The contents of a rusty trunk castaway in a long-forgotten attic fired Neeva Debnath’s imagination. Richly embroidered saris, blouses, laces, trimmings and handmade flowers crafted by her maternal grandmother transported her into another realm. Memories of her grandmother using a boti, a popular chopping blade for vegetables, fish and meat in Bengal, to shape the fabric for her handcrafted blouses and petticoats, enthralled her.
The British Indian fashion designer, who left Calcutta at the age of four is now returning to her roots.
Sabyasachi’s Teacher Didn’t Have it Easy While Choosing Fashion as a Career
The youngest of 5 siblings, Neeva’s father wanted her to pursue a career in information technology, but her passion was elsewhere. A fashion graduate from Bristol, UK, Neeva worked with prestigious fashion houses such as French Connection, Monsoon, C&A, and Nicole Farhi.
Having designed for several big brands, I am now designing for myself and women like me who are independent, elegant and practical. Ninety per cent of my outfits, even the very glamorous ones, have concealed pockets.
— Neeva Debnath, Fashion Designer
Neeva has just launched her two-year-old label ‘Neeva-D London’ in Calcutta, the city of her birth, which is also home to her most famous student, Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
In the late nineties, Neeva did a three-year stint as an international fashion consultant at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India. It was here that she taught Calcutta’s celebrity designer when he was in his final year. “I was very fond of her as a teacher,” says Sabyasachi. Almost the same age as her class, Neeva shared a great bond with them.
Neeva too has fond memories of her hugely talented student, who had already launched his label while studying at the Institute. “I told his very nervous mother that he was going to be special. He truly deserves to be where he is today,” says the proud teacher.
Stitching the Occident with the Orient
Neeva’s ‘Neo Colonial’ show, which marked her debut in Calcutta, was the culmination of her research on the British Raj and the Bengali aristocracy of the period. Her couture luxury wear weaves together history and fashion — an apt reflection of her journey of discovery into her dual heritage.
During the Raj sophisticated women of Bengal wore blouses with lace on their collars and sleeves similar to the style of elegant women in the Victorian era. My costumes come out of that era. Calcutta port opened up to the textile industry of the world. The wealthy here sourced luxury fabrics and had access to the sheer elegance of net, lace and silk from France, Italy, London and China.
— Neeva Debnath, Fashion Designer
Ably assisted by her sister Gopa Nath, the Operation Director of Neeva-D London, the designer decided to merge the silhouettes and elegant chic styles of the West with the exquisite craftsmanship of Bengal.
Her search for skilled craftsmen specialising in intricate handwork has taken her to remote corners of the state. Spurred by her passionate involvement with her work, Neeva’s 81-year-old father, who was once against her chosen profession, today willingly escorts her in the blazing heat to find the very best craftsmen.
Working Closely With Craftsmen
Neeva shares a special rapport with her craftsmen. “For me it is important to know what they are thinking. They have ideas. I feed them with pictures and suggestions. I want subtle, minimalistic work. I do the embroidery with them. They don’t work for me. They work with me,” she adds.
With her team in place, Neeva is all set to take the best of Britain and Bengal to the other metros, starting with Delhi in July.
The British Deputy High Commissioner, Scott Furssedonn-Wood, who has been a huge support, points out, “The UK fashion industry is worth £26 billion to the UK economy each year. Her beautiful designs draw inspiration from her Indian roots and from her life in the UK and will have an appeal in both markets, with so many of the 1.5 million Brits of Indian origin. Combining the influences of both cultures is a real recipe for success.”