While it is easy to argue that the real roots of traditional hand embroidery are dotted all across the nation, with specializations of different styles in different cities and there is no refuting that argument. However, in the midst of the hustle bustle of an ever growing metropolis, where traffic is just one of the many problems, Mumbai has become home to a thriving industry that has been catering to innumerable luxury names for a good few decades now.
The city has become Mecca of Couture embroidery; even our local crop of Mumbai-based fashion designers, like Anita Dongre, Manish Malhotra and Payal Singhal, are all famous for the exquisitely creative use of heavy embroideries and embellishments in their clothes. It is this appreciation that brings thousands of highly skilled artisans and the country’s most creative lovers of the craft, together in this city.
Here is our two-part story, breaking down the recipe of exactly how Mumbai became the silent but proud crown-bearer of the finest and most innovative luxury hand-embroideries in the country.
AN INDUSTRY BUILT ON INTIMACY
Networking is the key to everything in fashion and that couldn’t ring more true for most of the major luxury manufacturing firms on the Indian scene. All across the board, it is observed that a pre-existent exposure to the international market was how everyone developed inkling towards this type of work. Vinod Shah, who started his enterprise Chanakya International in 1984, is now working with top notch companies like Gucci, Christian Dior and Alberta Ferreti. He had earlier worked for an international garment set-up where he gained valuable insight and experience that led to setting up his own unit, making use of the same contacts from the world of fashion.
Gayatri Khanna of Milaaya Embroideries started her career as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York right out of university, which is where she built a network with major brands in the city and it was these friendships that pushed her into exploring the embroidery scene. Combining her knowledge of fashion and access to the Indian artistry, she has now created a successful business that works with brands like Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen and Balmain. The business essentially started with her going door to door of small fashion houses in New York with a few embroidery samples that she had designed and created herself with the help of some local kaarigars back home in India.
Similarly, Mona Lalwani who started Marsil Exports around 36 years ago (1981), with a handful of artisans working in her living room, firmly believes in the power of ‘word of mouth’ promotions. According to her daughter Renuka, who has now joined the family business full-time weighs in, “Designers and creatives are very mobile. So, if a junior designer at high-fashion label moves on to another company, s/he is the one to take their name forward. We don’t need to publicize ourselves because it is important for the work to speak for itself.”
Vashishtha Exports was started by two partners Mustak Basirbahi Odiya and Ravindra Dilip Dhareshivkar in 2009, and both of them had extensive experience of the nooks and crannies of this world. Adding in to the industry’s common chime is that traditional trade fairs don’t really bring in any business because there is no place to showcase embroidery as such. Archana Odiya, the Design Head of the export house adds, “Normally, we contact brands and labels directly and sometimes designers will reach us through the website or by ‘word of mouth’ recommendations. We are also a registered member of the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce, which gives us a platform to attend annual events to display our work and have interactions with prospective clients from all over the world.”
Craftsmanship is synonymous with India’s long line of heritage and culture. The epitome of this age-old craft meets the summit of commercial application in the country’s financial capital: Mumbai. The city is a hub of hand-embroidery firms, both young and old, who meet benchmark quality standards and export to the biggest fashion houses in the Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear luxury market. “Somehow, the Bombay people just get it,” a sing-song of most of these luxury manufacturers, who have understood the exact demands of the market in terms of aesthetics, creative representation and timely deliveries.
CREATIVITY WILL SET YOU APART
India is one of the biggest exporters when it comes to fashion garments, therefore, we are no strangers to the process of creating fashion products for major international brands. The bigger chunk of our businesses works with fast fashion where research and design gets only a small portion of the production timeline. However, when we explore the luxury hand-embroidery industry, it becomes quite clear that research and development are major differentiators of how well you’re doing in this field. The one thing all the production teams agreed upon is the extensively collaborative nature of the design process.
Each firm has huge dedicated design teams – segregated sometimes on the basis of which country they are working for, or in more important scenarios; an entire team can be devoted to a single client as well. This ensures that even a young designer sitting in India is fully in tune with the luxury brand’s DNA, and really understands what the brands want and delivers well-suited results accordingly.
Brand identities over trends: We know that fashion is nothing but a depiction of the climate of our world, and nowhere else is it more important to stay updated of this weather than it is in luxury fashion. Being the front-runners of fashion apparel and accessories, Couture is where you look for inspiration; it is where dreams come to life. It does not need to make sense because it is aspirational, and designers essentially get to create a fantasy world here.
