The Offbeat Sari exhibition, curated by Khanchandani herself, focuses on this reinvention and reveals a fascinating side of contemporary Indian fashion.
The show brings together over 90 examples of saris made over the past decade, nearly all of which are on loan from designers and studios across India and have never been seen in Britain. It is, in short, a feast for the eyes.
Conventionally a single piece of unstitched fabric, the sari is inherently fluid. Adapted in drape and form over millennia, it reflects identity, social class, taste and function across time and geography, and remains an enduring part of life in India today. Yet in recent decades, for many, the sari has been considered traditional, or uncomfortable, as a form of everyday clothing, especially by young people.
This vision is precisely what contemporary designers, from growing global brands to emerging studios, are challenging.
Sumptuous items from Raw Mango, Akaaro and NorBlackNorWhite are a great example of this dynamic shift. The use of pioneering material, the revisiting of the traditional drape, or the pairing with contemporary accessories: all bring modern relevance to the traditional outfit.
Akaaro's handwoven saris are made from copper and steel
With the Gen Z audience in mind, NorBlackNorWhite – whose designers moved from their home in Toronto to Mumbai to explore their Indian roots – infuses Y2K urban aesthetic into a colourful cotton lurex sari styled with Nike trainers.
NorBlackNorWhite sari cotton and lurex sari
Meanwhile, anyone looking for a party dress will be dazzled by the otherworldly selection of evening saris and 'sari-dresses' – a new concept of saris redesigned into dresses – on display.
Akaaro's handwoven's dazzling saris made of steel and copper rival Manish Malholra's extravagant Bollywood-style sequin number.
Black Sari by Huemn, sari dress and distressed denim sari by Diksha Khanna
One of the exhibition highlights is the first-ever sari worn at the Met Gala in 2022. Designed by Sabyasachi, and styled with a gold Schiaparelli bodice, the ensemble was worn by Indian businesswoman and socialite Natasha Poornawalla and caught attention for its dramatic mix of Indian and Western couture.
Sabyasachi/Schiaparelli sari, photo Andy Stagg for The Design Museum
One can easily get lost for hours admiring the sheer sophistication of drape and embroidery as well as the incredible craftsmanship on display. But what strikes me is how the sari is becoming the ultimate inclusive garment: no matter your sex or shape, no matter your lifestyle, it will fit you perfectly – see mountaineer Prerna Dangi climbing in a sari. In fact, Indian designers are creating a whole new language that is not only visually stunning but also addresses the social changes their society is going through.
Could saris become the next global fashion phenomenon? Khanchandani argues that its existence in South Asia is enough but hopes that it becomes a bigger part of the fashion discourse.
After seeing the exhibition, one really wishes that in a post-colonial world where 'cultural appreciation', to use the words of Dior's artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri, is taking the lead over cultural appropriation, such an inclusive and elegant garment soon transcends boundaries.
Rimizim Dadu, Gold Sculpted Wave Steel Sari
|What||The Offbeat Sari, Design Museum review|
|Where||Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London, W8 6AG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
19 May 23 – 17 Sep 23, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM