India's Top New Fashion Designer
Indian fashion designer Akshata Murty takes on traditional sari style with a contemporary edge.
Is the sari doomed? The question occurs to me on my first morning in Mysore, the romantic city in the south of India that’s been reborn as a laboratory for India’s future world. Outside my window, hundreds of young female computer engineers bike and walk to their classes at the largest corporate-training campus on the planet. Here are India’s best and brightest, newly hired by the software giant Infosys, which trains 15,000 new employees a year. I see blazers and kurtas and dupattas, trailing Indian scarves, but where are the saris? An occasional sighting, like a ghost from another world. “You are staying just past the Global Leadership Center, not far from the Training Institute,” a guard at the walled compound on the Infosys campus says as we enter into a knock-your-eyes-out acropolis. We drive into a wonderland that’s Palo Alto mixed with Galactica, almost three hours south of Bangalore. Suddenly a glimpse into a visionary’s dream of India’s future: towering classical libraries, grassy lawns dotted with purple bougainvillea, tiled-roof villas and tennis courts, a geodesic dome. This is architecture that was designed to make a statement. You could be in Houston among the shimmering office towers, several of which are closed to outsiders; inside, scores of software engineers write codes for major corporations.
I’ve come to Mysore for a two-day crash course in the artisan-fashion scene here, organized by my friend Akshata Murty, who is launching a line based on little-known artists in the region. Akshata’s designs are as much inspired by Yves Saint Laurent as they are by her own first sari, worn when she graduated high school in Bangalore. An alumna of Claremont-McKenna College and Stanford business school, Akshata spent a few years working for a San Francisco cleantech fund while nurturing a dream to help the artisans of India by creating clothes based on their work. When she got married, her husband, banker Rishi Sunak, encouraged her to launch. Since then she has spent months touring India, visiting villages where artists work just as their predecessors have for centuries. “I had to figure out a way we could translate their designs into an international company,” Akshata says. “My training is in case studies and how to build a brand. What you need for stores, web or retail, how to guarantee product. Quality control!” A portion of the profits from her line, named Akshata, will be returned to the artisans.
“If you cared as much about your studies as you do about fashion, you could change the world,” Akshata’s mother, Sudha, once told her when she was just a girl. A celebrated philanthropist and a best-selling author, Sudha was part of the first wave of women in India to graduate from engineering school. Here, set among World Heritage buildings that date back to a time before the Raj, when Mysore was one of the richest Indian states, is the country’s newest wonder, built by Akshata’s parents. It was conceived by Akshata’s father, Narayana, the Bill Gates of India and the founding partner and retired chairman of Infosys, which he famously started when his bride loaned him $250 in 1981 to start his company. “Tom, the playing field is being leveled,” one of Murty’s partners told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman when he toured a Bangalore Infosys site. Out of that came The World Is Flat, Friedman’s definitive study of globalization.
Artisan design has become fashion’s new cutting edge and Akshata’s own canvas for innovation. Who can resist clothes that feel so personal? Luckily, not me. A perfect white kurta, made of hand-loomed khadi, was what lured me to the country for the first time seven years ago. One was spotted on a Nantucket beach by stylish artist Cathy Graham, who was determined to track down its source. “You will never find it,” the woman wearing it told her. But Graham coveted the soft cotton, special embroideries and intricate stitching known by cognoscenti as chikankari. “An Indian royal makes them in a collective near Lucknow, in the north of India,” the woman said. “They are only sold privately in London and Paris.” Undeterred, Graham sent a flurry of e-mails. Not long after, the elegant Vijay Khan, the Rani of Mahmudabad, was showing her astonishing textiles in Graham’s Upper East Side studio, and I was invited. The daughter of India’s foreign secretary at the time of Mrs. Gandhi, Khan attended Smith College, and like Bim Bissell, her country’s grande dame of artisan fashion—whose husband started Fabindia, a chain of artisan design stores—Khan has become a force trying to preserve the treasures of the past. You couldn’t see the clothes of Qilasaaz, Khan’s embroidery collective, and not be sieged with the genie of desire to know more about this nation of 110 languages—and as many styles of art.