Costume designing has been a path less travelled by the aspiring designers, as the fork usually divides into retail and mass design or high fashion and niche labels for many. This makes the field of costume designing highly demanding, but conversely, hard to be successful in, owing to the lack of educational expertise for this particular discipline in India. Team Apparel Online recently had a chance to meet with a designer who not only managed to become one of the most popular costume designers in India, but also furthered her horizons to start her own label in the high fashion space.
After a costume-designing career that boasts of globally acclaimed movies popular for their cinematography and artistic direction such as Parineeta and Lootera to start with, Subarna Ray Chaudhuri has successfully launched her namesake label, amalgamating her experience in showbiz with design language that champions the notion of reusability and diversity within a single piece of garment. Ray started her career as an Executive Producer with Zee TV, but the inability of directors to execute the requirements of the costume department made her take the plunge to this side of movie-making, added with the flair of fashion design she has possessed since she was a child.
Talking about her inspiration,she stated, “When my directors didn’t follow the look book provided by me as the executive producer, I had to do everything myself. That’s when it struck me- why not just take this as a profession and shift my focus more towards the costumes? When you don’t get things you want to have despite the idea being clear in your head, you feel this urge to create that on your own and convert it into your own style, and that was my inspiration. If I am not getting it made, if I am outsourcing but it’s not great, and I don’t have too much money to hire the best production company, then I will create it myself. Pretty soon, I got an opportunity to do costume designing for Night Fall, offered by art director Nitish Roy, and this is how my journey started.”
A TRAILBLAZER IN INDIAN COSTUME DESIGN
Starting her journey in early twenties, Ray gradually grew popular owing to the attention she gave to miniscule details for any kind of background she was given. Be it an art movie, or a commercial production, her expertise was wanted by many directors of the time. The field is very different from conventional fashion design and Ray created a reputation that was constantly associated to a meticulous product development system. As per Ray herself, the initial design processes are the most crucial. “You have to make sure that the audience relates to what is happening on-screen. My intention was to make the story, the characters and the people look a certain way so that the audience can connect to the character, to the period, to the background and everything that intersects these.”
Starting with a thorough study of the requirements of the director, the director of photography along with the actors who are going to wear the attires, a presentation is made. The sourcing part has diversified requisites and is extremely crucial, and Ray has a set of vendors and sourcing hubs she constantly utilises for each media production. She briefed,“I normally source my textiles from Mumbai, Kolkata, Surat and Ahmedabad; you get very good fabric there, and for junior artists, I source in bulk. Apart from that, you have to go global sometimes, as for movies like Gundey and Phantom, I sourced mostly from London. For production, I have a trusted set of vendors with different specialisations so that I stick to timelines. I have four vendors in Bombay,: one is specialised in Lycra stitching, one specialises in only ladies and two more specialise only in menswear.”
Her work was lauded globally as she contributed to several American, German and British movies, until Parineeta provided a major breakthrough to her career, having won awards such as IIFA and Zee Cine Award for the Best Costume Designer category. To put it in Ray’s own words,“Pradeep Sarkar, being an artist himself, shared my level of devotion to intricate detailing. My research and sourcing was very exhaustive for this movie as I interviewed many people in Kolkata, and sourced my products from North Kolkata. It is very rich in handlooms, saris, Banarasi silk and embroideries. There is a market in Kolkata called the New Market on Lindsay Street, which has a line of shops owned by Sindhis excelling in vintage products; they were a major help as well.” She later did projects such as Eklavya, Lootera, Lagey Raho Munnabhai, Houseful, Gundey and Ghanchakkar to make a mark as one of the most coveted costume designers in India. This experience in product development, design translation and production aided her to start a fashion label of her own that was received with open arms by several consumer groups.
TAKING THE COMMERCIAL ROUTE
Subarna Ray Label was Ray’s first foray in the fashion business segment, and she effectively bridged the gap between costume design and commercial fashion design by incorporating the best of both. “Commercial fashion design is a completely different ball game. In costume design, aesthetics matter more than quality. For a label dealing with high fashion garments, it’s necessary that each detail, each trim, fabric or garment is made with best quality products. Second comes functionality, as the garments I make for my label make sure that the wearer is comfortable, while promoting a fashion statement,” Ray averred.
