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Sanjay Garg, founder and designer of Raw Mango, in Dubai. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Creative director and founder of Raw Mango Sanjay Garg is a welcome antidote to the usual flamboyant fashion designers whose personalities are loud and bombastic.

While his designs — which lay a great emphasis on textiles and saris — are striking and arrestingly good, he doesn’t have any qualms about being in the shadows. For instance, when Oscar-nominated Indian director Rintu Thomas sought his sartorial expertise to dress her up for the event’s red carpet, he knew right away that brandishing his signature on her wasn’t what mattered.

“I need to represent her and I need to completely be buried down. To show my signature became important … When I was designing for her, I thought let me not think of it as a red carpet. Let’s not make her what’s she not and that what happens on most red carpets usually,” said Garg in an interview with Gulf News.

He was in Dubai in the last week of March for a two-day fashion exhibit. But just before he had jetted down to the UAE, he had decided what to dress his dear friend and filmmaker Thomas in. The Indian filmmaker, who was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, wore an understated silk green sari paired with a white silk blouse.

“She’s amazing and she’s from Kerala. And all she said to me is that she only wants to wear a sari and the she doesn’t want to wear a lot of zari [golden brocade]. She wanted something simple for the red carpet and that’s what I came up with,” said Garg.

The notoriously media-shy and self-effacing designer who launched Raw Mango in 2008 has become a force to reckon with in the Indian design landscape. His stores and collection are undoubtedly an homage to his Indian roots and culture. His saris are kept in wooden cupboards in stores and not hung in clinical hangers. He works with karigars (craftsmen) across India and yearns for a world where they have decision making powers and economic heft.

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Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

“Saris are now becoming symbols of power-dressing and not just a national costume in India,” declares Garg.

Excerpts from our chat with Garg as we discuss designs, sustainable fashion, preserving Indian handlooms and more …

You have come for your first show since the lockdown and the global COVID-19 outbreak … How have the two years been?

I have gone through a lot in many different ways. But we did great on the business side. I have always wondered if people understood the kind of hard work that we did in the last 10 years or not. And I wondered if they just bought it because they look different. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it all paid off. In the last two years, I realised that they trust our brand a lot. Their loyalties weren’t only on a superficial level. We survived well and we are now in a very good position. We didn’t have to go to anyone with a begging bowl … Yes, we were affected monetarily and our business was reduced, but we did not have to close any store. We had no staff cuts. There was a salary cut for a very little time, but we were back on our feet soon … Contrary to shutting stores during the pandemic, we are opening one in Chennai which is as big as our store in Delhi.

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Anushka Sharma in Raw Mango. Image Credit: Supplied

Perhaps you haven’t been as affected since Raw Mango aesthetic is not catering to the wedding scene in India … Was that a good thing?

We have saris that look incredibly smart from Rs5,000 onwards and we cater to different age groups. Honestly, I didn’t plan anything. Our design is simple and we focus on wearability, design, and craftsmanship rather than occasion. For instance, if it’s a hot summer and you still want to war a sari for dinner, we have them stocked. But if we focused on weddings, then it becomes bling-ey where the bride wants to wear a 40kg lehenga [full, embellished skirt]. There was a time when our designs were worn for the sangeet ceremony, but now they want to wear it even for the main occasions and that’s a huge change.

So are the tastes of Indian consumers evolving …

Everything shouldn’t change fully, then nothing will ever change. Herd mentality in fashion isn’t good either because it means they are following trends blindly instead of individuality. Any transition should be slow and that ensures balance. I have always said there must be balance in everything we do and I see beauty in everything — be it embroideries, handlooms, brocades, Chanderi, or Kanjeevaram. What is problematic is if everyone becomes or behaves in a certain way, then it becomes a uniform and not individualistic. For instance, if someone doesn’t want to wear a white and gold sari because it has become a trend, then I get worried. I care for culture and seasonality a lot.

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Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Speaking of white and gold Kerala saris, I am a purist when it comes to tweaking that … Why ruin something beautiful and original?

I absolutely belong to that school. But I have always questioned myself on what’s it like being an actual purist … I think people should be allowed to tweak and play if they know all the notes to a song. But without adequate learning or understanding, I wouldn’t fracture an original work. You need to be the master of it and learn where it all comes from before you begin deconstructing or fracturing it.

Your brand symbolised sustainability and ethically sourced saris long before it became buzz words …

That’s true. We never used those words to sell things. Certain giant high-fashion brands co-opt buzz words like ethically grown material and sustainable, organic cotton to sell their stuff which are only partly all of what they claim. They mark-up, but 90 per cent of their clothes don’t belong to that category. 13 years ago when we began our brand, fancy words like organic, sustainability, inclusive, and identity were inherently a part of our fabric.

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Aditi Rao Hydari in a Raw Mango outfit. Image Credit: Supplied

Even your models who showcase your designs on your website and social media are diverse and it’s inclusive of all shapes, sizes, and skin-tones ... Was it deliberate?

It all happened organically. We didn’t think of dark skin vs light skin back then. Thirteen years ago, I remember doing a shoot for my first collection with a 61-year-old woman and she was Purnima Rai from the Delhi Crafts Council [former president]. She’s from Kerala and married to someone from Bihar. I didn’t do it to be inclusive and I didn’t even have a clue on what that meant. What I am trying to say is that we do not need to follow or fool ourselves with the vocabulary of ethical fashion given to us by the Western World. We need to find our own vocabulary filled with ethical words that work for our Indian design eco system.

What should India’s ethical vocabulary be like …

Let’s say if the weavers still don’t have an office nor do they have this nine to five working hours. They cannot work 9am to 5pm because the temperature is high in summer and the moisture from yarn due to the high temperature makes it break easily. So he managers his time early morning and evening, but sleeps in the afternoon. So who decides what ethical hours of working are then? Remember we can’t function like factories. Many of them [karigars/weavers] work 75 per cent for us and 25 per cent for someone else … The only thing that can help our karigars are if you give them monetary power. Any kind of subsidy or sympathy may not help them. Helping them stand no their feet and letting them decide what’s good for them works.

What kind of a fashion moment are we having right now?

People have become less conscious of showing their bank balances during wedding through their clothes. Now, they want to wear something comfortable and clothes that represent them. A sliver of minimalism is happening and I am enjoying that. People have begun looking to their roots and crafts. And saris are having its moment too. Saris are no longer a wedding garment only or as India’s national costume. Saris are no longer like Kimonos. Let’s face it: we have women in saris who cycle with it, mothers in saris who sleep with it, and people who eat in it too …. Saris have become a symbol of power dressing. Saris are now an equivalent of gowns and dresses.