Hence, trend forecasts in the literal sense have a very small scope in the world of luxury. They are relatively less useful here as the brands and designers the embroidery manufacturers are working with are the actual disruptors, who are at the vanguard of the market creating the said trends, which are then analysed and forecasted for the retailers in high street segments. So in all, the essence of the term, luxury has to feel the ‘pulse’ of what is going on in the world and looking at just a forecast, simply does not cut it out.
Chanakya’s Nehal Shah avers, “Perhaps only with colour do we actually really focus on the forecast but even in that case, it really changes with every designer and his story. For example, if the forecast says pink, there are a thousand shades of that pink and how every client will interpret that shade is really definitive of his brand’s identity. So even though we will look at the forecast, it is rare that we would take it at the face value and actually abide by their prescriptions.”
So when trend forecasts are out of the window, it is the job of a good R&D team to keep innovating, and actually execute the wild ideas of Creative Directors using what all is available to them in the market and suggesting new, but practical ways of giving life to their imagination, using the age-old techniques of embroidery of course!
Archana, Design Head of Vashishtha Exports explains her design process saying, “We have 4 stages of just devising the perfect design, which takes about 6 months. This starts with our own swatches that are designed in-house with no correlation to what our clients might be doing for the season. Having created options from our own aesthetic understanding and research of the market, the partners will show these to the clients. After which, we hear back from the brands on what they liked and how they would like to incorporate the same in their collection and of course they are always supplying us with their inspirations on how to fine tune the designs to make sure everything goes together. Once all this is done and the collection has been presented on the runways, we get production orders on how many pieces needs, to be made, and so on…”
Design is a constant interaction and an intense partnership with the client. For Chanakya, the design process typically begins a year in advance. Even before the designer starts throwing his/her ideas at them and really explains where his/her mind is headed for the season, they are out and about trying to work on new ways of doing the same things and how to really keep the designer on his toes. Vinod adds, “Once the samples are created, the conversation doesn’t end till the garment is on the runway! Every day we receive around 45-50 couriers back to our office, with suggested changes and it is our duty to rework and return them on the same day. There is a maximum leeway of 3 days because beyond that it’s already too late. Timely response is where we excel and without it, you have no place in fashion.”
CONSTANT SEARCH FOR GOOD MATERIALS
The real expertise of creating luxury embroidery relies on finding the right materials to execute the design. You can have the most creative ideas and the best technicians but without the right materials like your crystals, beads, buttons, threads and the remaining embellishment paraphernalia – you essentially cannot accomplish anything. Hence, sourcing for good materials is in itself a great task of curation. Almost like playing the role of an art curator, the sourcing department is on the constant lookout for innovative and high quality materials.
Oft-times, the procurement process is not limited to one department and the top level leadership is also actively on the lookout for the next cool thing in embellishment, fabrics, or technique etc., from all over the world. Sourcing being an ongoing operation, most companies maintain their own vast Material Libraries which contain quality resources and textiles that have been laboriously collected over time from global material hubs. So, when a collection is being worked on, their personal library becomes the reference point and they will order larger quantities to the producers of these materials, depending upon the style requirements of the season.
However, the process of sourcing is not all that easy, a major complaint from Gayatri is the abysmal quality of materials in India. “I find it impossible to source anything from our local markets and my basic materials are from Chinese or Japanese suppliers who provide very consistent quality, and are much more reliable than the people back home. We do use occasionally the Indian beads and embellishments but it is only when the client is explicitly okay with it,” she explains.
An integral part of creating luxury, quality standards are an issue that really needs to be catered with utmost importance. You cannot just go to some market and grab something random at will. Everything needs to comply with the prosaic quality requests of the client. When it comes to international suppliers, for example Swarovski, be rest assured, the standards of quality are supreme. There, it is an easy process because they are already very careful about quality, but most of the time when working with India the setup is not always formally defined. And so many a time there is an added cost of sending materials to certification firms to get proper tested endorsement of their quality compliances.
Disagreeing with this norm, Renuka Advani, Managing Partner, Marsil Exports says, “Most of our sourcing is done from India and majority of it is from local markets in Mumbai. We firmly believe that you can get good stuff in the country. Typically, a client just gives us the colour palette and then we source accordingly with what is available to us and look internationally only if there are specific demands for the same.”
A recipe of inventiveness and resilience, if anyone can sustain the grind and actually come out as a winner of this craft; it is the Indian embroidery sector. No other nation offers the variety in skills together with refined labour that really understands the demands of luxury fashion houses in one place like we do.
So beyond all the creativity and curation, what our manufacturers of luxury embroidery in Mumbai have understood best is the execution of all this fancy. And having covered all the razzmatazz above, our next issue will document exactly what happens after the designs are conceived, and how are the Indian exporters winning this race of obstacles!