Hemant Sagar, one half of the designer duo Lecoanet Hemant, is poised precariously on a rock above the gushing Neyyar river in Kerala’s Aruvippuram town. We are at a bend in the river below the cave where Narayana Guru, the 19th century reformer, is believed to have sat in meditation. Here, yards of organic cotton are being washed in running water.
This is not ordinary cotton—it is bleached of toxins, boiled in a specific decoction of medicinal herbs, left to dry in a dark room for 14 days, washed in water and then laid out on rocks to dry in natural sunlight. In local lore, the Neyyar is considered pure since it springs from the Agastya hills, named after one of the mythical saptarshis (seven rishis, or sages) of ancient India who is believed to have created an early form of Tamil grammar. More than a thousand herbs prescribed in Ayurveda can be sourced in the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve and hills of the region.
Ayurvastra is based on the centuries-old art of treating fabric with Ayurvedic herbs to imbue the garments with therapeutic qualities. If toxins theoretically enter the skin through the pores, so can the healing benefits of herbs. While it may seem that this would work for skin ailments, Ayurvastra solutions can also be used for diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol management and insomnia.
The treated fabric is then shipped to Lecoanet Hemant’s atelier in Gurugram to be cut and fashioned into Ayurganic, a consciously curated brand that represents the meeting of design with “scientific, sustainable and spiritual elements”, as they claim in their brochure.
Ayurganic was launched almost a decade ago, at a time when sustainable fashion wasn’t so well defined. Now, it resonates with a new generation of buyers. “Fashion has to be a movement. Getting the timing right is important,” says Sagar.
Breathable and natural fabrics help the medicines to work; the colours are muted. There are dull blues when there is indigo, brick when babool (acacia) and sandalwood are mixed together, yellow with a turmeric infusion. Stacked together, these are reminiscent of a medieval painting by Pieter Bruegel. Considering Kerala’s historical trade with the Arab world, it was entirely possible that cotton, jute and hemp were sent to medieval Europe from where we were standing.
A day earlier, we had headed via boat through the backwaters and taken a bus to Balaramapuram, 2 hours from Thiruvananthapuram, to see the process of the cloth being boiled in vats of medicinal dyes. K. Rajan, the master Ayurvedic herbalist at Balaramapuram—which has a thriving textile industry—is the 10th generation in a line of herbalists. The proportioning of herbs, roots and oils is a precise art because the medicinal dyes need to stay on the clothes even after washing. To keep the cloth chemical-free, only crystallized aloe vera is used for gumming.
For Ayurganic’s tridoshic fabric (which is supposed to help maintain a level of well-being by balancing the vata, pita and kapha elements in the body), Rajan has laid out little heaps of 50 herbs, roots, barks and seeds that will go into the mix. There are some familiar ones like kasturi manjal, mace, neem, haritaki, sandalwood and raktchandanam. Though Rajan will not divulge his exact recipes, there have been clinical trials and papers on similar practices by the Government Ayurveda College, Thiruvananthapuram, and the Kerala government is trying to encourage its revival and spread.
Rajan is following a family tradition but what makes a designer who has spent over 40 years in fashion, most of it on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, develop an interest in Ayurveda? Didier Lecoanet and Hemant Sagar are known for haute couture. Their designs are in the permanent collections of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. The Fashion & Lace Museum in Calais is having a 20-year retrospective of their work later this year. Even Genes, their online prêt line, is rooted in chic modernity.
“I wanted something that could truly go back to deep Indian roots, something traditional that could have globality”, says Sagar. I sense it is also his personal journey of coming home. Lately, he has been experimenting with ramie, a river reed found in Meghalaya, which yields a linen-like fabric.
Ayurganic focuses on relaxed loungewear, with some clever touches that recall urban streetwear—kurta dresses with hoods, quilted sweatshirts, robes with slits and karate-style sashes, tops ruched with strings, yoga mats and eye masks, all made of a dosha-balancing mix. The cotton has a GOTS (globally organic) tag, even the buttons and threads are eco-friendly. It is both slow fashion and sustainable fashion. “It is unfashion,” says Sagar, “it doesn’t have to change with the seasons.”
The meeting of medicinal herbs and fashion, however, can be challenging. The heavy rains in Kerala make natural drying a challenge and the mix and quality of herbs must be consistent to ensure uniform colour. So they have found ways to wash the fabric closer to the dyeing workshop, where indoor drying is possible.
From 2011, when it was first launched, it has taken Sagar almost 10 years to get Ayurganic to where he wants it to be—an accessible lounge collection based on authenticity and tradition but one that can travel well to international as well as Indian markets. “Yes, it has taken time to get it right,” he says as we sit overlooking the lush backwaters, “but when you think of it, 10 years in a tradition of 5,000 years is not all that long.”