Interview by Vanya Lochan. Pictures by Anish. Styled by Susan Thomas. Assisted by Aakriti Arora. All clothes and niknaks, Susan’s personal. Location courtesy: NIFT Bengaluru.
“From my residence, I might journey 125 kilometres on daily basis to succeed in my workplace…generally battling the warmth of fifty plus, contemplating that it’s Rajasthan and in winter, throughout lush fields of mustard, virtually what you see in all of the Bollywood films. However not a person in sight, not a girl in sight, not an animal in sight. That’s exactly what the federal government does and the place the federal government capabilities.” I watch as Susan Thomas, who has been working with the Indian Income Providers for greater than 21 years now, tries to inform us “why working within the authorities is lit”. She continues matter-of-factly: “We like to hate all that’s from the federal government, and we like to hate the sarkaari babu.”
As somebody who had disowned a long-lived dream of becoming a member of the federal government out of utter disillusionment and college-learnt dismay in the direction of, as my friends and I noticed it, “the colonial, feudal establishment of forms”, I comply with the administrator’s 2020 TEDx speak half-sceptical, half-irresolute.
“When [the students’] dad and mom come to see me, as they stroll into the room, they count on to see a person — they count on to see an outdated and greying man, after which they count on to see a professor.” I pause the video and enter a seek for “Susan Thomas IRS” to seek out her Instagram account, and I meet @afsarnama, or “chronicles of an officer”. Now, I’m intrigued. I scroll via varied vignettes — photographs of her in radiant peach kosa saris, kalamkari blouses, embroidered tussar and golden muga, adopted by detailed captions describing the wealthy historical past of the textiles and the sheer fantastic thing about their selection.
The 44-year-old Thomas’ reels are all set to social media’s trending codecs and sounds as she seems to coach and have interaction her followers on a variety of matters like how chikankari and hakoba aren’t the identical factor, the fake pas in Gangubai Kathiawadi’s interval wardrobe design or how ikat, with its calculated warp and weft dye, an instance of utilized arithmetic. Over a Zoom name together with her, I uncover an surprising bond over a mutual love of recent Indian historical past, subaltern research, Instagram and what Foucault or Fanon can inform us about vogue. Together with her proper knuckle positioned rigorously underneath her chin, she routinely smiles as she takes me via varied eras throughout the historical past of India — not flinching even once I increase harder questions such because the implications of our so-called sustainable practices on manufacturing facility staff and artisans or once I badger her about her shirt tailors and the numerous saris in her wardrobe. She solutions thoughtfully, and the twinkle in her eyes by no means fades.
Susan Thomas is not only a bureaucrat: she is a storyteller, an educator and a vogue thinker — one of many few who’re speaking extensively concerning the many faces of Indian vogue in a manner that the upholders of the business hardly ever do.
In Verve’s try to think about alternative routes of excited about vogue and our relationship to what we put on, Thomas directs our eyes away from the sparkly bits and exhibits us how intimately interwoven our on a regular basis lives and vogue actually are.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What does an administrator should do with vogue?
I get requested this lots, so let’s begin with the historical past of NIFT [National Institute of Fashion Technology]. It was established in 1986 by the federal government — a uncommon and dynamic feat for a younger resource-strapped nation that was simply studying to stroll by itself two toes. Regardless of every thing, it was formidable sufficient to start out a vogue training establishment to cater to the calls for of an equally younger garment manufacturing and exporting business and make skilled training, like design, accessible to all. The federal government joined arms with FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], New York, and it was the AEPC [Apparel Export Promotion Council] that gave it a fillip. And, beginning out as a part of the Ministry of Textiles [Thomas has been working with them since 2018 — her current position is part of her deputation to Textiles], we have been at a really distinctive intersection. NIFT has by no means been simply concerning the slender definition of vogue that we affiliate it with — it’s not solely about clothes. It is usually about handlooms and handicrafts, which kind the spine of our export business, to not point out maintain emotional and historic worth. And so, NIFT has at all times positioned itself very robustly with the craft clusters. I feel that’s why the administration at all times rested with authorities servants — the primary govt director was Rathi Vinay Jha, an IAS officer. Campus administrators have been, once more, a part of the federal government equipment. We’re most likely the one instructional establishment that’s positioned inside a authorities construction and imparts vogue and design training. Not like personal design institutes, NIFT’s pupil profile is pan-Indian and cuts throughout courses. For this reason directors from the federal government are vital; we have now attain the place no person else does.
