In her early years Sabah Khan, a second generation British-Indian was shielded from the harsh realities of poverty that some of her counterparts in India had to contend with.
Nonetheless as she grew older the shanty towns of India helped inspire her flamboyant designs.
Sabah said, “We shifted base from the UK to Mumbai when I was seven years old.
"As we were heading home from the airport, I remember that this was the first time I had actually seen a beggar.
“I couldn’t comprehend why a stranger was asking us for money!”
As that stage, Sabah was too young to grasp the concept of poverty. But over the years, she developed a deeper understanding of this pressing social issue.
As a teenage student of the International Institute of Fashion Design (INIFD) in Mumbai, one of Sabah’s classmates mentioned a book in passing – Kalpana Sharma’s ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’.
The book had a deep impact on her and Sabah began to make frequent trips to the shanty town.
Sabah said, “Unlike a lot of people who want to ignore this issue and pretend it doesn’t exist, I wanted to shed light on poverty.”
And since fashion can create such a flutter in social circles, what better way to use it than to create awareness of a social concern.
As a final year student at INIFD, who had the opportunity to showcase her work at the Lakme India Fashion Week 2010, Sabah decided that the theme for her collection was going to be Dharavi.
Dharavi, in Mumbai, is the largest slum in Asia. This area shot to fame thanks to the Oscar winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ The slum town which spans approximately 550 acres, is home to 600,000 people and also houses several industrial units.
The many factories and people of Dharavi were the inspiration for Sabah’s latest line aptly titled, ‘No Class.’ For instance, the plastic recycling units in Dharavi motivated Sabah to make ‘the best use of limited resources’ and she created clothing that could be worn inside-out.
The potter’s colony and the dye factories of Dharavi together decided the varied colour scheme of her line which ranged from rustic hues to bright greens.
The dye factories here sell scraps of cloth to the women of Dharavi who use them to sew quilts. And this in turn inspired Sabah to use patchwork in her designs.
The children of Dharavi featured in Sabah’s work as digital prints on fabric. As Sabah explained, “I wanted to bring out the spirit of the children in this slum town who instinctively smile into the camera even as they are rummaging through rubbish bins for their next meal.”
Sabah wasn’t the only to one to find inspiration in Dharavi. In fact, Prince Charles in his recently released book, ‘Harmony’ had described Dharavi as a model for sustainable living that British towns could follow.
Using this as a reference point Sabah wrote to Prince Charles congratulating him on his book. In order to describe how Dharavi had inspired her too, Sabah quoted from and attached an article on her work written by this reporter in the Mumbai Mirror.
Sabah added, “Even as I posted the letter, I never thought I’d actually hear back from the Prince.”
But about two weeks later, Sabah received an envelope that bore a stamp reading ‘Buckingham Palace’. And the letter really boosted her morale.
The letter which had been signed by the Assistant Private Secretary (commonwealth) to TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall, stated that, ‘His Royal Highness was very touched by your kind words, and was particularly interested to hear that your clothing line was inspired by the spirit of Dharavi.’ The Prince of Wales also sent his ‘warmest good wishes’.
Having received encouragement from royalty, Sabah is now enthusiastically working on her next line. Ask her if the royal family will hear about this one too, and she chirps, ‘Most definitely!’ Interview by Kiran Mehta.