On 25 November 2021, the Shillong-based Daniel Syiem’s Ethnic Fashion House celebrated its 10th anniversary. Founded by fashion designer Daniel Syiem and his business partner Janessaline Pyngrope, the fashion label has played a pivotal role in the revival of Ryndia silk, which is extracted from the cocoons of the Niang Ryndia (Eri Silkworm) without killing it.
The core objective of this label is to safeguard and promote this heritage fabric hand spun and woven by the Khasi women of Ri-Bhoi district in Meghalaya, which gives Ryndia “the visual appearance of hand-spun cotton or wool with a muted sheen of silk”.
Daniel Syiem’s label makes high-quality ensembles largely for women in natural fabrics like Ryndia, cotton and linen without using any artificial chemicals to fix the colour. Instead, they use natural dyes drawn from items like turmeric, charcoal, various types of berries, tea leaves, onion peels and even cow dung. From Shillong to major fashion events in Mumbai, Bangkok, London and Toronto, Daniel has given this traditional and natural fabric an international platform.
When Daniel and Janessaline started this venture in 2011, the traditional Khasi practice of weaving Ryndia silk was enduring a slow death. Losing out to the fast-fashion ecosystem, it needed someone to understand the intrinsic value of the local weaving community’s work and offer better branding solutions to this sustainable, eco-friendly and traditional practice.
“Traditional weaving of Ryndia silk was a dying art form,” Daniel tells The Better India.
“Nearly all Ryndia spinners and weavers are women, who are sometimes single mothers supporting their families. Since there were hardly any markets for their products, these women were giving up on weaving and getting back to other professions like agriculture. There was a need to upgrade these products and put them up in the market,” he adds.
He says, “Thankfully, so much has changed within the weaving community in the past 10 years. There are women entrepreneurs now who have set up huge weaving stations in their villages, and they are exporting their products abroad. There is so much focus on Ryndia now, as compared to when we started. We take pride in that.”
Ever since he was a child, Daniel was passionate about fashion design. In his school notebooks, he recalls drawing sketches of dresses. After finishing high school in Shillong, he wanted to pursue a career in fashion design. But there were hardly any designers in the city and the fashion industry was more or less non-existent in Shillong and the Northeast as well.
Unwilling to take a risk of enrolling his son into a fashion designing school, his father suggested that Daniel take up a standard course while taking up fashion designing as a ‘hobby’. Majoring in sociology at St Edmund’s College in Shillong, Daniel began working towards his dream.
“It was only during my final year when I got a chance to participate in a fashion show organised at my college called Young Talent Time. That’s where I showcased my first collection, which was received well and got me selected to represent Meghalaya at a regional fashion designing competition. There, I won the North East Best Designer Award in 2000,” he recalls.
“I slowly started doing shows in Shillong, putting up collections and generating a small clientele here,” he says, adding that he also attempted a formal course but had to soon drop out due to unavoidable circumstances.
Amid all this confusion, he dabbled with other jobs like working at a call centre, driving a cab, waiting tables at Shillong’s first coffee shop, and then managing one of Shillong’s first nightclubs called Platinum. During his two-year stint managing this club, he met Tennyson Lyngdoh, an officer with the Sericulture Department, Government of Meghalaya, who was managing the weavers from Ri-Bhoi district.
“Tenny would come over to Platinum to party, but also knew about my short-lived career as a fashion designer. At the nightclub, he told me about how the department was looking for somebody to revive, protect and promote this heritage fabric called Ryndia. He would often ask me to come down and meet the weavers engaged in making this fabric. After much persuasion, I finally went down to meet these weavers. This event was a real turning point. Seeing them create this fabric, and understanding my passion for fashion designing, I knew this was it for me. This was now my cause,” recalls Daniel.
While getting more acquainted with the weaving community, he met Janessaline, who is currently the Business Head and Co-Founder of Daniel Syiem’s Ethnic Fashion House. At the time, she was working with the Meghalaya Rural Development Society and the Livelihood Improvement Finance Company of Meghalaya in Ri-Bhoi district (2009-10) to uplift traditional weavers and introduce new and safer weaving looms for them.
“I was never a fan of the fashion industry. Designer wear apparel never made sense to me. This thought process changed when I met Daniel. A humble person with no airs about him, I saw his creations up close and how wearable and sustainable they were. He was promoting ‘Slow Fashion’ years before it became a big deal. Amidst all this, we both fell in love with the Ryndia fabric produced by the women weavers of Ri-Bhoi district. This led to us coming together and establishing our label,” she recalls.
Their debut at the Lakme Fashion Week (Spring/Summer) in 2013 was a success with the Times of India reporting on 25 May, “Daniel Syiem, another emerging designer, showcased a collection that was minimalistic, yet elegant. From dresses to long flowy gowns in bright and earthy tones, the designer grabbed eyeballs for his creativity and design aesthetics.”
Despite their memorable debut, there were some real challenges at the start.
“Daniel focused on designing garments and apparel, but I had no technical knowledge or qualification to run a fashion house. We experimented a lot, went through a lot of trial and error, had bitter experiences trying to establish the Label ‘Daniel Syiem’ and faced a lot of criticism and lack of support from the government and private parties. The only thing that kept us going was support, love and encouragement from our family and friends, and the zeal and enthusiasm of the women weavers to produce the Ryndia fabric for us,” she says.
“Investments initially came from our savings and a couple of angel investors. As time went by, we created a niche market for ourselves, and gained people’s appreciation for our persistent promotion of a dying craft and reinventing livelihood opportunities of the weaving community,” she says.
