Humble? Coarse? Beige? Not any more. 

Reincarnated in gossamer-fine, supple 

and coloured avatars, India’s freedom 

fabric is having a fashion moment all over again.

Danish textile designer Bess Nielsen’s store in Paris is named after it.
 It has made it to the Star Wars films. Designer Christina Kim’s haute
label Dosa stocks it. And what is it? Nothing but our humble freedom
 fighter, khadi. Yes, khadi is now on its third fashion outing and, boy,
is it in the limelight.
Life for this handspun fabric certainly didn’t start on the ramp.
On the contrary, if Mahatma Gandhi, the noble promoter of the
cloth, were alive today, he might well go on a satyagraha to
protest its takeover by the fashionistas! Or, shrewd politician that
he was, he might just approve of this peculiarly Indian conquest of
the fashion world.
Let’s go into the back story a bit. Khadi is handspun cloth found in
India and Pakistan. It’s a warp-weft mix of cotton, silk or wool,
spun into thread on the charkha which, of course, became a
political symbol of its own.
Khadi.01 wasn’t just about a bolt of coarse, rough-spun cloth.
It was a movement. Launched in the late 1940s by the Mahatma,
the khadi statement was more economical than sartorial, all about
 giving Western goods the cold shoulder and wearing only Indian-made
 cloth. The Mahatma spinning khadi on his charkha became the visible
 icon of the Swadesi movement, symbolising self-employment,
self-reliance and self-pride. It was khadi versus British mill cloth.
Thus infused with a strong touch of politics, khadi was and continues
 to be the Indian and sometimes South Asian politician’s sartorial
statement. Of course, it’s a far finer cloth with a higher thread count
 today. It enjoys another political distinction: the Indian flag is allowed
 to be made only of khadi.
When the fierce fire of nationalism had run its course, the fabric of
independence was relegated to the back shelves of government-run
 textile emporiums and Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavans, where the bales
 gathered a fine patina of dust and drabness.
Many years down the line, we find that khadi is one fabric that refuses
to go gently into the night. Unfazed by the fact that it hasn’t got its just
 dues from the country of its origin, it keeps coming back. For which
India should be truly thankful.
Khadi.02 was, ironically enough, set in motion by a politician. Vasundhara
Raje, Minister of Small Scale Industries in 2001, decided it was time for the
 national fabric to reveal its cool quotient. She brought designers such as
Rohit Bal and Malini Ramani on board to give it a new look. The new
designs first upped the glamour quotient of the dreary Udyog Bhavans,
 and then came standalone spaces like Khadi Store in Delhi’s tony Khan
Market. Suddenly, it was all the rage to wear khadi. Kurtas, kurtis,
jackets, dhotis, saris… every designer in the country worth his or her
structured silhouette was doing stuff with khadi. Amazing things, for
the most part.
Of course, one set of designers has always worked with khadi, the
classicists rather than trend-tweakers. Neeru Kumar, Ritu Kumar,
Pranavi Kapur and Madhu Jain knew the nature of khadi, and
worked closely with the weavers. Says Ritu Kumar, “Khadi dyes
beautifully, is more eco-friendly than any other Indian textile, and
its matte texture looks fabulous with subtle embellishment.”
Designer Agnimitra Paul talks about the fabric’s versatility: “Khadi allows you
 to create an ethnic look with ease. If worn with proper accessories and carried
 with grace, it makes a distinct fashion statement.” Kapur has been working with
khadi and handlooms for many years now and says, “Khadi is in my DNA. The
fabric has been an intrinsic part of my growing, as an individual and as a designer.
 My line of soft pastels done by Ansari artisans in Bihar is such a big hit.”
In the early 2000s, Rajkot-based Saurashtra Rachnatmak Samiti (SRS) introduced
 khadi denim in the market. SRS Chairman Davendra Desai admitted that khadi sales
 were slumping and this was a move to counter the slide. Meanwhile back at the
Gram Udyogs, the stats were dismal. According to the 2009-2010 report of the
Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the value of khadi produced
in the country fell from Rs.585.25 crore in 2008 to Rs.484.45 crore by
December 2009; sales plummeted by Rs.40 crore. The Khadi Commission
has more than one million workers, with an astounding 80 per cent being
women. The welfare of this large industry, therefore, is no small matter
for the authorities.
Even though selling spurious khadi is punishable under the Khaddar Act
of 1950, the government had set no standardisation bar. Dubious khadi
bhandars had mushroomed across the country, selling any handloom cloth
