While textile and fashion designer Anupama Bose is known for her embroidered creations, her innovative leheriya line is also making waves!
How far back can you trace your passion for textiles?
I was born and brought up in Shekhawati, Rajasthan. My parents were both medical doctors and extremely busy people. My siblings and I spent a lot of time at our ancestral painted ‘haveli’ in a joint family of 21 children and assorted adults. It was during those lazy afternoons in the ‘chowk’ that I was introduced to embroidery by my grandmother.
When I was five, my parents were transferred to another district and I found myself in a nuclear family. In order to keep us occupied, my mother taught us how to knit and embroider. This led to learning to sew on an antique hand operated sewing machine and by the time I was eight, I was the only kid in class who was wearing hand sewn cotton slips trimmed with lace, embroidered with lazy daisy flowers and bullion knot roses.
At eight I left for a boarding school in Ajmer, where needlework was compulsory. I graduated from embroidering handkerchiefs and slips to macramé, mirror work, cross stitch, patchwork and Mexican blackwork embroidery. The nuns taught us that the back of the textile matters more than the front and that was a lesson never forgotten. By this time I was also painting and drawing voraciously. Drawing became a tool for expression and catharsis at the same time. During school holidays we would always have needlework projects. I would do my own drawing and then embroider it. Later, my father gifted me a twin needle Singer machine with embroidery attachments. I couldn’t have asked for a better toy! Such was my obsession with textiles and sewing my own clothes that I would cut up my mom’s old saris to make lehengas. I’m probably the only 19-year-old who went shopping for elastics in the USA so I could sew my own silk undies!
Tell us about your design journey.
At 17, I was packed off to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad for a Master’s in Industrial Design. I had never heard of the place, and I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a doctor. But my mother would have none of it and the “you’re so good with your hands” line was thrown at me again and again until I relented. National Institute of Design opened my eyes to seeing and drawing in ways I couldn’t imagine. My 47-year-old brain cannot comprehend why my 17-year-old self went around counting bricks on the wall to draw a perspective. Walking around with a sketch book and a 6B pencil sharpened to impaling point was all the rage then. What was a bored designer to do in those days? Draw!
Over the next four years I explored pretty much every textile technique. Every trip to the Calico Museum put me more in love with Indian textiles and techniques. My time was spent weaving, printing, exposing screens at Arvind Mills, standing in a vat of goat dung and curd, preparing fabrics for vegetable dyeing, making graphs for jacquard looms and answering questions from pesky product designers who crossed our open textile design studio. Five years of voicing one’s design sensibilities and taking critiques from faculty and peers, and exploring every option available in design, color, technique and ethics prepared me for the work I do now.
How was the experience of working with Tarun Tahiliani?
My diploma project at Tarun Tahiliani’s studio was an extended class on fine Indian hand embroidery the likes of which National Institute of Design had never introduced me to. I learned embroidery techniques from master embroiderers, sitting with them on the looms in the chawls of Mumbai. The next five years were spent with Tarun in establishing his Delhi design studio and over the years I graduated to handling all his bespoke business as Head of Couture. A free hand in dealing with international, well-heeled and well-traveled customers and young embroiderers gave me exposure to world class finishing techniques and embroidery. Tarun taught me valuable lessons: that no client is more or less important; the not-so-subtle art of telling a customer that the garment they are eyeing is not meant for their body type; and to never sell something just for the money. I owe Tarun a great deal for helping me shape my point of view of this industry and building my confidence to go at it on my own terms. He remains my friend, mentor and guide.
How did Atelier Anupama come about?
In 1999, I shifted to Jaipur and spent the next seven years dabbling in handblock printing, panja dhurrie weaving, embroidered textiles, decorative pillows and textile identities. While I was exploring the other types of textile design in Jaipur I gradually got pulled back into garments and bespoke clothing. In 2006, I started Atelier Anupama, as a unit of my company, Indian Textile Crafts. We started as the place for bespoke bridal wear in Jaipur. Our specialty is detailed, fine hand embroidery coupled with our signature rosebud embroidery. Ironically the rosebud embroidery actually began from trying to play around with waste fabrics. I did my first ever lehenga in rosebud embroidery for a school friend in 1999. An average bridal lehenga with rosebud embroidery can have anywhere between 5,000 to 8,000 buds on it! I hand make all the buds myself. It’s my daily meditation and an excellent stress buster! We are a really small studio but over the years I’ve trained my craftsmen to be adept at every form of embroidery whether it is sequins, French knots, gota, zardosi, etc. Our specialty lies in our attention to detail, finishing and tailoring. Over the years I’ve done embroidery on paper, fabrics and leather – if we can stick a needle into it we can embroider it! As a studio we work on bespoke bridal wear, accessories, prêt, western wear, pouches and potlis, home linen, wall art, printing and leheriya! I work intuitively and don’t feel the need to blindly follow trends or ‘what the market demands’. We waste nothing and our recycled bead tassels and accessories are our trademark. We have a lateral hierarchy in this studio. There are no middle men, contractors or managers.
