Acclaimed Bangladeshi designer Bibi Russell talks about ethical fashion, gamchas and more
Catching up with the celebrated Bangladeshi originator Bibi Russell turned out to be the splatter of sunshine we needed on an unseasonably cloudy May afternoon. We found Russell in amazing spirits, comfortably seated with a steaming cup of coffee, at the Director’s Room at NSHM Knowledge Campus, where she was invited to judge their annual fashion show, Vectra 2019.
“I actually got back very late last night, but I really wanted to come here for the students. Designers have to make space for the young. I know how hard I had to work as a student at the London College of Fashion. I had to do day classes as well as evening classes, as I didn’t have an O-level in art or designing, but I like to think I proved my mettle. Of course, my family was unimaginably supportive too. They let my feet touch the ground, and also let me do what I want. I remember my father bought me the Book of Chanel when I was very little, and that was a huge deal for me. It taught me the grammar of fashion,” she tells us.
Russell is so much more than just a designer and gamchha revivalist. She has been a tour de force for social development and women’s empowerment, and currently employs thousands of weavers across Bangladesh, as a part of Bibi Productions, a company that was completely self-financed by her. Bibi is also UNESCO’s Artist for Peace, and has worked to spread HIV awareness and helped trafficking survivors to develop skills to generate a sustainable income.
“I give only 10 per cent of my energy into designing because it comes so easily to me. I tell people that if I only wanted to design and open up shops all over the place, I wouldn’t have come back! I wanted to make a way for my people, who have been so exploited. I believe in fashion for everyone and sustainably produced pieces. The sari I’m wearing, for instance, is completely handmade, and just costs 700 bucks!” she adds.
Russell had a prolific international career before she decided to come back home in 1994. She was based in Italy for seven years and worked as a model for labels like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Armani. She also famously shared runways with supermodels like Iman and Jerry Hall. In February 1996, she showcased her first collection at the historic show titled, Weavers of Bangladesh, at the UNESCO headquarters. The show was in many ways instrumental in weaving gamchha into the global fashion narrative.
“When I was in Europe and we would go out, I would throw a gamchha over whatever I was wearing, be it denim or something else, and people would be like, ‘Wow, it’s so colourful!’ I believe certain things from your childhood stay with you. I have been seeing the gamchha since I was very little. It was such an empowering symbol of the Liberation War of ’71, it was the symbol of our independence, and it inspired me. When I came back, I saw the gamchha weavers were below the poverty line, and I wanted to lift them up,” remarks Russell. Russell has, of course, always been a trailblazer, be it in terms of her creations, her activism or her global presence.
While names like Antonio Banderas and Madonna have been steady Bibi loyalists, there have been naysayers too, especially people who never shared her vision. But the designer tells us that she has no regrets. “Fashion for me is culture; it’s something that should be there for everyone because everyone needs something to cover themselves up. I think it’s wonderful that there are so many ethical fashion creators now. I do want younger crowds to reach out and meet the middle market — they shop so much, and are always looking to explore. So, they are much better equipped to give diversity a chance,” the designer remarks.