Cocooned in luxury: Samant Chauhan’s wild silk couture

I first meet Samant Chauhan at his apartment in South Delhi’s fashionable Hauz Khas district. He hands me the look book from his latest AW/ 09 collection: models recline across the sculptural forms of massive looms, machine, model and dress shown together collapse distance created between the production and consumption cycles of the garment. This image underscores Samant’s vision which is to bring handwoven textiles and wild silk together in a fusion of high value-added contemporary luxury fashion whilst creating a distinct brand identity for the Bhagulpuri handwoven silk which is produced in his native Bihar (If you don’t know what this silk looks and feels like, think of a soft Chanel bouclé ). Chauhan is leading the way in innovating on wild silks and in particular has stamped his unique style on the textured, more roughly graded peace silk.

As awareness surrounding the social and environmental impacts of textile production, in particular cotton, has grown, there has been increasing interest in alternatives and the potential for “eco-textiles”. As part of this, wild silk and peace silk have gained attention, the latter in particular for its claims to be cruelty free. Sustainable textile expert Kate Fletcher notes that wild silk is grown in open forests, meaning no use of hazardous chemicals and a ready food supply, in theory this means that “…its production can encourage forest preservation (as an integral part of the forest ecosystem) and provide a major year-round income for millions of tribal people in India” (Kate Fletcher, 2008, Sustainable fashion and textiles: Design journeys, p. 27).

Peace silk (also known as Ahimsa or Tussah silk) so-called since the silk worms are allowed to hatch out of the cocoon they spin around themselves, thus breaking the otherwise continuous thread. Due to this, peace silk results in short, broken fibers which then have to be woven, producing a grainy, uneven texture with rich graduations in colour. Peace silk is generally cultivated in the same way as non-wild silk, therefore it may not necessarily be wild or pesticide free, Samant notes it’s important to continuously check with producers he sources from to ensure how the silk is cultivated.

AW/09- undyed silk and headpieces made from up-cycled elements

AW/ 09 collection- upcycled cocoons and reels of yarn adorn model’s head-dresses

Samant has adapted the grainy, tactile peace silk to high end couture and pret, producing stylish shervanis, boucle-like jackets and ethereal dresses.  Making a virtue out of every element of the raw material, designs from his latest catwalk collection included whole cocoons which he says were featured like single jewels to highlight the origins of the fabric. Up-cycling is a key feature of how Samant thinks about the production process. For example the waste generated when harvesting and beginning to process the cocoons presented an opportunity for Samant to develop a new kind of silk with a much coarser weave yet a feel like wool, he has used this textile in panels on men’s jackets. Waste produced at the fabric cutting stage becomes the textured layers of applique and decoration which characterized for example the latest collection which also featured catwalk models adorned with head-dresses of silk worm cocoons and reels of yarn.

A dress from the 2007 Khajuraho inspired collection “Kamasutra”

He created a lasting impression when at the spring/ summer 08 collection he applied digital prints of the famous Indian Khajuraho sculptures -which depict scenes from the Kamasutra- to back panels on shervanis, patterned dresses and the tussar silk lining of jackets, Armani- like in their perfectly unstructured elegance. He sent models down the catwalk with their heads bound in gauze, thus recasting them as the living sculptures; their bound bodies emerging from the sinuous sculptures printed across the fabrics they wore. This was a playful and daring way of asserting Indian heritage; it is this ability to capture attention and produce highly commercial collections using the Bhagalpuri silks that has allowed Samant to raise the bar for high end fashion which addresses issues of sustainability and production ethics in India.

Samant Chauhan in his studio in South Delhi, November 2009

Yet as a Bihari student at the Delhi-based National Institute of Fashion technology (NIFT) Samant felt out of place and misunderstood by his college peers. It was this sense of isolation the drove him to express himself through creativity and design. His talent was soon noticed and he showed his first collection at India Fashion week in 2007. Since then he has been a regular feature also showing at the Ethical Fashion show in Paris 2008 and at Esthetica in 2009 as well as the past two seasons of London fashion week. His sense of other-ness at college seemed to translate for Samant in a pride and desire to support the textile industry from his native home. Thus another key dimension of Samant’s are the livelihoods of Bhalgulpuri handloom silk weavers which have been severely under threat due to imports of machine woven Chinese silk. In this respect there are two core drivers of Samant’s work: innovation and rural livelihoods.

Innovation has come through developing a distinct brand identity for Bhagulpuri silk which connects high value-added design to working directly with producers. This cuts out middle men who, concerned only with profit, have failed to invest in infrastructure and design development of the hand loomed silk production.

Following this, sustainable livelihoods are a key focus of this work, his sense of commercial viability is closely connected to the ability to create viable livelihoods for silk weavers which in turn can be supported to produce consistently high quality handloom silk.

It isn’t entirely clear how much the ethical aspects of the peace silk and support for traditional weaver’s livelihoods influences customer’s purchase of his clothes. In India these kinds of issues often still seem to become subsumed into the idea that handmade textiles, crafts and clothing are uncomplicatedly contiguous with social and environmental sustainability, thus an assumed sense of “doing good” tends to be bound up in the recognition and value of regionally-based crafts. In short ethnic is frequently taken to automatically mean ethical. For Samant ethical fashion needs to translate its message through good design and high quality, for him this is a key way of translating its deeper meaning.

AW/09 lookbook- undyed wild silk with up-cycled applique