Text by Avani Thakkar
If you are Vaishali Shadangule, the past few months have been nothing short of a whirlwind – fighting a severe spell of COVID-19, being selected as the first Indian female designer to showcase at the ongoing Haute Couture Week in Paris, whipping out a worthy collection in the midst of the second wave, pulling all-nighters with just half your team in town, and let’s not even get started on the logistics of travelling to the main event during a pandemic….
The designer entered the Indian fashion scene in 2001 with her eponymous label and a penchant for saris and bindis (her love for both is as exuberant as ever). “That was the time when no one was excited about handlooms or spoke about handloom fabrics in the way that they do now; in fact, many thought khadi wasn’t glamorous,” she reveals, instantly recollecting those days, decades ago, on our intercontinental WhatsApp phone call. Despite being at the receiving end of a flurry of criticisms, Shadangule stuck by her design sensibility, which remains indebted to tradition, and went all in with the ideas she trusted – a tremendous pursuit in a pressure-driven industry where popular opinion trumps individuality and cliques are difficult to break into.
The 43-year-old designer was at the vanguard of the movement to re-assert the power of the sari to the newly Westernised urban fashion consumer (much before #SariNotSorry became ubiquitous among influencers) and continues to be one of its biggest cheerleaders, unapologetically hailing it as the most modern, fashionable and sexy garment of all time. And while most people receive compliments for the vibrant colours or shiny embellishments when they don these versatile yards of textile, Shadangule’s eye is drawn instead to the humble yet defining features of the pleats (perfecting the art of a well-pleated sari is pretty much an extreme sport) and unique drapes of the pallu, both changing to give form to new silhouettes as you move across regions.
During our chat, each experience she recounts is preceded by an anecdote about “Mother Nature”, an indication of the intrinsic bond she shares with the environment that cannot possibly be reduced to simply that of a “designer and her muse”. Nature doesn’t play the role of a one-time “inspo” for Shadangule; it is a way of being, and the cyclical pattern of life and death in the natural world shapes the conceptualisation of her sartorial creations. “Rebirth” is the label’s latest Spring/Summer’21 collection, unveiled at the phygital edition of Lotus Make-up India Fashion Week (LMIFW). It includes an assemblage of asymmetrical silk shirts, capes and trousers that assume a heightened tactile quality with meandering Chanderi cords – the trademark Vaishali S detailing that bears resemblance to a tree’s winding branches. Her soon-to-be disclosed couture designs, too – which also invite reflections on nature – will showcase this patented element, because after all, it’s what makes her garments akin to wearable art.
On July 8, 2021, Shadangule will stamp luxury’s crème de la crème – Haute Couture Week – with the understated prowess of Indian textiles in front of a global audience that can now expand its perspective to make room next to Chanel and Dior for the equally impressive craftsmanship and singular aesthetic value of Vaishali S.
In an exclusive interview with Verve, she takes us behind the scenes of a thrilling aquatic adventure that influenced her debut couture collection, speaks about her travels across the country to witness centuries-old weaving techniques and reveals the relationship she shares with her close-knit team of karigars. Shadangule also delves into how the Indian way of living has always been rooted in sustainability, long before it popped up on every brand’s mission statement and questions the whereabouts of the recognition and support that our artisans have been owed for decades. Read the edited excerpts below….
First of all, congratulations! What emotions are you experiencing right now?
Thank you! I’m excited, but I also feel the weight of a huge responsibility on my shoulders because this is an opportunity for me to show to the world what India is capable of, despite being in the midst of a challenging period.
Can you give us an insight into what inspired your upcoming couture collection?
Nature is undoubtably the inspiration, although imbibing it in my work isn’t a new approach for me. I remember creating a garment in college with a simple square piece of cloth and some string: think of the former as your body and the latter as life. If you connect the two, it becomes a wearable garment.
My previous collections have also revolved around nature, but this year something different happened. Upon testing positive for COVID-19 in April, I realised the importance of breathing and how little we think about it. Every breath we take is filling our bodies with life. Hum ko kuch karna nahin hota uske liye – you don’t have to breathe consciously or dedicate special attention towards this act.
Similarly, nature works for us involuntarily, and we don’t have to do anything. The environment is an extension of our bodies – it would be impossible to carry out respiration without it. In fact, this is one of the earliest lessons taught to children at school – we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. So if you’re damaging nature, you’re essentially damaging yourself. Whatever is happening today in the world, be it the pandemic or climate change, it is humans that have created this disaster. In the past few months, so many COVID-19 patients have been unable to breathe, many suffocating to their deaths due to lack of oxygen, both in India and overseas; I can’t help but feel that this is nature’s way of giving us a warning.
Going through the sneak peek of designs that you’ve shared with us, it seems that the underwater world and its beauty also found its way into your thoughts when putting this collection together.
Yes, I did a diving course in Maldives in 2019 that opened up a miraculous, magical world for me. Before going underwater, my instructor explained how to breathe, the amount of oxygen available in the cylinder and the maximum depth we can reach with it. But once I was down there, the only thing I could hear was my own breath. Every inhale you take is with a certain degree of consciousness, and my couture collection, named “Shwas” [the Sanskrit word for “breath”], is influenced by this life-changing experience along with my fascination with nature in general.
The fabrics used in this collection are a mix of weaves from all over India, and the textures resemble nature’s way of being; the entire process from fabric sourcing to final touches took around six months.
Carrying out a full-fledged photo-shoot underwater must have been quite challenging. Could you tell me more about it?
To do full justice to my couture collection, I decided to venture back underwater in the Maldives and photograph my garments amongst real coral, shrimps and sharks. Two PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] with underwater naturalist certifications handled the styling whilst my friend shot everything with an underwater camera – it was a fun and spontaneous process.
Upon laying out each garment, we noticed small fishes were attracted to them, swimming their way towards the clothes. I like to think that perhaps they thought my designs were real coral, which makes me so happy!
Pardon me for going all Bollywood, but your sea-diving experience suddenly reminded me of that one scene from the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), where Hrithik Roshan is terrified to go diving with his friends in Spain but eventually overcomes his fear and has the time of his life….
[Chuckles light-heartedly.] Although my experience sounds similar to Roshan’s in ZNMD, it was actually completely different. I don’t even know swimming and my instructor found that incredibly hard to believe. I still remember her exclaiming, “No way, I don’t believe that you’ve never swum in the sea!”
But yes, once you’re 30 feet under, it is a different world altogether, and I was hypnotised. My body just moved naturally. The daunting fact that I don’t know swimming vanished from my train of thought and was replaced by the stunning visuals before my eyes – colourful corals, the line of fishes swimming past – and the mesmerising silence all around. Full disclaimer: this feeling didn’t last because the second time around I was definitely scared. Either way, I enjoyed the whole adventure beyond words.
After hearing this, I think I need to add sea diving onto my bucket list.
Trust me, everyone needs to try this once in their life.
As a creative person, what was the best part about working on this collection?
The complete freedom to explore whatever you want in couture is unlike any other. I felt very liberated because there are no restrictions, so one can expect to see some classic Vaishali S creations with an experimental and artistic twist. If you’re bored of the garment after, say, wearing it 10 times, then you will probably repurpose it as wall-art or decor because it will be impossible to discard – a testament to the level of intricate embroidery and attention to detail that has gone into putting “Shwas” together.
My design philosophy hasn’t changed, and I’ve tried to minimise wastage during production wherever possible and was conscious about using every bit of the fabric. I rarely think about the business and strategy side of things while designing, otherwise it would be impossible to create.
How did you manage to work with your team of karigars and weavers on-ground throughout pandemic-induced lockdowns or restrictions?
We would regularly interact via phone conversations and video calls, but when the lockdown struck, a lot of karigars went back to their villages to reunite with family and ride the second wave out at home. Despite this setback, I decided to work with the 14-15 people who had stayed back by providing them with stay and food at my Kala Ghoda store in Mumbai.
To ensure safety, we conducted COVID-19 tests for everyone prior to this and only then put our heads together, working for weeks at an end. Weavers are like my family; they know exactly what I want. Our day would start at around 8.30 a.m. and end at midnight; it was a tough yet rewarding experience. My resilient team of karigars was supportive throughout, and I couldn’t have done it without their dedication.
It’s so heart-warming to hear about the special bond with your design team, especially at a time like this, when Indian artisans and craftsmen are severely underpaid (or not paid at all) and subjected to unfair working conditions by a number of fashion brands.
Well, I’ve tried to support my karigars to the best of my ability by providing extra wages and advance payment. The work never stopped because I told my team that they could also work from home.
What was the application and selection process like when applying to showcase at Haute Couture Week?
The more collections I showcased, the urge to take Indian weaves to the international platform grew. Even though I had done five seasons of New York Fashion Week, I felt it wasn’t enough. Where else could I spotlight India’s craftsmanship and textiles? Haute Couture Week is the biggest stage that comes to mind and my team encouraged me to apply, and so I did in September 2020.
The selection process was carried out virtually, but it was lengthy and difficult. I had convinced myself that I probably wasn’t going to get through this year…. Fortunately, the good news was delivered on my birthday, April 29, and I was ecstatic – this is the best gift I could have wished for.
What is something you want to stand for as an Indian designer presenting on an international platform?
Whenever anyone talks about Indian fashion, they just remember our embroidery, but I want to highlight so much more, like the silhouettes, textures, fabric, and, most importantly, design. It’s important for me to showcase the beauty in the balance of everything we create.
India contributes so much to this industry design-wise, but our artisans are always hidden behind-the-scenes and are never in the spotlight. Why are we absent from the mainstream conversation around luxury? The West steers the boat of trends, and we often follow them blindly. “Luxury” essentially means handcrafted, and which country other than India can offer impeccable quality craftsmanship? Why are international designers and labels using Indian embroidery and profiting off of it? I feel like we don’t give enough credit to the sheer amount of talent present in our country.
India is the most fashionable country, period. Look at our rich history of costume and jewellery – we’ve always paid attention to what we wear from head to toe; there are uncountable options on hand for accessories, headgear and silhouettes. Forget about women, look at men – even the sheath or scabbard that covered their swords came in ample styles and colour variations.
One can even take fashion education as an example; it’s a relatively new concept that also borrows its ideals from the West. Students are often asked to keep track of trends; I believe the term is “trend forecasting”. Why is that necessary? Our karigars don’t have access to any trend forecasting tools like WGSN or information regarding Pantone Color of the Year, but they still come up with the most distinctive colours and motifs. The best inspiration will always come from nature and from within ourselves; one just needs to take a moment to connect with the two.
It’s been a while since physical fashion shows have taken place. Have you missed them? What goes through your mind before and after a show?
Experiencing garments physically is so important; call me old-fashioned, but I can’t do without the touch and feel factor. Especially in couture, eyeing the incredible details up-close is what matters. I’m still quite wary and unaccustomed to the online world.
On D-day, I’m too busy to pay attention to my emotions and don’t feel anything until it’s all done. I guess you could say that I’m not nervous but I’m holding my breath…. I have enough confidence in myself that it won’t all go wrong because the energy around me is positive.
What is your relationship with Indian handlooms, and how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve grown up watching my mother wear Chanderi saris, and that’s the fabric I connect with the most. Its feel and touch is very close to me, and I was curious to find out how such a beautiful fabric was crafted by hand. So I visited Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh to watch artisans at work first-hand, tying it into a thousand threads on the loom and then deftly weaving without any knowledge of advanced mathematics or geometry.
They sit for seven hours straight, working on the loom, and when we wear the end result, it’s almost like we’re wearing the energy that they have transferred onto the cloth – which imparts a comforting warmth. That got me thinking about the hundreds of villages around the country that specialise in one particular weaving style, and how distinctive it is to that region. I started travelling and went to Maheshwar to work with Maheshwari fabric; to the North-East for its Mekhela and Kesa Paat; West Bengal for its famous Jamdani and Murshidabad fabrics as well as several others including Paithani and Khun. Think about it, every 25 kilometres you travel in India, the silhouette of the fabric changes – how amazing is that!
I really enjoy discovering new weaves and the lifestyle of weavers; what they eat, I eat. Buzzwords like “sustainability” and “circularity“ are being coined now, but they have been a way of life in our villages for decades. Since my childhood, I’ve been taught not to throw away things and to reuse or upcycle them for as long as possible. We used to get only two new pairs of clothes each year that became “home” clothes when the newness wore off and then ultimately turned into cleaning cloths. Mummy ki sari jab tak nayi hai tabtak pehno, phir uske parde bana denge [Let mom wear her sari while it’s still new, then we will make curtains out of it].
What is the one thing you wish you had known before starting your journey in this industry?
Probably how to “behave” in the fashion industry and network.
Any parting words?
I feel really lucky to have roots in Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh; my love for nature, understanding of basics and earliest memories of fashion are all associated with that city.
Over time, I also explored the international fashion scene, including London, New York and now Paris, which allowed me to gain a well-rounded perspective on style and how it differs from culture to culture. Luxury sirf kehne ke liye nahin hai [luxury isn’t just for the sake of saying] – you need to study it, explore it and truly understand its essence.
I’ve reached a stage where I can proudly claim to have been through all the ups and downs in this industry but learnt invaluable lessons along the way.