East London fashion mecca Hostem is known for heart-stoppingly cool brands. Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Geoffrey B Small, Comme des Garcons: you get the picture. But, amidst the rails, however, hang clothes from an altogether humbler brand: Indian label Raag.
The pieces are minimal and understated with wide silhouettes and complex fabrications. From season to season, styles barely shift yet fans have famously included late American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, designer Terence Conran, writer and conductor Zubin Mehta – high culture, low key internationalists drawn to the label’s quiet dignity and artisanal heritage.
Founder Asha Sarabhai is widely credited as a crusader for Indian textiles, associated with the revival and sustenance of handlooms. She was a student at Cambridge when she married into the Sarabhais, the dynastic textile clan based in Ahmadabad. Arriving back in India, she found in 1975, she found a skilled workforce demoralised by having to mass-manufacture cheap cloth for export – to the virtual extinction of time-honoured skills.
Asha decided to do something about it. Her philosophy was simple: clothing inspired by traditional Indian garments but filtered through her own modernist aesthetic. Hand-pleated and quilted fine cottons and silks; natural indigo dyes, old Gujarati stitching techniques: traditional skills were given new life with special reverence was placed on khadi, the homespun fabric worn by Mahatma Gandhi during his resistance to British rule.
In its early incarnation, the label was scooped up by Japanese designer Issey Miyake; then by Egg in Kinnerton Street in the 1990s. Today, apart from Hostem, the label is stocked in Livingstone Studio, a textile design studio and gallery of ethereal calm, situated in a converted 18th century coach house in Hampstead Village, owned by Kate and Inge.
Theirs is a long love affair with Raag, dating from visits to India in the 1990s. ‘We fell in love with the beauty and the craftsmanship,’ says Inge. ‘[It’s] the epitome of Indian design. The pieces are works of art and mathematics.’ Today, Kate and Inge are also involved in aesthetics. ‘I go over, I bring our ideas with me, respecting the heritage Asha has established …’ says Inge, simply.
‘We like the label’s integrity,’ adds Kate. ‘The craftspeople are respected for skills which were dying out and needed to be continued in some small way, which is what Raag wanted to do. If you go to the workshops, the craftspeople are very well looked after in the community. They’re given housing and education and a beautiful working environment.’
Sans glossy advertising campaigns, the label continues to inspire cult-like adoration amongst devotees, as it did in Rauschenberg et al. ‘People read articles about us, talk about us – or people know other people and see the clothing, ask where it’s from. And so the word spreads,’ says Inge. ‘It’s a small world in textile. Once they’re our customer, they’re pretty loyal and don’t mind that styles don’t change. They like the fact that they know that shirt is going to appear again …. ‘
So beautiful is the work that some of the pieces now sit in the V&A: a boxy jacket covered in fine pleats, a blouse constructed from lengths of silk that have been tie-dyed in very fine knots to form a chevron design, they are items of extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship.
Trying on a Raag jacket with its signature chevron design at Hostem was a privilege, its heft a source of comfort and pride. Today, Raag’s future is uncertain. Asha has retired. The label is in the hands of her capable Japanese daughter-in-law but finding a new generation of hand weavers to continue old techniques is challenging. Until then, if you’re looking for a label that offers a riposte to fast fashion, there’s none more appropriate.