Her face caught the fancy of international fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani much before fashion was a catchphrase in her country, Bangladesh. Bibi Russell, after a successful stint in modelling returned to Bangladesh in 1994 to start her fashion house, Bibi Productions. It was nothing like the brands that she has walked the ramp for. It was using indigenous elements. There was one more thing that she did… skilled and employed local weavers, preserving their creativity threatened by extinction. She was recently in india working with Indian artisans.

Excerpts from an interview with model turned designer:

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I have been busy the past few years trying to fulfil my commitments, particularly in India (Rajasthan, West Bengal and Hyderabad), Uzbekistan and Cambodia aimed at guiding local weavers and artisans to improve the quality of their products and adapting them to current fashion trends. My work involves learning and sharing; while I learn immensely from the local weavers and artisans on traditional designs and techniques, I share my knowledge, experience and my own fashion flair with them, and together we try to preserve harmony between the specificity of their products while making them more attractive for global fashion spaces.

Take us through your design process. What inspires you? Do you use a pencil or a computer?

I graduated as a fashion designer from London College of Fashion in 1976. I have also been, since 1999, a Fellow of the London Art University, which enables me to keep myself connected with innovations in the fashion world. What really inspires me is the pure creativity of local artisans who have been generating varied traditional art forms and designs. Many of these highly skilled and fine artists have not gone to art schools but work with traditional techniques, learn hands-on from their peers and memorise the production process. They have no books, graphs or charts to follow but use their hands, heads and hearts to create magic. A major part of my work process involves human contact, dialogue and experiments. I use computers for keeping me informed of the movements in the global fashion world and spend late night sketching till my own creation takes form.

What fabrics do you think work well with your designs? Where do you source them from?

I have always been attracted to local arts and crafts. All my collections are dedicated to handmade fabrics and crafts, paying homage to the magic weaves of local artisans who struggle hard to preserve the uniqueness of traditional designs and techniques in an increasingly globalised world. I visit the weavers’ villages regularly, meet their families, see their production process and engage myself in research to create the type of fabric that I would like to work on. My doors are always open to them. Whenever they have something new, they share it with me. There are no middle manager between me, the weavers and the craftspeople.

You have been championing the cause of Indigenous fabrics and textile traditions. What challenges did you face in your country and how did you tackle them?

Since I moved back to Bangladesh in 1994, I have been struggling to give the weavers their due place in the local economy. I wanted to dedicate my first collection to handloom. Instead, I got involved in ensuring the quality of the handloom products and hence in improving the working environment and livelihood of the weavers and artisans, many of whom were giving up their trade for survival and became day labourers to feed their families. We have launched ‘Save the Weavers’ movement. We have succeeded in drawing the attention of a certain group of people, but the multifaceted efforts continue. The competition from the machine-made industrialised textiles is harsh.

After a successful stint as a model, what made you give that up and move to Bangladesh to be a designer?

I was nominated as the best designer of my collection in my graduation show and was asked to wear the dress I designed which got nominated as best design. The same evening one of the top agencies approached me about working as a model for them and the rest is history. Quite unexpectedly, my modelling career commenced. I was exposed to the inside world of fashion, to its glamour and glory, its traumas and tensions. My modelling experience allowed me to understand the opportunities and the constraints designers face. When I was ready to pursue my dreams as a designer I came to Bangladesh to create my first collection but ended up engaging myself with the weavers and stayed back to start my new journey with them.

How has UNESCO’s recognition helped your cause?

In association with UNESCO, we devised the Fashion for Development strategy which emphasises the need for bringing technical and financial services to weavers and artisans.


Chitman Kanwar Ahuja

Chitman Kanwar Ahuja is a feature writer at L'Officiel India. She is a silver jewellery hoarder and an aesthete of all arts. You can find her unraveling new stories day in and day out.