The white castle of Rina Singh

A conversation with the founder of the label, Eka, which has opened its first flagship store in Delhi; on how her clothes are both poetry and armour, and the India in her designs.
Eka’s flagship store at Lodhi Colony Market.
Eka’s flagship store at Lodhi Colony Market.

There is something and nothing “jhablo” about Rina Singh—the word is Singh’s shorthand for roomy and bohemian—or her store the day we meet at her Lodhi Colony Market outlet. In a loose Eka shirt, which she wears over tapered trousers and sneakers that look turmeric-drenched, she is back in action after the recent launch of her flagship store after 11 successful years in the fashion industry. The store, in pristine white, recalls a haveli, even a mahal; gold borders run along the arch of its doorways like selvage, the finishing line of many an Eka dress or a skirt. So, while the general ‘Rina vibe’ is casual and elegant, the Bohemian in her wins each time. At the side of a striking table made of a single piece of wood, lies a bust whose upper body is bare, and the torso is covered with a black skirt—an interesting image to accost most customers used to Eka’s modest clothing- “I love that quirk in fashion. If everything is in a straight line…,” says the designer leaving the thought trailing.

Tying loose ends

Singh grew up in rural north India— UP and Haryana— where two things were important. “Agriculture and education…. The first informs you, the other roots you,” she says. The ecosystem of a village is craft-centric. Somewhere among her memories of growing up, there is a charkha that is still humming in the afternoon; weavers, who come in to do yarns for the dhurries; her grandmother discussing matching the colours of kattha with the sindoori or other colour combinations. “I could not have been untouched by all of this,” says the designer, but stresses that one cannot pick up references from the past and say this or that impacted one’s life story in a specific manner.

But the past did return in unexpected ways. Singh always wanted to be a dressmaker. In 1997, she won a scholarship for fashion design studies in the UK and had her first reality check. “I wanted to fit in only to realise I couldn’t. I started to question ‘What is my design story?’ So, I started tracing it back. I drew from tradition to build something modern and for the future,” she says. Returning to India, she engaged with crafts-based research at NIFT, interned with Archana Shah of Bandhej, did khadi and gota projects with the Gujarat government, and worked with Eri Muga silk—all of which have since found a permanent place in her fashion vocabulary.

Travels in Europe and the US also left a mark. “Julia Roberts was my muse. Not Jaya Prada,” she says. There is also the imprint of early and late 19th century Englishwomen demanding to be counted—fictional though they may be like Hardy’s Tess or Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet—whose relationship to their clothes was functional and who lived in them as if they were dancing in them. “The purpose of clothes,” says Singh, “is to leave a woman free. Poetry and armour—that’s what clothes are.”

Winter wardrobe

From the Autumn- Winter Collection
From the Autumn- Winter Collection

In the new Autumn- Winter collection, the Eka look—of the Mountain Girl-meets-Earth Goddess—is clear. It is what Eka followers expect. Here, dresses come with lace inserts; a front-open jacket constructed in wool checks will have thick piping details; block prints will be common. And, as with most Eka clothes, the clothes of this collection can be worn two or three ways—a dress can function as a jacket or be layered with a short top; the short top can be worn over wide-leg trousers.

The colours, in maroon, charcoal, black or blue, are made vivid with Benarasi patterns and embroideries. The Indian influence is there but not obviously—as in the works of India’s first modernist painters. Amrita Sher-Gil is, indeed, an important influence. “Her composition was European, her faces Indian, but the colours could be from anywhere in the world,” says the designer.

The world of Eka in the store at Lodhi Colony and in the mind of its creator seems to express a kindred spirit. Singh has built her language with these confluences. “In a room full of people, my clothes do inform people how I will be seen before I can say who I am or where I come from,” she says. India, she adds, can speak up through her craft. “The craft of my land belongs to me. Not every Japanese woman wears a kimono. Not everyone can or wants to be an Indian woman in a chiffon sari and pearls.” Wearing a coat with Indian textile and embroidery is as much a big and bold decision.

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The New Indian Express