Bibi Russell: fashion of substance – Mili Chatterjee Ghosh, Bangalore

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Hollowness_by_Mon_artificeThe rustic voice of Bhanvari Devi, a singer from the ancient town of Pushkar, Ajmer (State of Rajasthan), becomes the title track of a Pan Nalin film, Angry Indian Goddesses that depicts urban Indian women. Rustic essence eludes the mankind in various forms. One such charming Goddess has captured the world with her fascination for the culture of village folks. She finds beauty in poverty. Yes, she is charmed by the splendor of rural society.

She is a dusky beauty and her face has captured renowned international fashion houses of Europe like Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Karl Lagerfeld and Georgio Armani etc. The pride of Bangladesh is Bibi Russell who has worked as a fashion model with Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar. She was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, completed her schooling from Dhaka and earned a graduate degree in fashion from London College of Fashion in 1975 and first became a photo model and then landed in catwalk. After a much bright career as a fashion model she returned to Bangladesh in 1994. Thereafter she opened Bibi Productions, a fashion house fusing indigenous Bengali cultural elements into her line. As of 2004, her company employed 35,000 weavers in rural Bangladesh. Bibi Productions is a name in itself as she has generated great bit of employment of skilled and talented weavers and provided stable income. She has given great economic progress and upliftment to the dying creativity of the rural folk.

An award winning film has been produced by Sonia Kripalani on Bibi with the title “Silken Synergy” in 2010. Bibi proudly says that the song “Ekla Cholo Re” by Rabindranath Tagore was written for her as she chose to walk alone.  She would love to adorn the Japenese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in gamcha, khadi and silk.

To understand Bibi’s work and background, I traveled across Kolkata and Dhaka. The weaving industry in Bangladesh is being challenged enormously by the growing competition of the cheap machine made fabrics especially from the neighboring countries. It came as a threat to the survival of the local Bangladeshi weavers. Many weavers across the land have become impoverished and are forced to look for more menial and less paying jobs in the big city. As a result the entire handloom industry of some ten million weavers has been threatened. Bibi has tried to reverse the decline. She after staying and visiting various parts of Bangladesh came with her indigenous program of action “fashion for development”. Fashion for development means socio-economic development, sustainable income and better livelihood. When we first hear this word we find it unrealistic for a poverty stricken third world country like Bangladesh. Fashion can only mean luxury there, nothing else. Bibi is different, she believes that fashion is for everyone. Even a rickshaw puller has his own sense of fashion. Fashion is a culture for her, everyone has it inside them. She thinks a fashion designer has a sense of responsibility towards the society. Through fashion, culture and creativity she plans to eradicate poverty in Bangladesh. Despite the flood and poverty it is the eyes of the people that shine like stars and draws Bibi to her homeland. In this poor country, there is also an extreme amount of strength and people like Bibi Russell are part of this strength. The strength is the culture, traditions, skilled crafstmenship and the creativity. The problem in Bangladesh was the lack of self confidence and the loss of market for the weavers. Through her own sense of style, communication and socializing she went into the core of the weavers problems. Bibi’s first assignment was to create a market for handloom weavers. To market it, by creating awareness and to give handloom an international status. She encouraged the domestic scene by building resources and skill among young artisans, craftsmen and creative workers. She began with a small design studio in the downtown Dhaka. She agrees that she needs government and non government institutions to save the ten million weavers. But as of now she has established her own fashion line using handloom for her ready to wear outfits and jute (a natural fiber) for accessories like shoes and jewellery. Her shows abroad have been really successful. Her shows have taken place in Paris, Spain and London etc. She has traveled in many villages including Rajasthan in India to connect with the weavers. She has showcased her summer and winter collection at the Rajasthan Heritage Week, a textile development project where she has utilized Khadi and Rajasthan handloom fabric like Kota to dress models from top to bottom. For the local weavers and their children, Bibi is not only a great diversion but a significant link to prosperity. She is their messiah in her own way. In a flood ravaged Bangladesh, not only the children of the weavers are attending school but they are learning weaving as well. The generation of employment, empowering local crafts and design communities on using regional resources, resurrecting traditions to build sustainable national brands on principles of fair trade. She is building green economies that give dignity of design and labor back to the east. She sacrificed her personal and promising professional career abroad. She has given a new meaning to the lives of the poor weavers.

