Ritu Kumar was born in Amritsar, Punjab in 1944. The lack of educational opportunities there led her to move to Shimla, where she attended Loreto Convent. She is a graduate from Lady Irwin College. She got a scholarship at Briarcliff College in New York, where she studied Art History. Ritu returned to India and studied museology at the Asutosh Museum of Indian Art, part of the University of Calcutta.
Ritu Kumar invested in sustainable fashion in the 60s. She was one of the few designers who recognized that sustainability is intricately woven into India’s consumption patterns; it only needed to be polished and restored. The journey of the fashion designer and Padma Shri awardee’s brand is about her extraordinary achievement from a historian to a pioneer in Indian fashion industry. Ritu Kumar’s journey is about the rise and recognition of India’s heritage handicrafts.
Having a degree in Art History and deep knowledge about the psyche of consumers from across the world, she built a fashion empire that is now home to four labels. The fashion house led by Ritu has premium bridal wear brand ‘Ri’, traditional semi-formal designer brand ‘Ritu Kumar’, contemporary gen next brand ‘Label’ and home & living brand ‘Ritu Kumar Home.’
From starting the boutique culture in India to reinventing Indian textiles, her designs are regarded as wearable art. She is revered for her valuable contribution to the Indian textile revival movement. Ritu Kumar became one of the prominent faces of post-Independence India’s fashion world through her ethical and sustainable creations.
It all started with a museology course, an archaeological site in the remote corners of Kolkata and a group of hand-block printers. After completing an art history course in the USA where she studied European art, she enrolled into a museology course in Calcutta, India. It required her to visit archaeological sites and study the settlements around it as well as the physical structures. During one such visit, she discovered a group of hand-block printers who were jobless. She gave them her designs to be printed on sarees and opened up a small store.
Kumar met the industrialist at the Tollygunge Club Golf Course in Calcutta. The initial investment helped the designer to source good quality silk fabric in bulk, which proved to be a game changer. These luxurious hand-block printed silk sarees caught the attention of an Australia-based NGO, Trade Action. The NGO placed an order for 1000 scarves. One thing led to another and Ritu Kumar designs made its way to London, New York and Paris fashion week. By the 70s, it had reached the windows of Roshafi, Seventh Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Monsoon, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Due to the ever-increasing global demand, the company had to start a small cottage industry to fulfill the orders.
Promoting Sustainability Through Old Indian Textiles
The designer’s global expansion was fuelled by the textile revolution, which took place in the 1970s. The government had rolled out a host of initiatives and programs to revive Indian textiles and to reinstate its glory at a national and international level. Ritu Kumar was one of the front-runners of the movement then and even now.
The bridal wear market had no work for a very long time. They used pure gold for embroidery of the outfits and that had been replaced by some plastic thread. They did not have a market then. It just needed some sort of intervention and a catalytic kind of effort to get back an old aesthetic of the technique and the embroideries.
Ritu Kumar not only identified the need in the bridal wear market for intricate gold embroidery work, but also found resources & skilled artisans to build the retail infrastructure from scratch. Besides overcoming the inherent challenges of the retail industry, Ritu Kumar also had to fight the rigid mindset of consumers who were enamored by chiffons. The risk paid off and by the late 80s and 90s, Ritu Kumar became the most sought-after premium brand in India and abroad.
The Label Life
The parent brand was reinvented after the 90s. Ritu’s son Amrish Kumar launched ‘Label’ the modern ready-to-wear line of the traditional brand in the early 2000s. This combines the charm of international silhouette and Indian textiles. It is meant for the next generation.
With Label, Kumar was able to democratize luxury and reach the young consumers who appreciate the richness of traditional textiles but want to introduce it in their wardrobe with a modern outlook. By experimenting with cuts, fabrics, and textures, Kumar made these designs more accessible. Out of the 90 stores of Ritu Kumar, 30 are Label stores. By being available in malls and retail spaces, as opposed to restricting itself to exclusive standalone experience stores, Label was successful in delivering a consumer experience that many luxury fashion houses could not offer to their potential buyers.
The company wants to focus on the Home and living category in the coming years. Kumar is willing to transform her knowledge of textiles into home furnishing line, which seems like an organic diversification strategy. Her work and research on old Indian textiles started close to 45 years ago. And textiles, whether printed, woven or embroidered, lend themselves to home furnishing.
Besides opening Label retail outlets and launching furnishing lines, the brand never stopped reviving the traditional weaving techniques and natural textiles. Ritu Kumar is one of those designers who was able to participate in a revolution. She also uplifted a community, while effectively solving the design and expansion challenges. Her association with the handloom community is a lifelong commitment to Indian textiles and art.
As Ritu Kumar, the designer continues to write the revival stories of forgotten Indian textiles, Ritu Kumar, the brand would continue to stay relevant for decades to come.