Another young Bihari turk is making his marks in the fashion world. Bihari talent is traditionally renowned for its large pool of engineers, doctors and administrative officers. In recent times we are seeing a new surge of varied talent which is earning a niche in fields of art, literature and other alternate careers.
Designer Samant Chauhan has arrived on the fashion circuit with his exquisite work of “non-violent” silk, which is not made from killing worms, traditionally woven in Bhagalpur. The young designer is not only showing at the big ticket event once more but is also using the trip to do something else closer to his heart: talk on ethical fashion at the London College of Fashion.
He spoke to BS recently about his journey from Bihar to London. Chauhan is excited and just a bit apprehensive about the presentation he will be making at the fashion institute. On the other hand, his presentations and designs do have a knack for turning out exceptional. “That’s perhaps of my communication, as you may have noticed…” says Chauhan.
Lest you think he is talking about one of his strong points — no, he isn’t. This young designer from Bhagalpur, “like all Biharis”, he acknowledges and generalises, is hardly the best speaker of the Queen’s Language. In the glamorous world that’s his calling, where everything looks so polished at least on the surface, it is therefore somewhat startling to come upon the unpretentious person and country accents of fashion designer Chauhan. Not that his exuberance is checked by any one’s perceptions. Chauhan is candid: “It is because,” he says, of his language skill “not being so good that I work extra hard … so that my work can speak for itself and I don’t need to explain it,” he tells me with a smile.
He talks about how he was always marginalized and under rated by his peers and the unsaid discrimination faced during his college days. Like many other Biharis who face this discrimination and sometimes deep humiliation when they venture out to make a mark, Sumant story is no different. However he turned these challenges into inspiring opportunity and here he is finally now on the scene.
Not being particularly inclined towards academics, he decided to give NIFT a shot, he says. His parents, he clarifies, were always supportive. Being themselves firmly middle-class, they never stopped any of their children from attempting the unusual and making unconventional professional choices. And Chauhan did exactly did. But the transition from Bhagalpur (where he wore Newport jeans, graduating only later to Levi’s, the only brands he knew of at that point in his life) to New Delhi was not as traumatic as the realisation that the “image of Biharis was very poor” with his fellow students. “When they looked at me, they assumed that I didn’t know anything, forget anything about fashion,” remembers Chauhan but without any bitterness.
Ironically, he soon realised that awareness levels in the Capital and amongst his classmates from the metros were fairly low. “I soon found out that, in fact, students from Bihar know much more… about politics or Ben Hur, many of my classmates wouldn’t know even about such things… and I used to wonder why they were assuming that I knew nothing of Jean Paul Gaultier,” he smiles.
Being feted by a glamorous world now hasn’t made Chauhan lose any of his sense of rootedness though. Having always been passionate about working on natural silk fabric that came from his native area, the designer soon discovered how to market this to his advantage as well. “People ask me if I could make the same sherwani or another design in some other fabric, but I say sorry. If I start working in other stuff, what will be my USP?” he questions.
Traditional silk weaving in Bhagalpur is a threatened enterprise — there are few families left engaging in the traditional craft; most have switched over to power looms and have been seduced by the easy availability of cheaper Chinese yarn. “What they don’t understand is that they will never be able to compete with the mills of Surat,” says Chauhan, who is working with NGOs at the grassroot level to revive the traditional weave. Thanks in part to his efforts, the fabric, preferred for furnishings, has now found a larger audience in the apparel mart too. Besides, says Chauhan, he is not worried about anyone copying his work — “if they work with the Bhagalpur fabric, it will all benefit local weavers.”
In Europe and America, at the high-end stores from where he retails, it is a good time to be an eco-friendly designer. But because of the meltdown, it is also an equally good time to be an “upcoming” fashion designer. And that’s true for the domestic market too. “In fact,” says Chauhan, “I’ve done better this year than ever, both in the domestic market and abroad.” He reasons that with people less ready to pay a premium on big names, a younger designer offering quality has a better chance of getting picked up. It’s a good theory alright.
Keep watching out for more Bihari young turks who are going to change the way the world looks at Bihar and Biharis.