A handwoven silk brocade pantsuit from Payal Khandwala’s latest collection
The brocade trouser suit is now an accepted part of the Indian festive wardrobe, and this two-piece ensemble is not only a testament to this country’s enduring textile traditions but also points to the metamorphosis taking place in contemporary Indian fashion. Banaras, a city known for its weaving traditions and fine brocades, has been captivating the world since the days of the Mughals. Their exquisite handcrafted zari (metal threads) woven patterned silks are used by many European fashion houses, while at home these textiles have been primarily used for saris.
The arrival, in the 2020s, of the brocade trouser suit in the Indian woman’s wardrobe can be compared to when Yves Saint Laurent created ‘Le Smoking’ in the mid-1960s: the black tuxedo suit made for women that marked a shift in cultural attitudes towards gender norms. The brocade trouser suit tells a story of how a new generation of modern Indian women looks at dressing. Says Palak Shah, CEO of Ekaya, a retailer known for its contemporary take on traditional Banarasi textiles: “A brocade pantsuit is India’s answer to the ‘Little Black Dress’—steeped in our traditional savoir faire yet impossibly modern.”
“A brocade pantsuit is India’s answer to the ‘little black dress’—steeped in our traditional savoir faire yet impossibly modern” says Palak Shah, CEO, Ekaya
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Among the first designers to make the brocade trouser suit the ‘heroine’ of their collection was Suket Dhir. While on a road trip, Delhi-based designer Dhir had, what he calls, an “epiphany”. A keen collector of brocade textiles, he came up with the idea for a wash that muted their colours and softened the look and structure of this cloth, making it friendlier to sartorial silhouettes. Dhir had been considered someone to watch out for since he became the first Indian menswear designer to win the International Woolmark Prize in 2016. The winning collection used traditional techniques like ikat textiles and Kasuti embroidery on fresh oversized tailored silhouettes. The loose style of the pants was a nod to the pajamas he saw his grandfather wear in the mango orchids of Punjab, mixed with beautifully cut kurtas, shirts and jackets. He married the best of the West and the East with touches of quirk.
“It represents the coming of age of an Indian woman. We are modernising and not necessarily westernising. There is a huge heritage element when it comes to brocades, it is a tradition,” says Suket Dhir, Designer
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It was shortly after this that Dhir and his wife Svetlana had to attend the wedding of Nonita Kalra, then editor-in-chief of a leading fashion publication in the country. For the event, Dhir designed a brocade trouser suit for his wife, and it became the talk of the night. Naturally, when at the end of 2018 Dhir launched his first womenswear collection, this brocade trouser suit was an important part of it. It immediately caught the attention of both retailers and critics. The designer says, “It represents the coming of age of an Indian woman. We are modernising and not necessarily Westernising. There is a huge heritage element when it comes to brocades, it is a tradition. The silhouette, however, of this piece is very, very current. It is about taking something from the past and moving forward with the times.”
Indian fashion had woken up to the need to be proud of the country’s textile heritage, with labels such as Raw Mango, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Abraham & Thakore leading the conversation at the start of the 2010s. Yet at the same time, Indian fashion was increasingly becoming aware of international trends, as brands from Zara to Armani opened flagships in the country. This became heightened by the end of the decade as Instagram became fashion’s new marketplace, and storytelling became woven into branding. Dhir’s brocade suit just seemed to slide right into this discussion. A major selling point was its fit made it something women felt at ease wearing. Dhir, as a menswear designer, knew how to cut a suit but added details such as hidden elastics in the trousers to ensure proportions were made to work on an Indian woman’s body.
“The Indian fashion scene at the time was still evolving as it still is and was largely focused on the traditional ethnic aesthetic,” says Kshitij Jalori, Designer
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Ekta Rajani, a stylist known for her own androgynous personal style, had been turning Indian textiles into tailored garments since the start of her career. She recalls getting introduced to the first Indian textile pantsuit over 15 years ago from Rajesh Pratap Singh—it was made of crinkle metal tissue—and makes a special mention of Abraham and Thakore who used surface ornamentation traditions such as kantha and appliqué for their own take on the evening pant suit at that time. Rajani had Dhir made her first bespoke pants suit a decade ago, before he started a womenswear line. Rajani says, “The ‘brocade’ style in pant suits has been building up momentum for a while. It’s making the best of the zeitgeist of these times. A reflection of ‘glocal’. Where the silhouette is modern global, and the textiles are the absolute strength of Indian design.” Recently, Bollywood wife and influencer Mira Rajput Kapoor wore a Dhir ensemble while hosting an Instagram live on mindful living.
