Things really started to change for Ruchika Sachdeva when she began to breathe. Not simply breathe like you or I do – passive in our in- and exhalation from day one, blithely accepting of the rudimentary physiological mechanics necessary for survival – but really breathe. Like, replenish your life force with every intake kind of breathing. The kind that doesn’t come naturally. The kind you have to work at.

There’s a word for it, too: Pranayama. Sachdeva, the New Delhi-based designer behind the contemporary women’s wear label Bodice, began to practice the yogic discipline three years ago when she was introduced to a customer named Apulvar – a remarkably calm woman whose warmth leaves an imprint on your very being – who now leads the designer in guided, weekly sessions. When they first began, Sachdeva would surreptitiously record their sessions to playback later (Apulvar demurred at first) and made homework of her mindfulness. Pranayama, however, demands a great deal of discipline from its students, the kind that can’t be mediated by a disembodied voiced playing through an app, so they continued to meet in person. It’s fortunate, then, that Sachdeva is no stranger to the extraordinary demands we make of ourselves.

“I was always looking, searching for something like that,” Sachdeva recalls. She had tried other things, yoga classes mainly, and never felt that her experience of the world quite aligned with that of those around her. A chance meeting with Apulvar in the designer’s former studio come store not only confirmed her suspicions that she wasn’t alone on her wavelength, but soon strengthened her resolve in herself and, with time, in her work. “I started listening to myself more beyond the distractions of what I should be doing. We bombard ourselves with so many elements, and it’s the same with design. [Pranayama] gave me the confidence to reduce elements, to say that it’s okay to listen to yourself, [because] between all the noise, you can forget.”

As a young woman growing up in West Delhi, Sachdeva recalls feeling troubled by that same noise, albeit on a different frequency. Not merely content to follow the same trajectory as her peers, the designer remembers that the pressure she felt to fit in was palpable, particularly at the behest of those who would rather see her “boxed-in to just being a ‘woman’ woman”. Acceptance of that fundamental aberration came with age and experience, and with it, an awareness that difference was not only desirable to others but that it could be harnessed. Sachdeva’s mother, a classical singer named Sangeeta, says that at 12-years-old her daughter would stitch entirely new ensembles for her Barbie dolls having thrown out the gaudy gowns they came packaged in. She would perform the same task for her unwitting dog. That small gesture was amongst the first indications of her second-born daughter’s considerable creativity, she says, a harbinger of a path she nearly didn’t take.

On Sachdeva’s left forearm is a tattoo, all uppercase serif typeface spaced judiciously over two lines: more is less, less is more. It’s an edict that was impressed into her by a professor at the London College of Fashion, who would encourage Sachdeva, then a nascent design student of just 19-years-old, not to shoehorn all of her ideas into a single garment. Her creativity has never been bound to a single medium either (Sangeeta likens her to an inexhaustible locomotive). “It’s about expressing yourself using any material, not just clothes,” she says. Much of the furniture at her airy new studio in the city’s verdant south is of her own design, hewn from blonde wood with the assistance of a local carpenter. The studio itself, a light-filled, stucco clad bungalow in a compound just removed from the gentle ebb and flow of the aptly-named Green Avenue, retains the easy domestic energy of its former tenants. Charming vignettes are created around couplings of potted greenery, ceramics and reproductions of Pierre Jeanneret’s beloved Chandigarh chair. The warm air, no longer polluted with Delhi’s ceaseless honking, is scented with mogra, an indigenous jasmine. Sachdeva’s eye is exquisite, uncompromising; her quiet assurance in her taste is conveyed in a manner both gracious and commanding. At the centre of her expansive compound, which is skirted with palm and mango trees, frangipani, eucalyptus, aloe and bougainvillea, is a monolithic cantilevered concrete and glass structure. Partially clad in tentlike fabric, its Brutalist inflections appear almost alien amidst this tropical scene. It too is of Sachdeva’s own design, executed with the guidance of an architect and completed over three short weeks in August after the deluge of monsoon season largely subsided.

She could have been the architect, had she wanted. At the Goenka School, a young Sachdeva would emerge as her year’s top mathematics student, but had to be coerced by her mother toward seeing her creativity as a viable pursuit (by all accounts, it was the only time she had been encouraged toward anything). “I stumbled upon [fashion] because there wasn’t much awareness, at least with me and my mum, we weren’t from an affluent background, so we didn’t know what else I could do,” Sachdeva says. “It was almost like an arranged marriage, and then I fell in love with it because it seemed right. I unpeeled it and was fascinated more and more by what India has to offer when it comes to textiles.” She taught herself to draw in three months, completed a foundational course and decamped for London in 2007.

