India's Top New Fashion Designer

Bikramjit Bose

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.

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I landed in Chennai at midnight. My first sight of the country was a row of palm trees and white Ambassador cars, the emblem of postcolonial India. A woman in a hot-pink Mysore silk sari rode sidesaddle on a motorcycle, clinging to her husband. Just behind her was an Airtel billboard advertising cell phones. I keep that photo on my bulletin board. India: moment one. On that trip, I visited Khan and saw her world outside Lucknow, which was the center of the Moghul elite in the Awadh kingdom more than two centuries earlier. There I met the Muslim women of Qilasaaz, who have kept alive embroidery techniques dating from the Moghul era. Akshata has been seized by that same passion for her country and its artisan crafts.

To get to Mysore, you land in Bangalore (the Mysore airport is open, but flights are sketchy). Driving south from the clamor of the city, you are immediately in the old-fashioned India of your imagination: Bullock carts and auto rickshaws crowd by small shops in towns with fields of sugarcane. When I arrive on a Sunday night in November, the vast Mysore Palace, first built in the 14th century and resurrected for the fourth time in 1912 after a fire, is lit like Versailles. India’s new year is in full swing. Distant fireworks shoot through the sky. Then a drive through a gentle city with yoga ashrams and colleges that still teach ancient languages; a place where students study Sanskrit written on palm leaves. A hint of sandalwood is in the air. The city was at its peak in the 19th century; then the power centers shifted to Delhi and Mumbai. That is one reason why Akshata’s father chose his hometown as the capital for his dream of India’s future. It would take a decade and a billion dollars, more or less, to open, but already scores of the country’s leaders have come to stay here, as have David Cameron and the hundreds of innovators at India’s first TED Conference.

“Let’s time-travel,” Akshata says as we jump into the car on day one. Our first stop is KSIC Mysore Silk Factory, one of the oldest and most traditional sari factories in India. I snap my favorite picture from our trip: a mother-daughter moment as Akshata and Sudha stride in front of me. In her black leggings and long blue silk shirt, the slim, 30-year-old Akshata, newly expecting her first child, has a hip, international chic. Sudha wears a mauve and mulberry bandhani-style sari—Rajasthan’s most traditional—inspired by a color master who still relies on the techniques that saris have been made with for hundreds of years.

“Why don’t you choose this color for your clothes?” Sudha asks her daughter as we stop in the room of coloring vats. Before us are some of Mysore’s traditional shades: plum, royal blue, chartreuse.

“Mom, my clients prefer less color,” Akshata says diplomatically.

“I don’t understand,” Sudha says. “But I have no interest in fashion. I never have. Our generation, we wore saris. I don’t like shopping. Twenty-five days of the month, I am in the villages, working on education and disaster relief. I wear saris everywhere. For me, the sari is India.”

For centuries carrying a sari well—and that is the term—has been the definition of the purest Indian style. You could mesmerize like Rekha, India’s Rita Hayworth; you could command like Indira Gandhi, who trained her Italian daughter-in-law, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in the art. The sari was—and for many still is—Mother India, but take note: Unless you look like Padma Lakshmi, a sari will give you the appearance of a sofa. There is a reason sari fashion has never had its moment in the West.

“They are still making saris as they have, more or less, for a century!” Akshata says as we walk into the noisy factory with silk looms and a portrait of Hanuman, the monkey god, on the wall. She has her iPad and iPhone at her hip and is in constant communication with the designers and suppliers who are working with her on the launch. We stop to watch a gold wedding sari—filigreed in 18-karat threads—coming off a loom. A photographer drapes Sudha in the creation, which will sell for $1,200, although 60 percent of the country earns around $1 a day. When Sudha met her husband, the idea of such a luxurious purchase was a distant dream. Now India is filled with shining malls and office buildings. A recent issue of Vogue India featured saris redesigned as cocktailwear. As I land in Mysore, the debate rages: Will the sari retain its hold on the psyche of its women?

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Ahead of us is a list of must-see sights on our rapid tour: The Chamundeshwari Temple at the top of the hill, where holy cows are painted for the just-passed Dasara festival. In the daylight, another peek at Mysore Palace, with its monumental Durbar hall and vast grounds, which was once the home to Prince Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the first governor of Karnataka. My favorite stop is a small local palace not far from the university—Sudha sold a block of her Infosys stock to turn it into a craft museum. Among its treasures is the sandalwood soap Gandhi used when he came to Mysore, which is known for its sandalwood forests.

Then, the best for last. It was Sudha who first met the artist Gurupad, who inspired Akshata’s fall 2011 collection. “You must come back to Mysore immediately,” Sudha told her daughter the day the painter appeared at her office at the Infosys Foundation. He came to Sudha, who was the head of the Infosys Foundation, for a grant. His mission was nothing less than to resurrect the lost art of painting miniature Ganjifa cards, a game played by the Mysore court. Each card contains a miniature masterpiece: gods and goddesses, love scenes, all created in tiny, exquisite brushstrokes. The lucky visit became a catalyst: Akshata was soon in the planning stage.

In the late afternoon at Gurupad’s small house, which is also his studio, we watch him as he sits and paints meticulous gods and goddesses, spending hours on each card. In front of us, a fish and an elephant come alive on the cards. One can see those designs in the pale silk of the Akshata line. “Working with artists is hard work,” Sudha told her daughter the first time she met Gurupad. “They do not think like MBAs.” Taking a break, Akshata shows Gurupad the designs of her new clothes, which will be sold in stores all over America and in India at Moon River, a fashionable design store owned by Columbia Journalism School graduate Radhika Gupta. Gurupad, who used to sell his cards for less than $5, will now earn a royalty on each Akshata dress sold bearing one of his designs. I ask again about the future of the sari. Akshata stops to consider the implications. “The sari is so entrenched in the history of India, it will endure. But to this day, I have never learned to tie one. Each time I wear it, my mother and aunt have to tie it for me.” A pause. “Maybe the time is right to come up with a new design.”

The Details

Akshata designs will be sold starting in February at Moon River (moonriverstore.com) in Delhi and Mumbai. A complete list of stores will be available on akshata.com. Part of the fall 2011 collection was inspired by traditional saris and ancient crafts from the city of Mysore. A Mysore silk dress begins at $360. For more information on Akshata Murty and to view her latest collection, go to akshata.com.