“As societies change, so do their engagement with the products and styles they lean into. Today it may be the suit. And it could be something else tomorrow,” says Ekta Rajani, Stylist
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Sanjay Garg, who founded design label Raw Mango in 2008, threw a new spotlight on woven textiles and used Banarasi brocades for full Indian silhouette suits, tailored in a very clean and minimal style, ensuring all focus was on the cloth. Celebrity stylist Akshay Tyagi feels this was an early precursor to the brocade pants suit. “Sanjay Garg’s use of brocade for full Indian silhouetted suits brought a new energy to Banarasi weaves. And Dhir was already using brocades and custom prints for men’s suits when this crossover arrived at suits for women in a Western silhouette.”
Catching that moment is what makes fashion stand apart from being just clothes, and this is what the Dhir’s suit does. Today, many designers have put their individual stamp on this suit—from more established names like Payal Khandwala to next-generation designers such as Kshitij Jalori. His eponymous label founded in 2018 can be found in leading retail stores such as Ensemble and Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, and brocade-tailored ensembles are always a part of his collection. He says, “Right when I was studying textile design during my college years was when India started opening up to a massive influx of Western brands which had the most beautiful cuts and patterns, but with powerloom fabrics I would always wonder as to why nobody made use of these beautiful handloom textiles that were available to us to construct garments which would appeal to a world audience. The Indian fashion scene at the time was still evolving, as it still is, and was largely focused on the traditional ethnic aesthetic.”
Today, brides come to him and his take on the power suit is among the label’s bestselling items. He notes this garment has an appeal to NRIs, too, and beyond. Among those who have been photographed in a piece from Jalori’s collection is Oprah Winfrey. Social media has given Indian fashion a global outlet. Dhir is currently creating a bespoke design for a London-based bride-to-be.
“Sanjay Garg’s use of brocade for full Indian silhouetted suits brought a new energy to Banarasi weaves,” says Akshay Tyagi, Stylist
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Not only does it speak of a new age way of craft revival but it is also an extension of gender-fluid dressing dialogues, which led Tyagi to order a bespoke Dhir suit for one of his client’s nuptials. “It has been our focus to highlight both their personality as a strong LGBTQ voice and to cater to their personalities as a couple—and instantly we were drawn to cliché non-dainty outfits for one of them and Suket Dhir was our prime choice.” This suit has brought the current trend of power dressing into the Indian festive fashion vocabulary which has usually been about drape. As simple as it seems, this suit weaves together the many cultural shifts fashion is seeing at this watershed moment when women in India are becoming more vocal about egalitarianism. The power suit has long been a symbol of feminine power in the West, and this is India’s own take on the trend. Rajani explains, “As societies change, so do their engagement with the products and styles they lean into. Today it may be the suit. And it could be something else tomorrow. A strong design culture like ours will have its members keeping it going strong by working global ideas into it as well as continuing an age-long tradition of our classical styles as well.”
Ekaya, known for the modern take on the sari, has included tailored brocade blazer and trouser suits since 2020 and now this silhouette has trickled down to neighbourhood textile shops. As Ekaya’s Shah notes, “Indo-Western fusion has been happening for decades now. However, as a textile purist I would say, if a Western garment has been thoughtfully crafted with a deep respect and understanding for the Indian weaves, it is great.” A simple idea of making a suit out of brocade shows how we can keep textile traditions relevant and points to how women today want to combine a respect for heritage with a need for practicality, while also asserting their own #bossbabe vibe into what they wear.
Sujata Assomull is a Dubai-based fashion journalist and a contributing editor at Vogue India. She was the fashion editor of Khaleej Times and the founding editor of Harper’s Bazaar India. She is also the author of 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes