Ruchika Sachdeva is nervous. The conversations surrounding the current state of the fashion industry—from inclusivity to waste production to whether fashion even matters—have everyone, as the kids would say, shook. Sachdeva, the designer behind Bodice Studio, knows this feeling all to well. After launching her company in 2011, the young designer won the covetable Woolmark prize and landed herself a spot on the Business of Fashion’s BoF 500 list earlier this year. No small task at thirty years old. But with her formerly small-town business set to expand its international reach, now is the time for Sachdeva to make big moves, and this writer is along for part of the ride.
I meet Sachdeva at the airport in New Delhi to begin our journey throughout India. Wearing Stella McCartney it-sneakers, a fanny pack slung across her chest (the hypebeast way,) and chic Airport Sweats that would make a normal person look slovenly, you can tell that she’s cool. I mention we’d met earlier that year when she won the prize, but assumed she didn’t remember given the heightened emotions from the evening. “Of course I remember you,” she says as she warmly shakes her head. “You have a distinctive look.” As our tour guide, Sachdeva has meticulously planned out an itinerary that included restaurant stops, tours of ancient temples, and daily flights to explore a new city every day, for five days straight. To say she’s ambitious would be an understatement.
Pictured in January 2018 when Sachdeva won the International Woolmark Prize.
Sachdeva walking through Bodice Studio’s garden in New Delhi, India.
When Sachdeva won the IWP prize in Florence this January she told me that her aim was to put Indian fashion on the radar of a global audience. It’s now eight months later, and she’s still working things out. We’re traveling through her home country to learn about her labor of love that is Bodice Studio. Throughout the trip (which thankfully cut out a couple 7AM flights) I learned three important aspects that define Bodice Studio: 1) Labels like “young” or “woman” don’t define Sachdeva as a designer, but they do inform her designs; 2) Being a sustainable brand comes “by default” when better business practices are systematically ingrained in the company’s ethos; and 3) She’s creating the future of Indian fashion by using elements from the country’s past. Combined, Sachdeva uses these tenets to create beautiful, chic clothes for a modern woman. Over our trip I realize that if this designer was nervous about her brand, she has absolutely no reason to be scared.
The Crutches of Labels
Sachdeva is routinely labeled with all the buzzy keywords she ticks off: She’s young. She’s Indian. She’s a single woman. And while India is positively improving their laws on gender discrimination, the country is still a male-dominated society that Sachdeva must navigate. “I feel very scared, because I’m working really hard. I’m not a good designer just because I’m an Indian female. Because that I am, by default.” Pointing in the direction of the concrete building she designed, Sachdeva adds, “Just building my store has been a nightmare. They take advantage of me and ask for more money and take me for a ride. […] In India people who work are men or [women who] have a husband with them.”
“I’M NOT A GOOD DESIGNER JUST BECAUSE I’M AN INDIAN FEMALE. BECAUSE THAT I AM, BY DEFAULT.”
The challenges of being a single women directly motivate and influence her designs. “I’m not making Indian clothes. I’m making clothes for a working woman […], not just a housewife.” The outcome is tailored minimalism rooted in Savile Row menswear, silhouettes that float away from the body, and hemlines that rarely rise above the calf. While individual parts of her collection pull from her Indian heritage, Sachdeva’s aesthetic is undeniably contemporary. These are clothes for a woman by a woman, which gives her wearer an empowering sense of agency. She is a welcomed asset given the current landscape of the fashion industry’s sometimes disappointing presentation of clothing for the modern woman.
Waste Not, Want Not
North of New Delhi on the edges of the Himalayas sits Kullu, India, a region known for their hand-woven shawls. There, Sachdeva introduces us to the Bhuttico Weavers, a co-op certified by the Woolmark Company. When you think of Indian workshops, it’s easy for your mind to naturally associate them with the word sweatshops, but the conditions we witnessed quieted any worry of an unsafe environment.
A member of the Bhuttico Weavers co-op, sitting at his loom.
The repetitive sound of weavers at their looms created a calming melody. The room was bright and airy with more windows than any Manhattan apartment could allow. One man worked away with his headphones plugged, rhythmically weaving to his music as if playing a set of drums. There’s no charade here, no wool being pulled over our eyes, so to speak.
“What I’m not trying to do is to start a sustainable line,” said Sachdeva. “What I’m trying to do is question my choices and accordingly, make informed decisions.” Although she shies away from the term, her line is sustainable, in the purest way possible. For her winning collection for Woolmark, 80 percent of it was made from regions throughout the country, including the textiles I saw at Bhuttico.
A portion of Sachdeva’s collection was naturally dyed using plant-based materials like madder and indigo.
“It’s not that I’m an activist,” she explained. “Maybe it’s because I am from India, but I am exposed to these things, I have seen how things are made, and I see the impact it has on people. And so I question that impact.” Sachdeva employs Bhuttico Weavers and others like it across India, turning craftwork into high fashion. A toymaker in South India produces her coconut buttons from his byproduct. The wasted yarn from wool production gets recycled as down for her jackets. The list goes on. “If you’re mindful about your actions as a fashion designer then by default you will be a sustainable brand,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to buy [my clothes] because they are sustainable. You should only buy them because you think they are beautiful and they help you express yourself.”
“WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO IS JUST QUESTION MY CHOICES AND ACCORDINGLY, MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS.”
India Through the Lens of Modernity
At first glance, Bodice Studio does not look stereotypically “Indian.” Popular fashion in New Delhi is reminiscent of traditional styles, like saris and salwar suits. Saturated hues and conspicuous embellishments are the norm. Sachdeva doesn’t want to imitate clothing that already exists, but reinterpret it for a woman beyond the scope of an Indian customer. “I don’t belong to that generation [of my mother’s] and I don’t wear saris,” she said. “So what is it that I can wear?”
The answer to that question is a textile and technique-driven collection that can easily be merchandised next to designers like Sacai or Proenza Schouler. “[Indian fashion] doesn’t have to be a costume like a sari or a dhoti,” she said. “But how can we take the best of those things and incorporate them into clothes so that we’re actually using what our traditions and culture can offer in a contemporary way?”
A bomber jacket with panels of Kantha embroidery on the torso.
Break apart her collection and you’ll find various techniques plucked from history and modernized for today’s customer. Kantha embroidery, for example, is a Southeast Asian practice that reuses old saris to make quilts for newborn babies. The belief that the love of the mother will be transferred to the child and keep it alive. “They don’t even think they are upcycling—they are just following a tradition,” Sachdeva explains. She applies this craft, but cut onto smart midi skirts and bomber jackets.
A shirt and skirt combo woven with steel thread for a subtle shine.
This tie-waist pant allows its wearer to adjust it up to three sizes.
And though it may not be the most obvious, the Bollywood shine that is typically associated with Indian clothing is even woven into Bodice collection. “What I saw with a lot of old Indian saris is they didn’t have a lot of bling-y embroidery, but what they have is this beautiful sheen.” She created a textile similar to lurex, with steel thread woven into wool for a subtle shine that crushes at the touch. Then there’s the icon of Indian fashion: the sari. “I love that a sari is […] not restrictive by size. And what we do with the sari is we pleat and tuck and tie and I was like, ‘why can’t we do that with a dress?’” To mimic this, dresses and pants have multiple fastenings at the waist to extend sizing. For Sachdeva, clothing shouldn’t restrict you, it should liberate you.
Pleating on these garments was created using cotton strips in a style that mimics a finishing techniques used in suiting.
Finally, an ancient Indian practice that heavily informs Sachdeva’s work and has nothing at all to do with fashion. After years of practicing yoga, she found herself in the school of Pranayama, which focuses on the breath, not the body. Impressive headstands for social media stunts are not the focus. With Pranayama, using breath to find your center is the highest goal. Sachdeva applies the same type of thoughtfulness to Bodice Studio both in production and design. “There is a certain singularity or removal of the clutter [when you practice yoga] which gives you clarity,” she said. Everything in her collection has a thoughtful purpose.
Towards the end of our trip, I sit with Sachdeva to discuss her plans for the future. She shares that while she relates to women worldwide on an aesthetic level, she has no plans to leave her hometown. “My dream was never to move to London […] and stay there, because what I can do here is incredible,” she explains. Her access to local artisans and the swiftness with which her studio runs helps grounds her. I can’t tell what I’m more impressed by: the recognition she gives to her country’s rich history, the work she provides to underprivileged craftsmen and women, or that her women-centric clothes are what we need in today’s climate. It’s only a matter of time before her line catches on stateside, but until then, think of her purely as this: a damn good designer.