At first glance, ITOH’s shirts look unfinished. There are a thousand tiny irregularities in the cotton. Ripples and furrows from collar to cuff. But that can’t be the case. One or two oddities might be a manufacturing error, but this could only be deliberate. It’s as if someone sandpapered the surface until it was mottled and rough, without breaking a single thread.
This complex, organic texture is the essence of khadi, a catch-all term for traditional Indian cloth produced entirely without electricity: hand spun, hand woven, and hand finished. It’s unlike anything a modern industrial mill could produce. And it’s starting to get the international recognition it deserves: the infinite variations in khadi, once seen as a manufacturing limitation, are coming to be understood as a mark of its unique character. Likewise, as provenance has become a hot topic for everything from coffee to cashmere, there’s new appreciation for low intensity, small footprint production. What makes the story of khadi different is a cross-cultural dimension: many of the most interesting projects today have connections to Japan.
Handwoven fabrics have a special significance in Indian history—not only in craft tradition, but in the struggle for independence. As economic historian Sven Beckert explains in Empire of Cotton, domestic Indian spinning and weaving were suppressed by the British in the colonial period to protect the profits of mill owners, and so the handloom became a rallying symbol for self-rule. Yet khadi’s historical importance has also been a limitation in modern India: it’s long been seen as strictly a heritage product, suited to traditional formal dress but not modern fashion. But a new crop of brands and makers are proving that khadi can transform contemporary designs, subtly elevating casual shirting and bringing new levels of texture and complexity to workwear.
Amit Babbar founded ITOH in 2017 as a passion project after over a decade based in India working with Japanese brands and manufacturers. His brand offers long, airy shirts and workwear-adjacent outerwear in Indian craft textiles; its name derives from the Japanese ito, meaning thread. “I wanted to use 90% Indian fabrics in my collection,” Babbar tells me from New Delhi. “Handwoven fabrics have not done that well compared to denim from Japan because designers didn’t adapt,” he explains. It was tough, initially, convincing people to consider his products, since they seemed neither strictly traditional or straightforwardly modern, but an audience is steadily emerging. In recent years the brand’s been championed locally by Grazia India and Lifestyle Asia, and Indian luxury retailer Elahe launched a collection, This year he’s taking the brand to Pitti Uomo for the first time.
Part of the challenge has been to modernize khadi products while remaining faithful to traditional methods and makers. “Usually khadi fabrics are very flimsy and light. To make a good shirt we had to sit with our weavers in West Bengal and push them to make it more dense,” Babbar says. Hand weaving denser fabrics takes even more time, and ITOH pays nearly double the market rate as a result. The development process has taken years of work, but it’s yielding complex, beautiful fabrics that are both ancient and contemporary. “We’re not going to use Indian fabrics in a clichéd way,” he says. “We want to make for people who are fashion conscious. We have a clean, modern, very restrained ways of doing things.”