India’s relationship to textiles is invariably rich, indelible as it is to its peoples’ livelihood as it is to the story of the nation’s independence. After agriculture, craft is the country’s largest industry and millions depend on it for their livelihood. But today, much of what is known of Indian design is redolent of Bollywood’s maximalist tendencies; traditional silhouettes and ornate bridal wear gilded to the hilt. Few, if any, designers offered Sachdeva a paradigm on which to model herself, so she looked to the world. She cites Vivienne Westwood, with whom she interned in London, as being someone for whom she feels a kind of reverence. “Her philosophy was more than just making clothes, and that was very attractive to me,” Sachdeva recalls. “That was something that I wanted to do, to explore making clothes in a meaningful way.” She pauses mid-thought then laughs, half-seriously invoking Mahatma Ghandi, the activist at the forefront of India’s independence movement who popularised the use of hand spun Khadi cloth, as having inspired parts of her own practice. Businesses comparable to hers, then as now, are few, and though she humbles herself in deference to the great spiritual leader, there’s an evident affinity shared between the two. “Simplicity is the essence of universality,” Ghandiji once said. It’s a sentiment they share wholeheartedly.

When Sachdeva started her label in 2011, she did so with a desire to return to, and question, the elemental. A bodice, “the first block that you use to make everything in fashion school”, presented itself as the fundamental starting point for an interrogation of everything she had learned, and everything still to come. “My idea was to go back and simplify,” she says of her decision to return to Delhi after the eccentricity, challenging aestheticism and constant demand for newness in London. Today, Bodice employs a staff of 28, and everything produced is informed not only by the foundational gesture of the bodice in pattern making, but of the same breath contained therein. Sachdeva’s is an ethos that serves to present to the world that part of India which has been lost to the dominant cultural image; a way of paring back all that glitters toward a simplicity of design informed by a desire for longevity and, for lack of a better word, sustainability.

Having returned to India, Sachdeva was content. She enjoyed a direct relationship with the over 20 stockists she supplied to and with editors at the country’s top-tier publications. At her former studio and store in Hauz Khas Village, she would meet with a great deal of her clients – cerebral, creative women working in fields as diverse as diplomacy and art – who sought out made-to-measure services to further hone Sachdeva’s considered tailoring. Both sporty and elegant, Bodice’s holistic slow fashion cites traditional draped garments like the sari and dhoti, as well as soft menswear tailoring, but in an entirely contemporary way. Outside India, however, she didn’t know anybody.

All that has changed since Sachdeva, now 31-years-old, was named the recipient of the International Woolmark Prize for women’s wear – the same accolade once accorded to Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent in its earliest iterations. Today, the prize not only announces a designers’ arrival on the world stage, but also doubles as a sustained vote of confidence in their propensity for innovation in the field of textile development. Winning the International Woolmark Prize has opened Sachdeva to an international market, something that she admits not having the wherewithal or ambition to approach head-on previously. There remains some ambiguity as to how she will expand into new territories – there’s talk of shows in New York, and Sachdeva recently joined Rainbowwave, a showroom in London – but the added element of a competition emboldened her not only to consciously connect with others working in diverse and remote corners of the same industry, but reassured her that hers is a voice with resonance outside her own territory. “[Winning the Woolmark Prize] has been a journey of not being limited to India,” she says. “It has expanded my market.” Perhaps most significantly, the prize has also given her the confidence to expand the parameters of her practice to incorporate and experiment with many of the artisanal techniques that she now realises there is an audience for, both locally and abroad.

Bodice Studio, a second line created just prior to the International Woolmark Prize, is sold at a slightly higher price point, owing to the painstakingly considered artisanal textiles used in its creation. After being anonymously nominated for and winning the regional round of the prize, Sachdeva realised there was a demand for clothing produced with mindfulness not only of its wearer, but also for its maker, its construction and materiality, both inside and out. “It’s harder to sell these things because they’re very [labour] intensive,” Sachdeva concedes. “There’s a culture problem, actually; it’s not like women can’t afford it but they think Western wear, simple looking things, should be cheaper; and more embroidered, ‘Indian-looking’, blingy things should be more expensive, whereas sometimes [my clothing] would take so much longer [to create]… Since I have launched this a lot of women in India are also buying it. It’s not just outside. They are starting to understand.”

