Mumbai Wears The Halo Of Haute Couture
This Indian company is embellishing garments for Gucci and Margiela
Discreetly but proudly, Mumbai wears the halo of haute couture.
A tide of workers heading home in this crowded Indian city, cars honking, trucks painted with vividly as the colours of the saris, cows wandering past makeshift stalls, and then POW! A serpent wrapped around a tiger fighting for its life.
Karishma Swali and Monica Shah's Indian family company Chanakya creates couture embroidery for designers across the world.
"My father, Vinod Maganlal Shah, started the business in 1984 to bring the finest craftsmanship to the world - and we have been working with fashion houses in Italy for a long time."
- Karishma Swali | Managing Director for the family company Chanakya.
(also the sister-in-law of Monica Shah)
Suzy Menkes : "So I have traced my Gucci tiger to Mumbai and the Chanakya family-owned embroidery business that Alessandro Michele loves.
"I think what brought all of us here is wanting to keep the art alive"
- Karishma Swali
Chanakya combines treasured historical pieces with real gold thread from the era of Mughals and Maharajas and the modern handwork. This included embroidery work in three-dimensional pieces from recycled tins, foam mattresses, and even DVDs cut into fine strips. The rubber, silicone, and industrial materials reappear as high fashion in the collections of Maison Margiela or Gucci's "Go Green" collection (which is part of its parent company Kering's Science Based Targets Initiative to reduce its greenhouse emissions).
"We have always been passionate about 'Go Green', so we used different recycled materials - for example, Coke cans that we flattened and cut up - and Moschino produced a huge collection all with recycled materials. Margiela does it with passion - they make sure they have it season after season. they hound us!"
- Monica Shah
Since the two women have their own brand, Jade - using the family's people skills to create fashionable clothes and serve the vast Indian wedding market - they understand the demands of international high fashion and have built relationships with leading designers. Going back more than two decades in the case of Maria Grazia Chiuri, now the Artistic Director of Christian Dior. Grazia started working with India 28 years ago, when she connected with Chanakya's founders.
Interesting that it looks very much like Middle East pattern and embellishment. Metal trinkets have shapes and patterns same as Bedouin Jewellery.
"They are so special because they are such a good image of India - they love the handwork and they care about recycling. They work hard to study, to understand European culture. I'm sure you have sat in the studios where the men are and they don't look like they are overworked - they look quite happy."
- Maria Grazia
Adding that the family's Jain religion was another source of interest to her.
The embroiderers work entirely by hand with the most sophisticated techniques, and over the years designers have learnt to trust them implicitly.
"They understand my requests, which are always very specific and precise, and more often than not they come back with embroideries that exceed my original expectations. Chanakya has such a natural sense of colour and a talent for use of materials, which shines through their exquisite creations. I feel it must be an innate part of their rich culture."
- Maria Grazia
The family-owned Indian company has built more than a relationship with Italian designer. It has an office and showroom in Bologna, which includes some displays of heritage garments to give a visual understanding of the subcontinent's rich and rare history in lavishly embellished clothing. There is also a display area in New York, where Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch have shown interest.
The Chanakya family is thinking about how to support embroidery in India, and will fund a school either in Bengal (where most of their embroiderers come from) or in the village of Kutch. This is their ancestral home of Gujarat, in western India, where craftsmen have not recieved much exposure to international design.
Sewing bead embroideries for Alberta Ferretti.
"So far the embroiderers are all men but women are now ready to start, not only from their homes, but also officially. I am excited to do something where kids can get an education, but we also get embroidery. Sadly, we have a lot of grandfathers and fathers, but their sons are moving on to computers and technology. The artisanry is getting lost. So we are determined to do something by 2018."
- Karishma Swali
"You will not believe how fashion-forward the village women are, their patterns, colours, and designs you could use today. And they won't think twice before telling you if things work. Say a colour is not a good idea and sticking to aubergine and orange! If you gain their respect and they see you're there for them, they are incredibly open and happy to learn new techniques."
- Karishma Swali
Embroiderers at work in Mumbai. This is traditionally the world of the Indian male, but Chanakya wants to start a school to train girls.
In any case Chanakya is short of new recruits, Karishma's 10 year-old daughter is already on-message. She comes each Saturday and helps teach the children of the embroiderers to make their own handwork - the ultimate example of Indian family companies keeping the flag flying.