The Gucci of India
Rema Kumar has one of the warmest, most authentic smiles you’ll see anywhere. You know when you meet her that here is a beautiful person,and her personality is such a match to her work: full of colour and style and elegance.
Rema designs fabrics and clothes, most particularly saris. They’re stunning. She’s like the Gucci of India.
Rema’s project at ShopArt is a fashion show of somewhat contemporised, traditional Gaddi gowns. (I wrote about the dominant Gaddi tribal culture in an earlier blog.) With the exception of one or two very old women, the villagers don’t wear these for everyday wear; they’re reserved for weddings and funerals. And a woman wears this for a time after becoming a widow, although that is a much more staid and pale fabric than these.
Rema arrived two weeks into the ShopArt project; her designs for the fashion show were completed weeks ago and have been with Gunehar’s main seamstress ever since. After arriving she was allocated a very old mud house that had been a tea shop but hadn’t been opened for 10 years since its owner died. She scrubbed it, painted the floor in traditional style, added lights and decorations and hung up her gowns. She even found an ancient sword under the old man’s bed, kept to ward off demons at night!
Rema’s had two amazing assistants in her store. One is her daughter, Yashasvini – Yasho – who’s just 13 and has completely relaxed into village life. I’m sharing a house with them and I’ve not heard one “I’m bored!” The other is a village girl, Puja (below), who it turns out is a very talented seamstress herself. Puja was fascinated with Rema’s work and literally just turned up to help. She’s not stopped since. There’s been some discussion about how Rema can help her grow a career in fashion and Rema’s excited to support her any way she can.
Rema’s shop has attracted a lot of attention from the village women, and even some men. They’ve been fascinated with this revival of their traditional garments. Most of the teenage girls in the village showed up to audition for a part in the fashion show. Here’s the result of one audition:
But this is not the main story of Rema Kumar. The main feature of Rema’s work is that most of her fabrics are handwoven. The quality and texture of her silks, wools and cottons is unmistakeable. Rema works with over 100 weavers around India. She has been to their villages, she’s lived with them, she’s seen what they can do and her oeuvre is extensive. I’ve worked some small photo strip samples into this page.
Rema’s mother is a doctor and since Rema was such a good student it was expected that she’d follow her mother into medicine. But her mother influenced her in other ways too. She was a fine seamstress and always sewed beautiful dresses for her two daughters. When Rema was at school, students were allowed to wear something other than their uniform to school on their birthday. Rema’s mother would always make her something new and stunning – so stunning that Rema was embarrassed to wear it, but everyone always loved these creations.
Rema started ‘stitching’ (we would call it sewing; in India it’s stitching) around 9th grade, about age 14. When she didn’t get a seat at medical school she studied textiles and design instead, completing a Masters and going into a career in home furnishings with a large export house. She interacted with buyers from all over the world and attended international expos in Frankfurt and Tokyo, among others.
Rema’s strength in designing her own fabrics is her ability to ‘see’ combinations of colours and designs in her mind. She can visualise the warp and the weft simultaneously. She can remember what friends wore to a particular event years ago, even what the fabrics smelled like.
Growing up, Rema’s family lived in Kerala and Chennai, India’s film hub. (Her father is a film maker.) Later her mother was posted to Delhi and the family moved. She felt completely lost in Delhi culture – it took two years to get used to it. Initially she worked as a design assistant for a single designer but eventually realised that she was doing all the work. She quit, took a break, and set about designing her own collection. She had a successful show in Chennai (since she knew the industry there), and then moved her business to Delhi.
She met Puneet Kaushik, her husband, at her first exhibition in Delhi. In case you hadn’t picked up on it already, Puneet loves clothes. They are a match made in heaven.
After being in business 3-4 years she realised she wanted to make her own fabrics and move her business away from making clothes. Now she designs fabrics and clothes and others do the sewing.
Rema’s passion is for traditional materials, textures and designs. Taking on the Gaddi project was a wonderful opportunity to explore. The luanchadi – the traditional Gaddi dress – normally has green at the top and red or pink at the bottom. Rema’s designs have played around with the traditional look without losing the essence of it, but nonetheless making them potentially saleable even in Delhi. The village women have been very impressed.
Rema with daughter Yasho outside her store in Gunehar.
As with most of the ShopArt projects, Gunehar Fashions has been quite the talking point among the villagers. This is not least because, as with many of her fellow artists, Rema is so intensely interested in what the village and villagers have to teach her. And she is openly sharing her knowledge and skills with them. There’s not too many women who wouldn’t fall in love with such abundant gorgeousness.