The label spotlights heavy design detailing over silhouettes that are made with the aim of multi-purpose utility with efficient use of upcycling. Each piece is curated with a combination of several techniques, and conveys a unique theme, just as the costumes Ray created for her movies. Based out of a small unit in Shahpur Jat, the team consists of three tailors, one assistant and one embroiderer with Ray behind the entire design process. Keeping deep textile exploration in mind, Ray’s material sourcing network comprises of two weavers based out of Kolkata and Bangladesh respectively and a few locals from Delhi. She further shed light on the arrangement stating, “I normally give my weavers a pattern and brief them about the combination and fabric, and in turn, they send me the samples of woven fabrics. I do a lot of sourcing in terms of little trinkets, laces and all that from Chandni Chowk, which is a great market for such products. I prefer hand embroidery over machine, and the embroidery I use is very contemporary, with cleaner aesthetics.”
SPOTLIGHTING DETAILS WITH MULTI-UTILITY ASSORTMENT
The ethos of the label revolves around multiple functionality of a single piece, as Ray believes that designers should provide garments to the consumers that are durable, and have a longer shelf life rather than just brand value, to justify the high costs of the assortment. “I’ve tried to punch in things which are urban and can be used multiple times. You buy something, maybe a shirt or a crop top, and you can wear it with a sari or a pair of jeans; there are endless options. When I sell something for say about 15,000 or 10,000, that person should wear it for at least 3-4 years,” she explained.
The label also focuses on spotlighting the sari by reimagining it in a multiple ways so that it serves the modern woman who is ‘constantly on the move’ and wants Indian ethnic silhouette that is easy to wear. Ray says her approach towards creating a sari involves amalgamation of inspiration taken from modern and exotic design components. Citing one of the pieces from her S/S’19 collection as the perfect example, she shared, “I create off-beat saris with modern blouses and crops which can be mixed and matched. I want to bring in saris in the international market. Indian fashion should not be limited to India; India should also be a part of the European market. One particular piece out of my recent collection is a sari inspired by the Scottish skirts, as it comprises of two layers: one layer has simple fabric while the other is pleated, thus enabling the wearer to drape it any way they like. Another silk blouse we presented is more of a shirt with exaggerated sleeves. Saris for me should look more effortless, which can be draped over a pair of denim jeans, even palazzos and formal pants. Most of the silhouettes are suited for the Indian body, with volume at the helm and least fabric layering at the waist. All of the small details matter.”
Ray incorporates details that explore fabric manipulation such as tiered helms with shaggy borders and ruffles, pre-pleated panels, or used fabric waste juxtaposed over garments using embroidery and embellishment, comfortable contoured blouses in knits, along with gathers, shredding effects and fringes. Many asymmetrical pieces such as half-and-half blazer tops with single collar on one side and bandeau corset on the other line the label’s racks. She experiments with combination of prints that are not overpowering as she shares her take on the surface design, “I like to combine the smaller prints with just a bit of bolder prints as a base or on the border or on the reverse side but not everything together. I add tassels, ruffles and other surface embellishments to make the print stand out, but the overall look is very clean.”
She currently retails via her online portal subarnaray.com as well as on her Instagram page, and going forward, Ray plans to open her own retail shop in US and another one in London, in partnership with her sister. Along with modernising the classic Indian silhouettes using her unique label, Ray also wants to create awareness about the unexplored territory of costume design to propel more fashion design aspirants towards this promising domain using the power of education. As Ray concluded with a futuristic vision, “Costume designers are treated like scientists globally, as I experienced while working for one of my projects called ‘The Victorian Values’ with BBC where I was treated with utmost respect and gratitude. I want the same for India as well, and this can only happen with quality education and courses wholly devoted to the field. I personally learned a lot from the German designer Lizzy Krystal. Indian costume design has a lot of demand and potential; it just needs a bridge between these two.”