Sourcing The Silk
In a short documentary on YouTube produced by Daniel Syiem about Ryndia, one of the weavers from Umtngam village is heard saying, “These butterflies lay eggs and from these eggs the Niang Ryndia (Eri Silkworm) hatches. We rear them in our homes all over this region. At this stage, the Niang Ryndia feeds on the leaves. After the silkworm has disposed of its bodily waste it climbs back up and begins the process of shedding its cocoon. Now for the covered Niang Ryndia we take out the insect from the cocoon, and then we can either choose to eat the insect or sell it off. The cocoon, however, is cooked to produce the yarn that is used for weaving.”
Techniques of spinning and weaving the yarn made from the Ryndia cocoon have been passed on from one generation to another. Women largely have to do the work of collecting the cocoon, spinning and weaving the Ryndia fabric. To improve the texture, sheen and colour of the silk, these cocoons are degummed by boiling them in an alkaline solution of soap, soda and water. Once this process is done, they are beaten into flat round strips and hung out to dry.
What eventually comes out is a fluffy white fibre, and that’s when the process of spinning it begins. Following this process, natural dyes are used and the fabric is woven.
“We source the fabric from the villages in Ri-Bhoi district, particularly from the villages of Umtngam, Birsik and Umkon. We source this fabric throughout the year, while the process of procuring natural dyes is largely seasonal except for the ones generated from turmeric, tea leaves and lac, among a few others. Since we source only hand-spun and hand-woven Ryndia (Eri Silk) fabric, our quantities are limited due to the natural processes and time taken to weave the fabric. On average, we acquire around 500 metres of vegetable-dyed Ryndia fabric annually. We work in the unorganised sector since most of our weavers are individual rearers and weavers. They come together when there is an order from the label and this is an internal understanding between us and the women weavers,” explains Janessaline.
Some of the women they engage with do the combined work of weaving and spinning. However, not all spinners are weavers and vice-versa. The label places orders with them, but doesn’t pay them a wholesale rate. “In my own way, I’m practising fair trade, giving them approximately 70% of the total revenue we generate through the sale of their products since they’ve done most of the work. After all, we are acquiring their finished products. Daniel puts his touch on these products, and we brand and market them. Since we work with authentic fabric, particularly concentrating on hand spun and hand woven, our production is quite limited, and thus our market is quite niche. We are not after mass consumption or commercialisation,” she adds.
The women we work with are not full-time weavers. They work part-time given they have other means of generating income like agriculture. The amount of finished fabric the label source is based on their availability and the ongoing farming season for their natural dyes.
“Every three months, however, I put forward our minimum requirement of 100-150 pieces of scarves and stoles and a certain amount of yardage for Daniel to make his apparel. Whatever are the available colours in that season, we ask them to bring along. Some colours are available throughout the year, while others are available on a seasonal basis. Those of seasonal nature, I order a lot more so that we have stock available throughout the year,” explains Janessaline.
Ryndia is often worn as a traditional shawl among the Khasi men and women. Over the years, Daniel has taken the fabric, worked with it and turned them into garments using their designs.
“Apart from shawls and stoles, we do garments as well, mainly for women, although we have some exclusive items for men’s wear. We also do some home furnishing and accessories. Just a metre of the Ryndia fabric would cost you Rs 1,800 to Rs 3,000 depending on the finish, colours and patterns we weave because it’s handwoven and we work with natural dyes. We price our garments depending on the design, the work we put on our garments,” says Daniel.
The label derives a lot of natural dyes from items like turmeric, charcoal, different kinds of berries, tea leaves and even cow dung. The colour generated from cow dung, for example, is beige-greenish, which is actually one of Daniel’s favourites. The signature styles they’ve used on Ryndia have also been incorporated on other fabrics like cotton, linen and cotton-linens.
“I take a lot of inspiration from the local attire of the women. For example, we have the Jainsen, which is essentially two pieces of fabric knotted or pinned on the shoulders. We have the Jainkyrshah, which is like an apron, but a single piece of fabric that is tied on the shoulders. I have taken a lot of inspiration from these local attires, but we are very limited when it comes to our traditional patterns and motifs. Having said that, there is always a significant contemporary twist to our designs,” he explains.
“Celebrating our 10-year anniversary, we have come up with our own Signature Collection. We selected10 of the best looks that our label has showcased over the years and incorporated them into the frontline using other fabrics besides Ryndia,” he adds.
One of the most common colours and design motifs is the check patterns they have in turmeric yellow and red. This is one of the main Ryndia patterns, which has been passed down from past generations. The men wear the plain Ryndia which is plain off-white, and the women wear the turmeric yellow and red traditional checks. Despite limitations when it comes to colours and patterns, the Ryndia fabric is so rich and versatile.
The label has a sizable clientele in Shillong, but since they’ve been doing shows all over the world, they also have clients in cities like London and Toronto. Along with the 10th-anniversary celebrations, they have finally launched their online portal as well. Beyond their online portal, however, their social media pages (Instagram, Facebook) are a source of many inquiries for their products. Meanwhile, they have their flagship store in Shillong.
And it’s Shillong where Daniel Syiem’s Ethnic Fashion House has generated the most impact. Since their origin in 2011, the local fashion industry has grown a great deal in the past decade.
“There are a lot of upcoming and established fashion designers here in the city who are doing so well. There is significant competition among them. The notion of wearing a designer brand in the city has gained greater acceptance. There is today a NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) in Shillong, and a lot of youngsters in the city are looking to fashion designing as a career now. When I am invited for talks in schools and colleges, many young people want to know how the fashion industry works. This is not just relegated to designing, but anything fashion-related like styling, make up or photography, a far cry from when I started. Fashion designers from Shillong are being recognised all over India. It’s safe to say that we have played an important role in these developments,” says Daniel.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)