— Jasmeen Dugal
Having grown up seeing her mother wearing beautiful traditional weaves and gradually realising its immense possibilities, Vaishali Shadangule left the small town in Madhya Pradesh to study textile design in Bhopal and open a store in Malad, Mumbai with a bank loan of INR 50,000. Here, she updated Indian weaves Jamdani, Paithani, Maheshwari, Chanderi and Kand with silhouettes relevant to the modern consumer… and there's been no looking back since. Today she employs several thousand artisans', has a flagship in Kala Ghoda and continues to work with weaver clusters in Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra and Bengal to handcraft globally relevant ensembles. A truly sustainable story. In conversation with the designer on the eve of her flagship opening in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.
Vaishali, congratulations on your flagship. Do share a core ideology that has stayed with you from the inception of your label till 2020.
Thanks a lot! It is extremely exciting!! You know well that I have always been inspired by the beauty and simplicity of Indian weaves and by the dedicated vision of its weavers. Since the early years of my life, I have seen these weaves worn by village women, for everyday activities. They are comfortable, sustainable and beautiful. My love for design and experimentation has done the rest — trying to give them a more global language, with huge success from the most picky audiences of catwalks around the world, particularly New York and Milan. My inspiration is still the same, and I am now at that stage in my career, where I believe the time has come for India to embrace a global outlook albeit steeped in our beautiful fundamentals. This is the reason of my strong focus on India. And the reason I have opened a store in Kala Ghoda, a district that is the first of its kind in India and mimics the shopping districts of European towns.
Vaishali, you have always worked with traditional weaves i.e. Jamdani. Paithani. Kand. Maheshwari. Chanderi and made an honest revivalist effort by living and working with rural clusters. What inspired you at a time when "sustainability" was not a buzz word?
Village life, where all the activities are dictated by the mood of nature, has always been my inspiration. Local weaves, designed by my sensibilities, are steeped in inspiration in Nature and its constant rebirth and mutation flow. You would be amazed to know how people have studied algorithms that can decipher the mood and state of mind of weavers while crafting a specific weave. This is why I love to go and sit with them when they begin working on a fabric: I feel each weave has something of me laced in it, and that sets the feelings, that particular piece will have. Can you go differently than that path once you have discovered all of this?!
You have a edgy design aesthetic steeped in sustainability, hand craft and uplifting rural clusters. How do you balance wearability with a two-pronged vision to innovate design and sustain clusters?
Sustainability, for me, is a way of living that connects us to the past and… to village life! Village women wear beautiful weaves for routine daily tasks because their are most comfortable. That is where I started and where I still belong. Yes, in this path of discovery, of innovative design, my draping skills have developed and grown with each adventure. Although, I admit, I have always been at the cutting edge of draping… it has always been part of my design aesthetic. I spend hours draping. All my garments are almost free of stitching. This allows my design to literally flow on the body of a woman, enhancing her freedom of movement and ease of wearing them. You would be surprised how my designs, despite their intricate sumptuous look, are much easier to wear, and to carry, than other garments. This is not all, though. While my ensembles are perfect for a red carpet soiree, you can also style it differently so it can be worn during the day. I offer a multi-faceted element in each piece I design. While our capes can be a statement piece, we also offer jackets that meet the daily needs of a working lady. This is taken to the extreme with our bridal wear, where the bridal ensemble can be worn as separates in daily wear. This takes care of creativity and wearability and also of sustainability.
What were the stumbling blocks with weaver clusters when designing contemporary motifs and textures? How do you balance it with the pace of market demand and supply?
There were no stumbling blocks with weavers, ever. I have always had a very good relationship with them and found them to be cooperative and open minded. With many of them, I didn't even have a common language; nevertheless we I was understood well. I come from there, I love weaving; we speak the common language of weaving. If we talk about stumbling blocks I can cite difficulty in some areas to find hand weavers, as all traditional techniques are being used on power looms. The rare hand weavers are in a gloomy mood, and despite some not understanding what I was asking for, were keen on experimenting and happy to get creative with the motifs, in some cases. I still follow my own pace, with each garment laced with very personal feelings. While the demand is increasing, especially overseas, my focus has been to increase my team with people that actually translate my culture and mindset into design. As for weaving, I have increased the number of families dedicated to my collections. It is now more than a thousand. At the same time I add new weaves, and thus villages and states,with each collection — always keeping in mind to sustain the old ones.
India's rich handicraft legacy has vast potential under the right stewardship. Your dedication is such you stay with artisans while they're weaving for you. Do share the vision.
I do believe a lot in sharing a common experience with the weaver. By sitting with them on the loom I can feel part of me being translated in each weave. At the same time they are the depositary of ancient techniques, and when they really manage to understand my new design language they are able to innovate in the motifs themselves, while keeping the roots of the technique in protection. They just need to be guided well. I believe that the depth of our culture and the intricacy of our textile crafts is India's wealth. I hope no one starts to take shortcuts. In this endeavour of supporting traditional weaves, though, we must take into consideration that these craftsmen need to make a living too. By teaching them and making them connectable, they can manage to skip intermediaries that retain 95 per cent of the value of the weave. Their art and recognition is therefore enhanced, and at the same time, they get their share of the value chain. I believe they must be guided properly, upgrade their design sensitivity and combine it with a financially savvy approach! As of now most of them don't even have the money to buy their own threads!
In the past three years what are the initiatives you've taken as a designer to empower rural weavers?
Due to the way I work with them, they have managed to make a better living, eventually proposing their weaves to other clients and have been recognised for their skill and art; many women have come back to the looms thus gaining dignity and financial independence. On my end, I make sure to strongly promote villages I work with, and to keep their weaves in my future collections, therefore sustaining hundreds of families.
What would be your advice to those of us who want to shop more responsibly or build an ethical wardrobe?
Buy Indian weaves! It is beautiful and respectful to the environment. Maybe slightly expensive, but stand the challenge of time both in terms of trend and quality. Indian ensembles are so beautiful that you don't need different collections for different seasons. Good hand weaves stand up to these challenges and would make you feel better while wearing them.
Lastly, what are your expansion plans?
I have quite a good footprint overseas now, in the US, and partially in Italy. Right now I would like to start making a difference in India, becoming one of the elements of change of the modern Indian woman. The one that understands traditions but at the same time wants to be more in sync with global trends. One that understand sustainability and the need to change our approach to life in a more responsible way. One that wants to dress in a stylish impactful way but at the same time needs to work, travel, go out yet be in touch with our traditions. I believe India is at the verge of this positive revolution. In order to do this I need more visibility — thus my coming back to Bombay and Delhi shows — and my flagship where women can understand my message. That is why this store is so important. I have collected all the wood myself from the dumping grounds, I have cut and chiseled it with my carpenter, I have mixed and spread the mud and cow dung we used for some of the walls and on the floor. For example, in the garments showcased there, in the interiors, in the furniture, you will feel the flow of my energy steeped in Nature. This is a global phenomenon, which we as Indians can deploy better than anybody. Thus my expansion plans include a stronger presence in the US and Italy, and possibly a couple of other European countries. These are places where our unique knowledge, attention to detail, design and attention to environment, are appreciated and where we Indians can make a real mark.