In Kullu, a town in the southern foothills of the Himalayas, Sachdeva sits side-by-side with Labbo, a handloom weaver who works as part of the Bhuttico artisan cooperative. They have been working together for over a year, and display an evident sympatico as Sachdeva quietly adds extra weft to a design woven from fine-gauge Australian merino wool and the weaver plies his craft, wielding his many-pronged wooden loom with an irregular musicality. Where most designers dispatch a graph to be copied verbatim by the artisans, Sachdeva’s unorthodox preference is to sit with her collaborator and improvise in tandem. When she is no longer there, there is an element of chance to the design she has briefed the artisans with executing – the only requirement being that no two lines be the same length. “The weavers become designers themselves,” she says of the textile inspired by the graphic, linear work of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, which uses re-spun post-consumer yarn upcycled from sweaters donated to a facility in Nagpur. “It’s very fulfilling for them,” she adds. The same, then, could surely be said of the dozens of artisans working across 22 other states that Sachdeva visited and enlisted in the crafting of her prize-winning thesis for a new aesthetic in Indian fashion.

The geometric Bhuttico wool textile is one of many featured in the designer’s Woolmark Prize collection, stockists of which include Farfetch and Mytheresa, as well as David Jones and ParlourX locally. A fascination with the metaphysics of the gestural line as it exists in the natural and manmade worlds was also given expression through the use of Kantha embroidery, a running stitch unique to West Bengal, executed with the help of artisans from the Behar village near Chandigarh who would visit Sachdeva’s studio to contribute. Traditionally, Kantha is employed as a means of repurposing old saris as quilts for newborn babies. “They believe that the love of the women who wore the saris will keep the newborn alive and I just thought that was such a beautiful way of upcycling”, Sachdeva says, before pausing, changing tact. “They don’t even think of it as ‘upcycling’. They’re just following a tradition, and I like how it’s just so rooted in culture.” It can take up to 10 days to complete the Kantha embroidery on a single bottle green bomber jacket, its fabric rippled with abstract texture.

The collection’s deep navy blues, muted pinks and earthen reds were derived from the palette of the expressionist artist Tyeb Mehta, and were achieved using natural, Ayurvedic dye processes extracted from wild indigo and the root of the flowering madder plant, a fast-growing and renewable resource, the waste from which is also compostable. Buttons were fashioned in collaboration with a manufacturer in South India who fashions toys out of coconut, the excess from which is coated in enamel and repurposed for fastenings. Another exceptional textile, created by third generation weavers in Maheshwar, was woven of 88 percent wool and 22 percent steel to give garments a natural crush while eliminating the need for energy intensive heat-set plastics. It’s indicative not only of Sachdeva’s approach to innovation as problem solving, but her reverence for the past: the textile and the voluminous silhouettes it creates in a tunic dress invokes the legacy of India’s nautch dancers, the highly educated, independent women who yielded great influence during the Mughal dynasty of the 18th and 19th centuries – a time that didn’t afford a great deal of freedom to women generally. “I love the idea of old, crushed, worn-in clothes,” says Sachdeva. “It also gives that subtle sheen. All of my mum’s saris have this thing called gota [or zari embroidery, made from mixing yarn with metallic thread] – a lot of Indian clothes have this subtle sheen [in lieu of] a lot of blingy embroidery.”

Several garments also have the capability to change up to three sizes to increase their longevity, inspired by a sari’s versatility. A tunic made with zari thread and Merino wool woven at a state-of-the-art Italian mill can be worn across three sizes, its materiality expanding and contracting to accommodate those who exist in the liminal spaces between traditional sizing brackets. All of Sachdeva’s trousers are double-buttoned with hidden construction details on the pockets to allow for increases or decreases in size of up to two inches. “For me, it’s about having these little things which are practical and make it long-lasting,” she says. “It’s not so much screaming and saying, ‘Look at me I’m a good designer!’ It’s actually about [asking], ‘How can design solve problems of sizes or longevity?’”

Sachdeva has been intent on exploring these kind of utilitarian measures as a means of preserving her country’s singular craftsmanship since beginning her practice. In Sachdeva’s work, it becomes possible to witness the paradox of modernity and tradition that many ascribe to India more broadly. The result is an impossibly rich tapestry wrought of an extraordinary collective effort, but which never loses sight of the individual at every stage of its creation. “If you look at it, [Indian fashion] doesn’t have to look like a costume – like a sari, or a dhoti. They’re not so wearable [or comfortable] for everybody,” Sachdeva says. She is driven then by the question of how can she take the best of those garments and incorporate their ease into a wardrobe that utilises traditional craftsmanship, prolonging artisanal livelihood, without losing sight of contemporaneity.

“I [was not] born wearing saris, so what is it that I can wear?” she asks. The answer, it would seem, already lies within her.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER EDITION OF GRAZIA AUSTRALIA. SUBSCRIBE HERE TO RECEIVE TWO PRINT EDITIONS PER YEAR FOR $20AUD

GRAZIA travelled to India as a guest of The Woolmark Company
Tile and cover image: Darren McDonald/Courtesy of The Woolmark Company

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