Why did you choose NIFT, when you might have gone to any of the IITs or IIMs and even the much-coveted LBSNAA [Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration] in Mussoorie? Is it since you have been interested by vogue? Or was it about handicrafts?
Sooner or later within the ’90s, I severely toyed with the thought of pursuing an training with NIFT. I’ve at all times had a really eager curiosity in vogue when it comes to its definition as a type of cultural expression, and the way it turns into an expression of a neighborhood’s creativeness greater than anything, fairly than ramp vogue or designer put on, so to talk. I’m a historical past pupil, and I’ve studied fashionable Indian historical past with a variety of cultural research thrown in. So, with the methods and the style of the occasions, a sure motif turns into vital; all this stuff have reflection and are a mirrored image of the political and the financial, together with a mixture of different issues.
After getting back from my research go away at Oxford [Thomas completed a master’s from the Blavatnik School of Government in 2016], I someway had the vitality to return to an academic establishment. NIFT appeared to encapsulate all of my likings — I used to be fascinated by its imaginative and prescient. In fact, the additional advantage was that it was positioned in Bangalore, so I didn’t have to maneuver cities; it was simply an easy selection for me to stroll into NIFT, after which every thing else type of fell into place. I’m working with earnings tax, so I ultimately have to return to finance. Finance to textiles and vogue is certainly a shift and my time at NIFT is a short sojourn; nevertheless the chance to advance my data about textiles whereas situating it inside an educational framework, as additionally to study a totally new area, is thrilling and enriching in additional methods than one. NIFT has opened my eyes to a variety of issues. One is the best way that Gen Z and millennials are considering and the work tradition that we’re more and more transferring in the direction of. And, second, the wealth of this nation — handlooms and handicrafts, the best way textiles have exploded even into the medical and technical worlds in a post-pandemic world. Trend institutes have solely simply began to check the tip of the massive iceberg, and I’m glad to be part of this motion.
I feel what we’re getting at is that there isn’t a really clear definition of what vogue can entail, proper? I assume it’s not the identical as model, and it additionally goes past simply garments. So, I need to ask, how would you outline vogue?
Traditionally talking, the royals have been the “trendy” ones as a result of that they had the entry and the sources. Nevertheless, there have additionally been actions the place we have now tried to jot down about subaltern vogue in the identical manner that we write about subaltern historical past. At JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], the place I learn my grasp’s in fashionable Indian historical past, considered one of our pet matters was subaltern historical past — we have to transfer away from the tales of kings and queens and speak about what the farmer or the service provider on the road did. Clothes is the primary and an important technique of non-verbal communication, and, as a cultural expression, it operates on a number of ranges identical to every thing else, be it economics or politics. We can not fake that we’re resistant to world traits, particularly now, when borders are fairly clear and we’re all travelling — each bodily and digitally — and have entry to what’s being worn around the globe. So, what anyone is carrying on the purple carpet would possibly have an impact in a small city. As customers, we’re additionally perpetrators: we generate vogue. Since we’re social animals, we imagine in mimicry, and mimicry creates traits.
Might you inform me extra concerning the affect of sustainability and gradual vogue actions on the makers of garments? If I purchase much less and repurpose every thing, would a garment employee, who would in any other case have earned cash to supply garments, receives a commission much less? If my consumption patterns imply a lack of livelihood for another person, do I nonetheless get to say that I’m sustainable?
