Bold and confident, the new Indian woman travels the world with aplomb. She swears by the latest fashions. Skimpy clothes cause her no discomfort. But on the beach or by the pool, a Victorian inhibition convulses her, making her shy. The moment it’s time to put on a swimming costume, the cultural taboo against showing too much skin presses down on her like a boulder.
Her dilemma? She wishes to be appropriately dressed for the beach while retaining some modesty. The answer is a new garment called the “bikini-sari”, a revolutionary little number created by the New Delhi-based swimwear designers Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja.
It’s a swimming costume to which two to three metres of light, fluid, sari-like fabric has been added. The garment allows you to lounge in the water and feel cool, but also drape parts of your body with the loose fabric in a variety of ways.
Wrapping it around a mannequin in their basement office in Haus Khas Village, a bohemian enclave in Delhi, Kukreja and Bhatiya, both in their late 20s, demonstrate its versatility.
Drape it to show your shoulders or midriff, or only your calves if you wish. Bhatiya folds it this way and that; whichever way, the bikini-sari looks fantastically elegant.
The genesis of the bikini-sari came from a phone call the two designers received one day from a woman in her 40s. “She was a size 14 and went on a cruise every year and had always worn Indian clothes,” recalls Kukreja. “This made her totally feel out of it. She wanted to wear more appropriate clothes like everyone else but she wanted us to come up with something different.”
They took up the woman’s challenge, having the right qualifications for the job: they are both graduates of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi. A scholarship enabled them to pursue higher studies in Italy at the Istituto Europeo di Design. Back in India, they launched India’s only luxury swimwear line, Shivan & Narresh, filling a gap in the market.
So they got down to tackling the request for the unique garment. Once they had worked out the design, the two had to make it work technically. If they used swimwear fabric, the sari part would be too heavy. If it was made from fabric that was too light, the water retention would not be right.
“We told our Italian supplier that we needed fabric that was light as georgette and chiffon but all right for swimming,” says Bhatiya. The fabric they settled on is ultra-soft and light, the same material used for inner wear lining.
They were delighted when the woman called them up from her latest cruise trip, “telling us she looked so beautiful in it that her husband had fallen in love with her all over again”. But why does a woman need a bikini-sari when she can cover herself up with a sarong or a beach wrap? The reason is that she cannot get into the water in those two pieces – they absorb water and crease.
“The entire garment is water resistant and doesn’t crease when it gets wet, yet it makes a woman look graceful all the time,” explains Kukreja. “You can slather suntan lotion and creams on it and it won’t stain.”
The bikini-sari has become an instant hit among Indian women who are prepared to pay around US$700 (Dh2,570) for a bespoke garment. Nor is it remaining confined to pools or beaches. The Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu wore it recently to a film awards ceremony, with not a drop of water in sight. Some others wear it to nightclubs, with a belt.
A surprise to the designers was that most of their customers were over the age of 35; they had expected them to be younger. “These are women who had practically stopped swimming. Whatever they bought while travelling abroad didn’t fit their body type and were too revealing. What suffered the most was their confidence,” says Kukreja, explaining that Indian women have shorter torsos, fuller bodies, wider hips and smaller shoulders compared with European women, which is why ready-to-wear clothes don’t offer them the perfect fit.
After the success of their Delhi store, the two men have recently opened a shop in Mumbai. They say they also have plans to turn their attention to the Middle East, where a similar cultural imperative is at work.
• Visit www.shrivannarresh.com