Meet Ruchika Sachdeva, the First Female Indian Designer to Win the Woolmark Prize

The Bodice designer translated Indian art and traditional techniques into an innovative and progressive collection

You’d think that the lines designer Ruchika Sachdeva of Bodice nervously uttered after accepting the 2017/18 International Woolmark Prize for womenswear on January 9 at the Stazione Leopolda in Florence would take away from her just-earned glory, but in fact, they had quite the opposite effect. “India,” she said, “is not known for fashion. It’s known for its textiles, its handicraft and tradition, but not fashion.” The blunt but insightful admission at once summed up the reality that is Indian fashion.      

Since 1953, The Woolmark Company has invited designers like Sachdeva to create capsule collections using Australian Merino wool. It has been a little over 48 hours since New Delhi-based Sachdeva, 30, became the first Indian female designer to win the coveted title previously earned by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. And it’s not just the hefty AU$200,000 prize that will turn the tables for her. Standing before her and this year’s menswear and innovation prize winners, London-based Matthew Miller and New York brand Dyne, respectively, is the game-changing opportunity to be stocked in some of the world’s most prestigious stores and boutiques including Harvey Nichols, Lane Crawford, and L’Eclaireur. 

And yet, all she said when we spoke over the phone in a post-win interview was, “It is still sinking in. My mother [Sangeeta Sachdeva] is here with me, and I haven’t had any free time to spend with her.”

Sachdeva set up Bodice in 2011 after graduating from the London College of Fashion, which was around the same time she worked as a design intern with Dame Vivienne Westwood. That, and a solemn promise to create thoughtful design, set her off on the path to inspired success. 

It took eight months to create the winning IWP artisanal range comprising six looks, with 70 percent of its weaving realized across small towns and villages of India. In a by-women-for-women effort, Sachdeva worked closely with five weavers from Kullu, a high-altitude Himalayan resort town, to highlight its leading star—Australian Merino wool. “They [weavers] belong to a cluster that still practices age-old techniques of hand weaving. It is highly skilled and hence painstakingly time consuming,” she said. Her otherwise timbre tone broke into a burst of excitement when she added, “They are bored of doing the same brand of traditional weaves, so when I approached them with intensive technique ideas like adding extra weft to the yarn in the warp and weft to make a pattern, they were very happy. They have been my collaborators in this journey.” That this year’s competition theme also focused on innovation along with fashion design meant that Sachdeva’s effort to revamp indigenous techniques for the global consumer would find favor.

In the past, Sachdeva has been a dogged indigo and black loyalist, but her Woolmark color story, which was also the starting point of the collection, took into its fold shades of pink, burgundy, green, and deeper blues offset by powder versions, browns, and darker hues of purple. “I was inspired by Tyeb Mehta and Nasreen Mohamedi,” she said of two Indian artists who used color to develop a visual language that expressed the spirit of a newly independent India.

Known for using flat planes of color to conjure space, Mehta, a key member of the famed Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group founded in 1947, belonged to the first post-colonial generation of artists in India, while Mohamedi was celebrated for her line-based drawings in black and white. “She was one of India’s first female artists to work between the 1950s and 1980s. Her work was terribly modern for the time, and remains relevant even today.” 

For this collection, Sachdeva developed her natural dyes in Sawantwadi, a township in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, while the buttons were crafted from renewable sources like coconut shell, seashell, and wood. “From the ingredients and dyes used all the way to their application and everything in between, her collection really represents a modern woman,” designer and judge Phillip Lim said of the collection in a press statement. 

But for Sachdeva, it wasn’t only about making an environmentally correct statement. It was also about dipping into her roots. Her grandmother, like most Indian women of her generation, practiced upcycling when she would repurpose her old saris into sujhnis or light quilts, using the common stitching and patchwork technique of kantha. “My grandmother used to [turn] old saris into quilts without even knowing she was ‘upcycling’ them. She believed that the old garment that lay within the quilt held the love of the women who once wore the saris, and would protect the newborn baby.” For her part, Sachdeva replaced fabrics with yarns sourced from post-consumer waste to create kantha embroidery.

But the designer sees Bodice as more than a sustainable brand. It’s modern, free of gender (evident in her own love for buttoned-up shirts and the man-bun-esque topknot), and thoughtful. “It’s no longer enough for clothes to be beautiful,” she said. “It’s equally important to question their impact on the environment as well as their social effect.”

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