Let’s outline sustainability first — it’s concerning the practices that the wearer makes, similar to not ordering an excessive amount of and repurposing their purchases. Sustainability can even imply, possibly, limiting myself to pure dyes or not utilizing artificial supplies. So, what’s the affect these fancy phrases have on the employees, the artisans, the makers? Sadly, once we speak about sustainability at this time, we’re solely concentrating on the manufacturing processes. For example, shopping for clothes constituted of pure fibres may be sustainable, however the level is misplaced if you happen to’re going to be shopping for lots of of those on a month-to-month foundation with out repeating the clothes or getting right into a aware consumption sample. The era that’s reaping the advantages of liberalised, globalised India by being in its workforce — the city elite — has a variety of disposable earnings, in contrast to the earlier generations for whom new garments have been reserved for festivals, birthdays, anniversaries and different particular events. Now, buying is an on a regular basis, every-minute affair, so we’re accumulating much more than what we’d like. Neuromarketing makes positive that you simply’re perpetually buying. It then turns into very troublesome to swim towards the tide and be consciously conscious of how a lot bang in your buck you’re going to get.
India has had a tradition of repurposing textiles brilliantly, however I feel it was the need of a globalised world to confide in manufacturers. As soon as the manufacturers enter, and you’ve got season gross sales, and when there are excessive net-worth people who journey lots and have disposable earnings, then clothes is not only a necessity.
When it comes to sustainability affecting staff, you have to first realise that manufacturing facility work has turn out to be a pressured necessity. Staff can migrate to different fields and small companies, and that’s the place the help should be offered to them — however we additionally want to think about who we’re benefiting by shopping for extra, the employees or the multimillionaire multinationals? I might most likely limit the “purchase extra to help” logic to serving to artisans in small haats [local rural markets] and consequently the native financial system. Selecting to purchase greens from native farmers or Diwali decor from native potters not solely helps the financial system and helps their livelihoods but additionally reduces one’s carbon footprint.
You’re a lover of saris. How lengthy have you ever been fascinated with the garment? And what first obtained you interested by textiles?
I’ve been fascinated with saris ever since I can keep in mind. My earliest journeys have been to Handloom Home with my mom, and Handloom Homes, if you happen to recall, have been the shops of the All India Handloom Board, they usually used to inventory a reasonably good illustration of handlooms from throughout the nation. I can keep in mind myself as a child of six or seven speaking to the salesmen in these retailers and the way they might indulge me and reply my questions intimately.
Did you ever raid your mom’s or grandmother’s closets? Additionally, what did you put on to JNU? As a Delhi College pupil, I used to be at all times in my kurta, denims and chappals. Did you costume equally in school, or had you already developed a love for saris?
I used to put on saris to school solely throughout ceremonies as a result of I used to be a member of the coed council. My grandmother solely wore all-white and was not a sari particular person. I belong to the Syrian Christian neighborhood, and we put on the chatta, mundu and neriyathu — it’s a three-piece garment. My mom did put on saris, nevertheless, and that’s how I learnt to put on them. Hers and my aunts’ kanchipurams have been the primary ones I attempted, after which there have been cotton saris. JNU was an fascinating sartorial experiment. Winters have been spent largely in denims and tees. In fact, it helped that Delhi can be the mecca of producing surplus, and then you definitely had Sarojini Nagar, which is sort of pleasant to pupil budgets. Summers have been positively in salwar kurtas. I don’t suppose I wore a sari casually even as soon as in JNU.
What do you suppose the long run holds for the sari? Does it want one other interpretation? Why is it vital to “save the sari”?
I fully disagree that the sari must be “saved” as a result of an enormous proportion of the inhabitants nonetheless wears them to work in. I see BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike] staff within the mornings carrying saris. Our housekeeping women at NIFT put on saris too. Possibly they’re carrying georgettes or artificial materials, however the garment is certainly right here to remain. So, “saving the sari” is a really uppity, snobbish manner of taking a look at it as a result of it simply doesn’t should be saved. I additionally suppose the sari doesn’t want any reinterpretation as a result of it’s one of many longest unstitched clothes, and every particular person can personal the sari in his or her personal manner. So, you might, say, drape it as soon as within the Nivi model or the seedha palla [wherein the loose end is draped over the right shoulder back to front] or, possibly, put on it like a skirt or a sarong! In reality, the current era might be much more open to drape experimentation, and that’s signal.
