Shopping: Year of the Indian summer

Forget cheap and cheerful cheese cloths, the new generation of designers is reviving ancient Indian traditions and applying them in new and stylish ways.

CONTEMPORARY INDIAN design probably sounds like a contradiction in terms if, like many people, you believe design in India stopped somewhere in the mid-seventies with cheap, printed cheese cloth and crudely carved stash boxes. But increasingly, the most covetable clothes, textiles and homewares available in Britain today have come from India, though to look at them you might not know it.

India's reputation for low production costs and cheap labour has meant that, until recently, the majority of the business coming into the country was based on mass-production rather than labour intensive crafts and traditional techniques such as hand-beading and dip-dying. Despite this, India is gradually regaining its reputation as a source of exquisite textile design and handicrafts such as metalwork and carving; and it is a small band of Indian and British designers and importers who are bringing about this change.

Abraham & Thakore and Shades of India are two companies at the forefront of this band. The former is a fashion and interiors label which was set up by two Delhi-based designers, David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore, both of whom trained at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, in northern India. The latter, Shades of India, specialises in soft furnishings and was founded by ex-journalist David Housego and his wife Jenny, a textile historian.

Both companies have drawn attention not only to India's army of skilled craftsmen and women, but also to the country's natural resources. Organdie was little used over here until Shades of India launched their range of sheer curtains and table-linens. Similarly, Abraham & Thakore have promoted the use of single fine count cotton which is woven by hand and is far softer than its machine made counterpart. Although they are reviving ancient traditions, both labels are applying them in new ways and producing stylish, contemporary collections which are far removed from the traditional aesthetic.

"When you begin as a designer in India," says David Abraham. "You have to choose either to go along with tradition in a very obvious way, continuing with the vocabulary and the motifs or you have to ask if you have something new to say. We saw that we have these extraordinary embroidery people but we wanted to use a more contemporary vocabulary. We are urban Indians, we watch MTV, we are a hotchpotch of everything: we are drawing on these traditions but they come over with a modern voice."

Abraham & Thakore's range includes a high fashion collection produced exclusively for Browns, and a more low-key clothing range with dressing gowns and stripy hot pink and orange cotton pyjamas (which walk out of The Conran Shop the moment they arrive). The home collection includes luxurious cushion covers (from pounds 20-pounds 30), which are either appliqued with jewel-bright panels of velvet, or silk ribbons or studded with rows of tiny mother of pearl buttons; throws made from khadi, a fabric which is both hand spun and hand woven, come in a variety of colours and some are decorated with tiny pom-poms. About 50 per cent of their production is hand-woven which David insists is more efficient than machine production. "You don't have to do thousands of metres. Although, of course," he concedes "it does cost much more".

But price points are not what the new textiles from India are about. Designers and their customers are more concerned with quality and luxury. Sarah Bryant whose company Pushkar Junction is launched today at the London trade fair, Top Drawer, describes her designs as new heirlooms: "they are not pieces you need but pieces you see and say, `oh my goodness, that's so beautiful I must buy it,' and then you have it forever." Clearly she's got the measure of the market: already Jane Churchill has snapped up pieces from all three strands of her first collection; these appeared in the Sloane Street store last Monday and several pieces had sold by the afternoon.

Having spent the last 10 years as Liberty's textile buyer, Sarah spent much of her time in India sourcing new products, and of course Shades of India and Abraham & Thakore were among her clients. Like theirs, her designs are not overtly Indian but rather draw on the country's textile heritage. Also, having had to buy specifically for the British market she is well aware of the increasing appetite for luxurious fabrics and ornate design.

Star of her first collection is a sand-washed silk throw, which definitely falls in to the "must-have" category. It is dip-dyed, so the centre looks as though it has been stained with redcurrant juice, and is embroidered at either end with a vine motif and clusters of beaded berries. A range of cushions and throws in crushed velvet is far more contemporary in feel though just as luxurious. Prices range from pounds 29 for pretty beaded photo frames to up to pounds 400 for throws.

Sarah works with a small design team in India who also have a great deal of creative input. "Before I go over I send them my ideas, and they gather together theirs and then we all sit down and work out what the collection will be. It is very much east meets west." They have already done Spring '99 and she has taken her cues from a variety of sources, but the catwalk is the main inspiration. "I am very aware of what is happening in fashion and I always look at what John Galliano is up to at Dior," she says.

Although beauty and luxury are the order of the day for contemporary Indian design, not all of it is expensive. Stephanie Bates whose mail order company, Bombay Duck, is known for its cheap and funky Indian home wears is a case in point. This year she has decided to move into more sophisticated territory, with an emphasis on exquisite detailing, but, because it is a mail order operation, prices remain competitive.

"Five years ago I was oriental buyer at Liberty," she says, "and, although I loved the work, I became increasingly frustrated by the fact that I was constantly coming across products and techniques which I felt could be used in a more sophisticated, contemporary way. But the general directive at Liberty was that the Oriental department should be ethnic."

When Stephanie left it was only natural that she should begin with the "really bright and brassy stuff". She sourced aluminium lassi jugs and beakers and asked the makers to produce them in electric pinks and turquoises and not to decorate them. The range was a huge success, and has of course been much copied both here and in India. "It was very right for the moment. But now we're starting to use natural materials, coconut, bone, horn and mother of pearl all with silver plate."

But this new mood in Indian design is not all about turning away from tradition as Sally Beck and Shabir Khan, owners of the newly opened Beck & Khan, can testify. The husband and wife team specialise in traditional hand-stitched rugs, cushions, throws and fabrics all from Shabir's native Kashmir. And already, just a month since opening, the shop is doing brisk trade. Although everything is distinctly Kashmiri - rugs (pounds 40-pounds 400) are garlanded with stylised floral motifs, and cushions (from pounds 10) are decorated with traditional crewel work - the colours and designs would work in any home, and the larger pieces, some of which hang on the walls, would not look out of place in a country pile; which is probably why Babbington House, the country arm of Soho House the London club, has snapped up 16 rugs for their master bedrooms.

Abraham & Thakore is available at Liberty (0171 720 1234) and Designers Guild (0171 351 5775); Shades of India is available at Liberty (0171 720 1234); Pushkar Junction 0171-229 5350; Bombay Duck 0181 749 8001; Beck & Khan, 16 Lower Richmond Road, London SW15 (0181-785 0856)

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