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December 12, 2017
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The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan aims to preserve Bhutanese weaving traditions while developing economically. Source: vogue.in.

The pursuit of Gross National Happiness - balancing the spiritual with the material - is a way of life in the Buddhist nation of Bhutan. But Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has recently expressed concerns for the level of unemployment in the country.

"There are four issues that can compound to make matters extremely bleak: our ballooning debt that if we're not careful will not be sustainable; the big rupee shortage; unemployment, in particular youth unemployment; and a perception of growing corruption," said Tobgay. He told the BBC that while he agreed with the idea that "economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of development," he couldn't ignore Bhutan's more pressing social issues.

The Royal Textile Academy inauguration ceremony. Source: royaltextileacademy.org.
The Royal Textile Academy inauguration ceremony.
Source: royaltextileacademy.org.

But there is a shining light high above the Himalayas. In June of this year, the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan was inaugurated, and opened its doors to those interested in the conservation, training and exhibition of the country's textiles. With its second donation of $3 million, Ferring Pharmaceuticals has continued to support the academy.

"We are very keen that this major cultural initiative of preserving Bhutan's traditional skills and heritage continues, and that the commercial momentum which will enhance the quality of life and economic prospects of the weavers will be able to grow," said Michel Pettigrew, President of the Ferring Executive Board.

The traditional arts of weaving and textile construction are an integral part of Bhutanese culture. The Royal Textile Academy, located in the capital city Thimphu, was first established in 2005 by the fashion conscious Queen of Bhutan, Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck. At the inauguration this June, the Executive Director of the Academy, Rinzin O. Dorji thanked the Ferring Group: "This grant will not only benefit the weavers of Bhutan, [but] it will contribute to economic development in the region."

The Royal Textile Academy aims to create four platforms to continue and preserve Bhutanese traditions, as well as providing the local community with lucrative skills and employment. These four platforms include the Textile Museum, the Textile Conservation Centre and the Central Administrative Division, which hopes to expand with part of the Ferring funding.

The most significant platform, however, is the Textile School. Here, skilled weavers will train students in the art of weaving and yarn dyeing, as well as teach contemporary skills to build a future in fashion design.

Bhutan's Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck at the Royal Textile Academy Museum. Source: royaltextileacademy.org.
Bhutan's Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden
Wangchuck at the Royal Textile Academy Museum.
Source: royaltextileacademy.org.

The art of traditional dress is imperative in Bhutan. Despite lying between the industrial giants of India and China, there is a distinct lack of modern fashion in the country. This is due to the compulsory national dress code, known as Driglam Namzha. The traditional clothing in the country consists of the woman's kira, an ankle length woven dress often accompanied by a toego, a short jacket, and the male gho, a loose, long jacket tied at the waist. For daily wear these traditional items can be manufactured with machinery, but for more formal occasions, hand-woven garments are always worn.

These traditional skills were celebrated at the Academy's inauguration, as guests were invited to the fashion show "Window to Woven Dreams," featuring beautifully crafted and traditional Bhutanese clothing from Indian designers Ritu Kumar and Rajesh Pratap Singh, as well as six local Bhutanese fashion designers.

The Bhutanese textiles took on various forms as models walked out in tailored jackets, vests and voluminous skirts, trench coats and even strapless mini dresses. The show gave an opportunity for these aspiring designers, as well as 23 Bhutanese models, to showcase their talents. In designing her Bhutan collection, Kumar looked to these more traditional methods while maintaining a modern approach. "Working with Benaras silks, woven crepes, woolens and even jerseys, my idea was to come up with a line that draws from the ethos of the country," Kumar told The Indian Express.

Ritu Kumar's Bhutan Collection. Source: vogue.in.
Ritu Kumar's Bhutan Collection.
Source: vogue.in.

In addition to textile creation, the academy hopes to develop scholarship programs and internships, and develop exhibitions around the world. It also hopes to collect, document and house rare Bhutanese textiles and other elements of Bhutan's heritage. The academy is helping to find that all-important balance between the spiritual and material, maintaining traditional values while helping to expand the working opportunities for the surrounding community.

Bhutan ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, but in the last 20 years the country has experienced visible economic improvement. Maintaining the Buddhist ethos of environmental conservation, and allowing only a limited number of tourists into the country every year, Bhutan remains in a world drenched in mystery.

While the country may be behind on the global scale of economic development, its traditional values and its conscious preservation are what make Bhutan, in the eyes of many, the last Shangri-La.

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