Fashion: An Eastern legend and a magic word: Asha's minimal Indian clothes have long had stylish, cerebral devotees. Her new shop will now offer some enlightenment to the rest of us. Jane Mulvagh reports

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Robert Rauschenberg, the American Pop artist, doesn't do photo shoots, until one says the magic word 'Asha'. Say 'Asha' to the Pop artist and monumental sculptor Frank Stella and he answers 'Sure' to a request to pose in vegetable-dyed cottons and sneakers. Frances Partridge, the last of the Bloomsbury set, chatters happily about fabrics rare and beautiful while she is snapped with Rebecca Wilson, editor of Partridge's memoirs and another Asha fan. The Paris-based painters Valerio and Camilla Adami also agree to photos. Other Asha devotees are sadly not available. Lord Snowdon is out of town, and Gita Mehta and Zubin Mehta, the writer and the conductor, just aren't in London, Paris, Milan or New York at any time when our photographers can call.

Asha clothes have been available for 20 years and have hardly changed. They are worn by the men and women - of all ages and all around the world - who number those discreet internationalists linked by a style of quiet understatement and as far removed from jet-setting shopaholics as can be.

So who is Asha? Full name: Asha Sarabhai. Her achievement? Adapting the traditional dress of her native India to modern tastes while losing none of its craftsmanship, and resisting the over-ethnic. The appeal of her clothes? That they are easy, timeless, never overpowering, and supremely politically correct. The indigo dyes are natural, traditional skills are maintained and the small workshop in the city of Ahmadabad, in north-west India, is an oasis of cleanliness and calm.

Asha's clothes will be available from next month in a new shop, strangely called Egg. It will be run by Maureen Doherty, who previously worked at the right hand of Issey Miyake. Asha's simple pieces in sumptuously soft yet workaday fabrics will make up most of the shop's offerings (alongside sweaters from the English manufacturer John Smedley, and a few designer clothes picked simply because Doherty - one of London's most respected arbiters of taste - and Asha like them).

What Egg will not do is stock clothes that are in one season, out the next. Asha's clothes date no more quickly than a favourite piece of furniture. Valerio Adami puts this down to the antithesis of Western fashion's all-change dynamic. As he says 'the beauty is intrinsic because the Indian approach is different. We need the East to show us a different way.'

Asha's clothes are simple but the thoughts behind them are complex. These are trousers, shifts and shirts imbued with aesthetic and humanitarian convictions. For two decades, Asha has been overseeing the rebirth of quality textiles and using them as a conduit for political and social messages. This is in the Indian tradition. When Mahatma Gandhi began his peaceful resistance to British imperialism, he won the support of the textile unions and urged them to stop wearing imported cottons and start weaving their own homespun - khadi - as a symbol of political and economic freedom. The Sarabhais, the wealthy textile clan into which Asha married after reading social and political science at Cambridge University, was one that supported the independence movement.

That was then. When Asha arrived in Ahmadabad in 1975, she found a workforce once again demoralised, having to mass-manufacture cheap cloth for export to the virtual extinction of time-honoured skills. The market had been distorted by overseas demand for cheap rather than quality materials.

Asha started her project in one room, with a sewing-machine and the help of a skilled craftsman, an old family associate. The partnership concentrated on hand-pleating and quilting fine cottons and silks in an attempt to create a contemporary style. The result was clothes that were, and are, sophisticated and minimalist - they are rarely embellished.

As a rich woman, Asha has never had to compromise. Because of this, the clothes and the convictions have survived intact in a decade that is crying out for more than all- change fashion, a decade in search of integrity. Asha never had to comply with the imperious buying attitudes of foreign stores; she sold if she wanted to and if people wanted what she offered. The fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland was an early fan, then came Terence Conran, who with his sister Priscilla Carluccio, fell for Asha's quilted cottons and silks.

In 1984, enter Issey Miyake, who was so impressed by these clothes for 'people tired of industrial products, looking for some natural, luxurious peace of mind,' that he offered Asha her own label under the Miyake Design Studio imprimatur and a space within the Seibu store in Tokyo.

Asha explains her own unique appeal thus: 'That the human body does not change and that certain styles are comfortable and beautiful. You can slightly change the style, or the colour and details, but to change the form is not crucial.' Like Miyake's, Asha's work is a bridge between Eastern and Western attitudes. In Valerio Adami's opinion: 'In the West the idea of beauty has died. We've replaced the concept of beauty with rapidly changing fashion. What's new is beautiful - that is our motto. It should not be.'

Egg will open 16 February at 36 Kinnerton Street, London SW1. Most of the stock will be Asha's, ranging from pounds 60 for a calico shirt or pair of pyjamas to pounds 2,000 for an embroidered quilt or silk appliqued coat. Asha's work can also be found at the Conran Shop, 81 Fulham Road, SW3, Livingstone Studios, 36 New End Square, NW3, and the General Trading Company, 144 Sloane Street, SW1, in London.

(Photographs omitted)

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