Off the back of Dior momentous show under the arches of the historic Gateway of India monument in Mumbai, which saw creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri highlight the work of the artisans that the house has longstanding relationships with at The Chanakya School of Craft; as well as the much-anticipated opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Culture Centre, dedicated to showcasing the best in Indian creativity in the city, the Design Museum has opened a new exhibition bringing a glimmer of Mumbai and more broadly India to the streets of London.

“Woven from steel. Stitches from hand-distressed denim. Knotted, pleated or belted. Worn in protest, celebration, or simply on the daily commute. The off beat sari is the sari radically reimagined by designers, wearers and makers for a diverse, contemporary world,” reads the display’s opening notes. Charting the evolution of the garment by bringing together 60 contemporary examples of trailblazing saris, most of which are loaned from designers and studios across India, the exhibition beautifully presents saris as a site for design, expression, identity and resistance today.

At the opening, I meet associate curator Rashmi Varm, who also happens to be one of the designers featured in the showcase, “this is the first exhibition of its kind,” she tells me, “I’ve never seen an exhibition like this in or outside of India. It's a pivotal moment within fashion and material culture.”

She pinpoints her favourite inclusions, guiding me over to a projection playing a loop of six videos. The Sari Series documents 85 ways to drape the sari, “there are over 100 ways to drape that we can pinpoint and that are documented but the possibilities are endless really.”

A true celebration of draping and cloth the film highlights the sari’s customisable and sculptural ability. Rashmi points down at the sari she is wearing, “there are so many ways that you can pull, drape and tuck that it really just becomes your own thing,” she says, “you can drape and style the sari whichever way you want to, I do my whatever weirdness and it works for me. It's a mix and match of lots of different techniques.”

Next, we walk over to one of her own works on display, this time one I’d pointed out as a favourite. Her yellow silk cloth hangs draped from suspending beams. the trail of fabric attached to a cowl neck blouse. “Saris as we know it are an unstitched piece of cloth,” Rashmi says, “but as you can see the definition of the sari is expanding. We have saris that are now a part of constructed garments. Here, I’ve incorporated the blouse into the drape.”

Another stand-out piece is the first sari even worn to the Met Gala, donned by Indian businesswoman and socialite Natasha Poornawalla in 2022, the piece was designed by Sabyasachi, and styled with a gold, sculptural Schiaparelli bodice, which hovers around the embroidered gown like a halo. “It's a real showstopper,” she says, sure to garner a lot of attention.

I follow her around the winding space into a large room full of hanging sheets of fabric, the section that she mainly focused on titled ‘New Materialities’. She leads me towards one piece in particular, a hand-spun and woven natural fibre cloth called a khadi, presented over a lightbox so its true detail is illuminated in the dimly lit space. “This is the purest way of making cloth,” she says, “this piece would have taken about 7 to 8 months to make. For each line that you see, the artisan would have to stop and take a needle to create one line of the motif.”

We end our tour on a look featuring a gilded sash of steel that engulfs the mannequin and coils around and over a silk underdress. Designed by Rimzim Dadu, the sari is made up of hair-thin stainless steel wires, which are sewn together by machine to form a fluid and malleable pallu (the loose end of a sari) and bodice. “She loves to experiment with unusual materials. Of course, saris are largely about handcraft but it's exciting to see how new industrial materials and practices are becoming a part of it.”

This groundbreaking display comes just a matter of months after the opening of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s retrospective, making the Design Museum well worth a visit this spring to indulge in thought-provoking fashion and art shedding light on exciting – and often underrepresented – perspectives.

By Augustine Hammond