launched on 31st May, its exhibition and sale ongoing until 2nd June.

Written by Kavinu Cooray 

10th June, 2024 Applied Art | Sustainable Design