The Indo-French fashion designers archive at Bikaner House takes us through 40 years of the Lecoanet Hemant history; from their days at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to their new ready-to-wear line, GENES.
The eternal outsiders, they’re the Indians in Paris and the Parisians in Delhi. Lecoanet and Hemant have the gift of perspective, of being able to see things from the outside. Which is why when most of the Indian fashion industry is going through a handloom revivalist movement, LH is going in the opposite direction. They’re all about ‘industrialised elegance.’
Hemant Sagar, one-half of the duo says, “I am going to be 3D-printing garments for people, completely made to measure, in laser technology within five-six years. Because I know employing 300 people, making clothes by hand will be similar to slave driving in 5 years, at a planetary level. It is unethical to be employing people like that.”
The paradox does not end there. Their journey can be seen in clear binaries. Paris to Delhi, Couture to ready-to-wear, handmade to semi-industrialised – Hemant is vehement that just because something is made by a machine does not make it inferior.
His argument holds, “Europe went through it 80 years ago. Even LVMH is industrialised elegance. The new luxury is the LV bag on which I can get hand-painted initials. That’s industrial luxury, that’s customised. Or a Burberry trench coat that can be designed with a million permutations and combinations on the website but eventually becomes something unique but still industrialised elegance.”
Ask him his notions about Indian fashion and pat comes the reply, “It’s like the (car) Ambassador: it’s wonderful that it’s still being made but it’s awful that it was made all along.”
We have carried the past with us but not taken it to the future, which is also his qualm with the handloom industry. It is carrying the baggage of the past without being relevant in the future. “Why does the chanderi not exist with a mix of lycra, in the market?” he asks. Why indeed? And why do we go to marked-out, hallowed spaces and not competitive stores to buy something that is more Indian than the fast fashion brands of today? “We must understand,” he says, “…tradition is supposed to be consumed and not worn to two weddings and a half. No one wants to pay for it because they already have it from their mom and their grandmom. Made by hand: we can’t afford it and we don’t need it.”
The evolution to ready-to-wear from couture has happened because of a clear defining of what fashion has come to mean: A democratised service that has trickled from the wife of the king to the consumer today. He says, “It is not that one piece that will be commissioned and never worn by anyone else or seen by most people. Fashion must be seen in magazines and be available in stores. It is the references that we make together. It must be produced serially. There is no point in making something beautiful that takes 300 hours but is eventually un-sellable.”
This is a far cry from their couture days in Paris. There is a vest in the Gurgaon factory from the old (couture) days which was made in Aubusson, France; a place with 100-year-old tradition of tapestry. “They had their own sheep, they hand-dyed their own wool, weaving 37 colours of fabric in this vest, they worked by candle light. But this is not something you want to give the weaver of today to do, it is far too intensive,” says Hemant.
They opened shop in 1981 in upscale Rue St Honore in the 1st arrondissement, riding the wave of the career-woman of the 80s. Hemant recalls, “It was the time when Armani was making the transition from men to women, shoulders were softened for men and also used for women signifying women having careers where they use the shoulders also. So it was fantasy suits for women, our shop was sold out daily.”
The couture dream lasted for a full 17 years before. There was a time when Her Royal Highness Princess Ghada Bin Turki Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud would show up at their doorstep without notice leading to last minute vacuuming panic, or Princess Noor Bint Badr who walked into the workshop and ordered one piece each, of the entire collection.
“We would have got into RTW much sooner, but couture is more immediate. You have to design for ready-to-wear a year in advance and we could never catch up. Also, the problem with couture is you become bigger but you become repetitive,” says Hemant.
The move to India happened because Hemant believed that there was a whole new opportunity in India in the supposed race against China and that the world was coming here. “I was so convinced that it’d happen in 2004 that I went into a depression when it didn’t but it’s happening again,” he says hopefully.
In 1997 Lecoanet Hemant got approached by an events company regarding a show in New Delhi at the embassy with Emanuel Ungaro, Thierry Mugler and Dior. It was announced and the Delhi press were eager to interview that sole Indian designer. Then a spokesperson from Ungaro said that if they’re going we would not. They were the 17-year-old kids with acne compared to the grand dame of Ungaro, Dior etc and as Hemant says with a chuckle, “it seemed like the honourable lady was not so sure of herself.”
There are many stories such as this one that float about in the archive exhibit. And so, even when one may consider Lecoanet Hemant part of the establishment they continue being revolutionary in trying to prove themselves. It makes for original thought, provocative opinions and a relentless appetite for what’s next. Despite this being a retrospective; Lecoanet Hemant still want to come up with a formula the end of it, which may make something in the future.
LH creations have been on display at museums such as London's Victoria and Albert, The Mikimoto Museum in Honshu, Japan, The Ariana in Geneva and Galleria Museum of Fashion, Paris.
The exhibition is on display at the Bikaner House, New Delhi from 19th-22nd March 11-6.30 pm.
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