under the khadi label. Simultaneously, the haute couture designers roped in
 for the glam makeover found the complex labyrinth of governmental red tape
 too tough to negotiate, and started pulling out. The sun was clearly beginning
 to set on khadi again.
Today, as it gets set for the runway again, the question is not so much whether
it has arrived but whether it lends itself to variety and innovation. Here lies the
 rub or, more aptly, the nub. Khadi has not and does not really look to be
crossing the invisible barrier that can catapult it into the big league. For all
its versatility, detractors point to its coarse feel and propensity to wrinkle.
 But linen is very wrinkly too and not for a moment has its appeal declined
among the sartorially evolved. In fact, Rohit Bal says that khadi is India’s
 answer to linen.
Khadi’s international connect has always been strong, given that John and
William Bissel’s Fabindia, and Faith and John Singh’s Anokhi were early
— and effective — promoters of the fabric. It was inevitable that khadi
would soon cross the seas. In the Star Wars films, dyed khadi features in
some of the costumes, especially for Samuel L. Jackson’s character Mace
Windu. Bess Nielsen’s Paris store called Khadi & Co displays a carefully
curated range of ensembles. Nielsen finds ‘great beauty’ in hand-spun
khadi, saying it is versatile enough to pass that most basic textile test:
that of being climate adaptable.
That high-end label Dosa stocks khadi is excellent exposure, given that
designer Christina Kim is a favourite with Hollywood A-listers such as
Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman. In a deliciously
ironic move, Kim actually brought her khadi collection to India a
while ago. Nobody mentioned coals or Newcastle.  
Last year, at both the Berlin Fashion Week and the New York Fashion
Week, Gaurang Shah showcased a khadi line. This, of course, was a
high thread-count khadi. Traditionally, khadi uses 60 counts of thread
per inch, but Shah took the notch higher and used 80 to 100 counts of
thread per inch to make the fabric more malleable, while playing with
colour and floral motifs. Says Shah, “I personally love khadi. I want to
preserve it for the future because it holds the true essence of India.”
Better still, khadi seems to be moving beyond garments. At London’s perennial
 fave, the Conran Shop, Abraham & Thakore’s khadi cushions make a lovely
 display. Back home, a tile company offers a khadi line of sombre-hued tiles.
Khadi exhibitions offer visitors a turn at the charkha.
On its third run, khadi seems more or less completely shorn of its political
 and historical elements. Khadi .03 is an admittedly elitist and expensive
avatar. Textile revivalist Rta Kapur Chishti, a long-time fan of the fabric
 (nothing drapes like khadi, she says) showcased as many as 108 different
varieties woven across nine Indian states in an exhibition titled
‘Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom.’
Even Sabyasachi Mukherjee has dipped his toes with a wedding trousseau
 ensemble of embroidered khadi lehengas, while Bangalore’s Deepika Govind
 picked it up for the first time in 1999 and has not really put it down since.
“It’s a fabric with an emotional connect. However, it does need innovation
to stay on the timeless list,” she says. Every few seasons, she goes back to the
loom, modifying, regulating, fine-tuning it for both desi and Western garments.
 Handcrafted with ingenuity on Govind’s watch, khadi is now a truly cosmopolitan
 cloth, stronger, more fluid, soft, supple, and, most important, one that drapes
beautifully. Tara Aslam of Nature Alley, also in Bangalore, sees khadi as a
means for community building, even as she marries the relatively humble
fabric to stylish silhouettes with finesse.

Then there is the IN SYNC-Basant Anuj line, based on what designer Basant Raj
considers the three aspects intrinsic to the fabric: it is eco-friendly, handspun and
 skin-friendly. It does not consume power or produce harmful by-products. Being
a breathing fabric, it keeps the body cool in summer and warm in winter. And, of
course, Raj points to its touch of patriotism. Khadi is the national fabric, he says,
and it behoves us all to take up the banner.
Interestingly, Govind’s summer 2013 Khadi Kool collection is unapologetic about
missing weaves, runs, slubs, et al. Truly handwoven. Which actually is not a liability
 at all, given Govind’s creative run on the slubs and ladders. Prints, appliqué work,
zippers at strategic places, mirror work, a sparkle of sequins, all embellish the fabric
 in a palette of off-whites, blacks, yellows, oranges, deep pinks, reds and greens.

Clearly, khadi is not about to retire. In fact, as designers discover its strong
organic and natural character, it looks like it might have many more avatars yet.