What’s your favorite sort of sari?
It will be easy mull cotton in fundamental colors as a result of then the choices for styling, just like the shirt variations, are infinite. Coming from an especially organised sector just like the Civil Providers, I virtually at all times put on the Nivi drape to the workplace, and it’s solely after coming to NIFT that I’ve loosened up a little bit and turn out to be a bit extra experimental, say, by carrying crop tops or kurtis as blouses.
I’m continuously fascinated by your minimalist accessorising as effectively. Take me via your styling course of.
My styling course of within the workplace may be very conservative. In a typical authorities workplace, it’s very troublesome to seek out individuals who put on heavy equipment, however there are events once I do put on chunkier items. I actually prefer to maintain it minimal and practical as a result of if I have been to put on chunky bracelets and bangles, I might battle with dealing with recordsdata and so forth. So, until an event calls for in any other case, I prefer to maintain it very, quite simple for the sake of performance.
What’s the consensus amongst college students within the present NIFT batches in the direction of sustainability?
Happily, there’s a pretty strong and stable consensus that sustainability must be about a way more aware consumption sample than anything. The scholars go for smaller manufacturers, and thrifting is a serious apply. We encourage clothes exchanges on NIFT campuses; we have now common drives for swaps and trunk gross sales. Our vogue college students are conscious about the processes, and there may be positively an impetus to create extra clothes with sustainable supplies and help acutely aware consumption, pure dyeing processes, zero-waste patterns, and many others.
You had put up a put up on how Indian brides comply with a sure aesthetic template. I’m afraid that the majority girls do the identical factor each day — all of us have that one indie costume (a Jodi or a Chidiyaa), the identical Zara trousers, and, after all, “faucet to view/store” solely implies that emulation is feasible, simply out there and perpetually inspired. How, in your opinion, has Instagram modified our philosophy of vogue? Can we keep away from trying like everybody else on social media?
What I lament probably the most about bridalwear following a template is the homogeneity being assumed — the lack of native tales and communities from the style map. For instance, a typical Kerala bride who would in any other case put on both a cream-and-white or white-and-gold sari with conventional jewelry may be giving technique to Banarasi and polki. It’s well-nigh doable to not comply with traits as a lot as it’s to comply with them always. We’re not the identical particular person via the day or via the week, which implies that our work wardrobes may carry the most recent traits however our night put on could possibly be one thing completely totally different — maybe a fantastic costume product of an area handmade khana material, which we may pair with handcrafted silver jewelry. It’s fairly doable to not have a look at social media continuously, however we are able to additionally achieve this with our toes firmly on the bottom and strategy vogue in a extra aware method. I feel there may be an immense risk to get artistic!
What’s our relationship with the historical past of vogue in India? How can publications and the media do justice to this heritage?
Sadly, one seldom sees the historical past of Indian textiles in vogue editorials. A dialog about silhouette with out a dialogue on the material or yarn is sure to be reductionist and lopsided. That’s one thing that I would love vogue writing to choose up on — to attach the dots, to speak about motifs and historical past, to speak about how tradition has travelled from one continent to a different. Trend has at all times fomented a sure possession craze. Trend writing wants to tell us that liking one thing doesn’t essentially imply having to own it. I do know it goes towards the commercials as a result of income depends on promoting, but when in any respect we may determine on a sure portion of our tales to be about heirlooms, passing on traditions, about investing and shopping for consciously, and in addition, private tales, then we may be taking a look at a brand new form of philosophy of vogue. And if you happen to take Instagram — which didn’t matter or affect my very own selections to a big extent as a result of I solely took to it in my 40s — the style neighborhood there may be responsible not solely of propelling the business in the direction of elevated consumption with out a aware understanding of whether or not one actually wants a lot but additionally of buckling to traits. They need to appropriate that course.