Why were you attracted to leheriya?
I believe that leheriya is one of the few Indian craft techniques with global appeal. It’s just stripes after all! In 2008, I designed the first exhibition in full detail on paper with pattern and color without setting foot in the craftsman’s house. Our first customer was the then chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhra Raje. Needless to say the exhibition was a sell out! Over the last 10 years I have taken leheriya from being one time ceremonial pink mothra to boardrooms, book clubs, polo parties, kitties and work wear – just by tweaking attitude, fabrics and color. I am very fortunate to work with a craftsman who does not have the word ‘no’ in his vocabulary. He is willing to try anything new! We have explored fabrics, patterns and color. I am currently the only designer in India who designs her own leheriya! And now we can do leheriya to pattern.
How do you design a collection?
Designing a collection in the studio rarely starts with fancy inspiration boards and is never defined in deeply philosophical terms! Inspiration is simply giving my intuitions a visual form. As a designer, I work to match the most disparate design styles together and give them some semblance of modernity. I keep my collections season specific and comfortable. In India we have a very feminine way of dressing with an overabundance of embellishment and accessory. While keeping that in mind I do try and stick to patterns that emphasize the voluptuousness of Indian bodies without calling attention to the curves. Comfort, fit and craft are my prime priorities. I also have a massive library of sizes noted for bespoke purposes over the years. We use size charts that have been customized by us to fit the Indian figure.
In India we have a wealth of textiles and garment styles to suit every man woman, occasion and season. Using and applying this wealth of material and technique at hand has been my inspiration. We work a lot with hand woven fabrics such as kota tussar/ kota cotton/ kosatussar/ silk/ chanderi/ katan silk/khadi/linen/mangalgiri cotton and jute silk.
What is your approach to marketing and distribution?
Initially, I participated in craft based exhibitions around India. Over the last
few years I have concentrated more on promoting the store in Jaipur. Our bespoke work however is publicized completely by word of mouth. I think there is no better advertising than a person wearing the outfit. However, given the paradigm shift in the age of our customers, we are focusing more and more on digital branding through Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.
What is the role of India’s rich textile heritage in fashion today?
As a professional working with textiles and fashion over the last 23 years, I can safely say that I am a designer with very strong leanings towards the concept of craft-based fashion – keeping one’s cultural identity alive through the medium of craft traditions. As a trained designer I am the bridge between the craftsman and the consumer, and, it’s my moral/ethical responsibility that both are content with the outcome of the collaboration. Authentic without being ethnic has pretty much been my mantra. It is imperative that we give due credit to the craftsman without whom the best design will only be a concept not a reality.
What challenges have you faced in your journey?
The biggest challenge in working as a design studio for over 20 years has been plagiarism. It used to feel like flattery, now it feels like a cancer. How does one react when a beginner from design school starts his/her career with copies of established designers because ‘it works’?
Another challenge is that as designers we have failed to train and inspire the next generation of skilled craftsmen. In our enthusiasm to control quality and provide better working conditions to skilled craftsmen we took them out of their houses and placed them in studios. We changed the tradition of craft into an 8 am to 8 pm duty. The kids who would come home from school and embroider now go for tuitions. The women of the house who would help with the work during the afternoons spend their time working elsewhere to make ends meet. Over the years I have seen the craftsmen leave and take up jobs, but none have returned to do embroidery or tailoring.
How do you plan to expand your brand?
I want to take the crafts of leheriya and embroidery to the next level of innovation. Somewhere along the line I would also like to write a resource book on embroidery using my designs and work as reference points. We are trying to put our skills out into the global markets and work in collaboration with designers and companies abroad for niche embroidery. We are showing our leheriya work at the International Folk Art Market 2018 under the innovation category – and we can only hope to go forward from there!
This story was originally published in POOL 96.
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