The lungi (and its Madras checks) gets a fashion makeover

Look what Oprah's recommending? Madras checks. Yes, the very same checks you see on the humble lungi. Madras checks are showing up in high-end clothing. And a new project is connecting the wearer to the weaver.

hidden August 14, 2011 15:23:27 IST
The lungi (and its Madras checks) gets a fashion makeover

By Chryselle D’Silva Dias

“Lungis are what a gali ka goonda wears,” chides a user on an online forum to a friend who is extolling its virtues. Although it is a staple of men (and often, women) in Southern India, the lungi has a somewhat unsavoury reputation elsewhere. Considered too humble to be chic, there are few trendy takers for this cheerful checked garment.

There are exceptions, of course.

They have shown up on the catwalk in India. Wendell Rodricks and Satya Paul have both showcased bright, flowing lungis. Rodricks has a special affinity for the garment and uses them in all his collections. "I wear a lungi daily,” he says.

Fashion blogger Mitali Parekh loves her lungis and often uses them as a wrap over shorts. “The lungi was very fashionable in the 70s and my mother and father both wore it with ‘guru shirts’,” says Parekh. She gets her stash from little shops in Dadar and Kala Chowki that still sell vintage block prints.

Often made from silk, sheer cotton or linen in saturated hues, designer lungis make for ideal resort wear, a replacement for the sarong. But the traditional checked lungi has probably never made it to Page 3.

All that might just change if the recently launched IOUProject goes viral.

Madrid-based fashion designer and entrepreneur Kavita Parmar and her 'The IOU Project', are buying reams of classic Madras Checks from weavers in Tamil Nadu through Co-optex, and converting them into high-end, beautifully tailored clothing. Using master tailors in Europe, the simple handloom cloth transforms into elegant jackets, shirts, skirts and classic dresses. These are then sold exclusively online using social media.

The IOU strategy is unique, as are each of its garments. Every outfit has a story, a name attached to it, and is “traceable”. A special QR (Quick Response) Code sewn into each garment allows you to identify the weaver who created the cloth and the tailor who put it together. Buyers can upload their own photos as well, to complete the chain. A look at the IOU website allows you to see 'real' users wearing the garments.  That gives the weaver a sense of pride in his work as he sees people all over the world wearing his hand-woven cloth.  That’s a key link that is missing in traditional industries overtaken by middlemen.

The lungi and its Madras checks gets a fashion makeover

Madrid-based The IOU Project is buying reams of classic Madras Checks from weavers in Tamil Nadu and converting them into high-end clothing. rinproject/Flickr

Parmar has two other fashion brands to her credit – Maison Raasta and Suzie Wong. She has used the Madras Check/Lungi patterns in her designs for Raasta collections before. “Everyone owns a Madras Check in some shape or form,” she says. “But most of the so-called Madras in nearly all shops around the world doesn’t come from Madras; in fact most of it is not even made in India.”

Realising that the weavers in India don’t get any real benefit from the widely used traditional patterns, Parmar signed up Co-optex to supply 30,000 lungis by the end of September. Around 246 weavers working in nine co-operative societies in Kurijipadi are involved in the project and have all agreed to work to “a higher standard” for higher pay.

Each loom can create an eight-meter fabric at a time. One lungi is just two meters of this length. IOU takes the entire eight-meter and comes up with a shirt, a skirt, a pair of trousers or a dress from that cloth. Because each length is unique (traditionally, the weaver decides the pattern and colours of each length for himself), no two garments are the same.

While it might be too soon to expect a rush of people wearing the lungi, the checks are certainly going places.  And hopefully  they will make a difference where it really counts. The above-average pay rates (and other benefits, including a fund for the village) may encourage the young people of the villages to rethink their factory jobs and return to the loom instead.

In Goa, Wendell Rodricks’ revival of the Kunbi sari has been a decade-long labour of love and hard work. Rodricks took this almost-extinct garment of the marginalised Kunbi tribe and transformed it into soft drapes of muted cotton. The Kunbi weave shows up in Rodricks’ kurtas, trousers, elegant tops and of course, saris that are stunning in their simplicity. Rodricks wants to empower Kunbi women to return to weaving their distinctive saris and be proud of their roots. This, he hopes, will be his lasting legacy.

For Kavita Parmar, the journey down this road is just beginning. The positive response to the clothes has been encouraging. And with Oprah’s website recently recommending an IOU scarf as a ‘gift to give’, our Tartan-of-the-East might just have a new, haute career.

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