Bibi Russell is denoted as the modern Gandhi who has created a revolutionary Swadeshi (indigenous manufacturing) movement. She has designed clothes for bengali movie of renowned director Goutam Ghose called “Moner Manush” based on the life of Lalon Fakir of Bangladesh (a bengali mystical minstrel saint, reformer and thinker). She has also designed for the leading actress Ananya Chatterji in the film Dwitiya Paksha. This year, 2015 marks a beautiful chapter as she came to Bangalore to showcase her designs. Bibi is very fond of marigold, and the flower is adorned amply on her models who showcase her designs on the ramp. When I first saw Bibi at her show, she looked vibrant, very bohemian, and simple with colourful glasses, ethnic jewellery and insanely colourful stole. That’s Bibi for me, the woman at the top of my mind. The bearded men with turbans and women in rural ethnic jewellery looked enticing to the urban audience. She adorns her women with beautiful ornate turbans and head dresses. I was transferred to a different world altogether. Bibi has promoted the Bangladeshi stole “Gamcha” and lungi (a wrapped cloth on the waist) to a different sartorial level. Bibi’s Gamcha is proudly adorned by the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. She extensively researches, innovates her own sense of style. For instance, she used khadi (cotton cloth) to create jeans. It was sold like hot cakes abroad. She has been a crusader for reviving the dying weaving industry in Bangladesh. She is giving impetus to an ancient industry that once produced the famous Dhaka muslin and jamdani.

Bibi had no inhibitions at all when she was young. She was bohemian, dynamic, thought provoking with a powerful mind and traveled the world with a duty to promote the crafstmen and women of the rural world. She is immensely creative, innovation, intelligent, honest, diligence and has a great vision for fashion industry. Although she was working abroad and visited Dhaka on a holiday, she would travel all through the country specifically to learn and find the creative corners and cultural traditions. Language was never a barrier for her as she was interested enough to learn and understand the dialect. Bangladesh is a country with a plethora of regional dialects and she made a point to know it to connect to the poor. She is a woman who is not at all business minded but is living a life for others, i.e the poor. One can say that her work is not limited to creativity but fashion for social and economic development. She is indebted to Bangladesh forever for what she is today.

In the year 2013, she was interviewed quiet beautifully by Andrea Kolb (a marketing expert and social entrepreneur) as one of the top 20 person to watch in that millennium. With UNESCO supporting her development initiative she has been commissioning her services in Latin America and Africa. To promote weaving industry in Africa and South America Bibis schedule has grown hectic and she has been a recipient of many awards.

Bibi’s work in Laos and Cambodia deserves a special mention. She visited Cambodia and the War Museum of that country has influenced her very much. Rural women in Cambodia are born as HIV positive. She officially works for such women there and provides free medicines and aid. She is also providing medical assistance to the HIV infected women in Bangladesh. To create awareness and campaign for AIDS she assists the weavers to attach a red ribbon to the Bangladeshi Jamdani sari.

The world remembers Bibi as the Artist for Peace by the UNESCO in 2001. Earlier she received an honorary fellowship of the London Institute in 1999, title for Designer for Development by the UNESCO in 1999. In 2004, she received a Peace prize by the United Nations Association of Spain. She has been rewarded Cross of Officer of the Order of Queen Isabella by the King of Spain. It was presented to Bibi by the Spanish Ambassador to Bangladesh, Arturo Perez Martinez. She received great love and support from Federico Mayor, Director General, UNESCO and Queen of Spain.

In her journey as a designer she has not only worked with the great big names of fashion but her foray now is into the socio economic development of the rural craftsmanship. She is a woman with a different frame of mind. She has less attraction for opulence and materialism and much love and care for the poor. She truly wants the poor to prosper. The poverty and landscape of Dhaka captivates her forever.

Being a style icon and ethical fashion icon she is a goodwill ambassador for the impeccable craftsmen and women who work immensely towards preservation and creation of traditional textiles and crafts. For a considerable part of her life she is working abroad including Colombia. The language or cultural barrier does not stop her. She only finds difference in geographical landscape and physical structure of humans. Bibi’s favourite quote is “We live in this world and we love it” by Rabindranath Tagore.

The question is to the people who have a great career and are master of creativity. How many of us really come forward like Bibi by leaving the wealth and comfort of our homes? The way Bibi has learned numerous dialects, lived, sang, danced, bonded and spent months and years in the half deluged sultry villages of Bangladesh. Our market is flooded with dying cottage industries and the disappearing crafstmenship of the poor people. There is consistent development in various sectors and economic liberalization but do we care enough for the downtrodden? How many of us in our careers do something for our society? The great minds do it better than us. Marx’s, philosophy of materialism does not intrigue them. They complete their learning, receive great accolades in their career and later on work for their country. They care and love the society in which they live. They are humans of a commanding vision, compassion, secular and powerful mind. We all have something to learn from them. As the great minds leave the world, their footprints remain embedded in our hearts. Bibi Russell is a woman to be proudly recognized for her work and I salute her. The next time I buy a Jamdani I will think it is Bibis gift to the world.

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