Touching down in Bhutan, one of the first things that travellers notice is the prevalence of the traditional national dress. On any given day the streets will be scattered with people proudly sporting the distinctive attire, which comes in a rainbow of colours and patterns.
However, Bhutan is at a moment of pivotal change, with modernity creeping in, literally, at the seams. Influences from Western, Indian and Japanese fashion in particular are becoming ever more common, especially in bigger cities and among the young. But does that mean the national dress is destined to become a relic of Bhutanese past? Is fashion in Bhutan evolving?
To get a sense of how the Bhutanese attitudes are changing when it comes to fashion and the national dress, we spoke to Geymit Lepcha, the entrepreneur behind Bhutanese clothing label She Bhutan. The brand uses local Bhutanese materials and weaving, one of Bhutan’s 13 national crafts, and applies these to modern styles. Geymit sees She Bhutan as way to empower women and bridge the gap between tradition and modernity.
Based in Thimphu in the ground floor of Le Meridien hotel, She Bhutan“celebrates contemporary femininity while promoting the traditional Bhutanese textile.” Pieces include bomber jackets and cropped coats that can be tailored to each client, which are made with “Yathra, a textile woven using yak wool and sheep wool”. Yathra is one of the thirteen traditional crafts of Bhutan, which are considered an essential part of Bhutanese heritage. They were identified under the fourth ruler of Bhutan in the 17th century yet continue to thrive today. As Geymit puts it, “It is very important for us Bhutanese to keep our tradition and culture alive with the changing world and modernization. The textiles industry is an integral part of Bhutanese [life].” On an Experience Travel Group holiday, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore the thirteen traditional crafts in a way that feels immersive and insightful.
For Geymit, it is “very important to use our local material because that is what differentiates us and makes our designs unique with the rest, as well [promoting] our culture and textiles. Our textiles give a fresh and modern touch to my designs.” In addition, using local products “keeps the prices reasonable for locals to be able to afford our products” – though she has a large number of international clients, Geymit feels it’s important to “encourage more of the locals to wear Bhutan made clothes and designs”. For the Bhutanese, protecting their heritage and national identity is of critical importance, as feeling connected with your Bhutanese identity is considered pivotal to happiness.
Geymit’s concept of “contemporary designs with a traditional touch” is a clear evolution of the national dress, rather than a total departure from it. It was first introduced in the 17th century, and was enforced as a strict uniform in 1989. Though the laws have softed considerably since then, it is still mandatory to wear national dress in government offices, schools and monasteries, and plenty of people choose to wear it on casual occasions too. For men, this is comprised of the Gho, a wraparound robe usually worn belted and cut at the knee, while women wear a Kira, a long-sleeved colourful jacket and sari-like skirt.
These days, national dress is not seen so much as a strict uniform, but a way in which people can express their individuality. There is no limit on the colours and patterns that can be used to create the garments; as Geymit puts it, “we have a very rich colours in our textiles which can help people in expressing their personal style.”
Geymit does feel as through “attitudes towards national dress may change in the future if the younger generations are not kept updated about our tradition and culture”. But said, as of now she feels that “people truly respect our national dress”. She is proud to contribute to the development of the Bhutanese fashion identity and help preserve the culture, with a modern twist. In her own words, “I understand style is a statement. And wearing [Bhutanese clothing] makes people different from the rest”.
So fashion in Bhutan might be evolving but is still very Bhutanese…