The term savoir-faire has become one of fashion’s biggest buzzwords. Translating to “know how”, savoir-faire is simply described as the art of craft. While the French term applies to different areas of craft, such as culinary art, savoir-faire of has remained a pillar in fashion for centuries where the elaborate and precious techniques of garment making has defined the codes of the industry’s most influential maisons. Whether it be the expert way Chanel’s camellia flower brooches bloom on a lapel to the durable topstitching on a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag, these Parisian maisons have become leaders in their respective métiers working as the magical hands that bring the all the fine details of luxury fashion to life. However, the saturation of French fashion in the Western world has permitted an ignorance to the ideas of savoir-faire that exists in other parts of the world. “The French talk about savoir-faire and they do an amazing job with it,” says designer Shwetambari Mody over a Zoom call from her New York apartment. “But us Indians, we have it too.”
Mody was raised in Bombay, India where the vibrant palettes and opulent craftsmanship or karigaree, India’s equivalent of savoir-faire, of traditional Indian garb left a lasting imprint on her. “It’s magical, one of the few places that just invigorates all your senses at once in a harmonious way, and so you don’t know what sensation, feeling, sight smell to kind of focus on,” Mody says. Cultivating her interest in the arts through painting and drawing, her dreams of pursuing fashion as a career came to fruition in a move to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology at the age of 17. Post-grad, Mody landed a job working on the corporate side of fashion in textile research and development. However, the budding designer’s thirst for hands-on creativity grew more apparent in her day-to-day life and soon materialized in the form of her own eponymous label, Shwetambari.
Launched last August, Shwetambari stands as Mody’s sartorial love letter to her homes of India and New York City. Harnessing the fine craft of Indian artisans from regions across the country, Mody works preserving the age-old craft of traditional Indian fashions utilizing the artisans’ techniques in her designs while also incorporating modern elements. Imagined in ultra-luxurious fabrics from silk to cashmere, Mody explores the dichotomy of her homes painting an intimate depiction of her East-meets-West experience that is evident in her creations. Mody fabricates her DNA into a stylish, hand-made garment that tells the story of her journey as a designer. Following the release of her inaugural The Fine Print Collection, the designer sat down with CR to discuss her path to becoming a designer, the importance of preserving craft, and how she turns traditions to trends.
Let’s start from the beginning, who or what inspired you to get into fashion?
SM: “I would say my biggest influence has to be my mother, she has the most incredible style and she’s one of those people who can carry anything. As a child, every Diwali we would get new outfits. They would be really well made Indian clothes offered in whatever style that we wanted. I remember being seven years old and going to New Delhi to Rohit Khosla’s atelier, who unfortunately has since passed, and he was a pioneer of Indian fashion. He was a pioneer of Indian fashion. As a young girl, I remember, he was draping fabrics around my mother and my sisters, and it was just such an exhilarating experience. Seeing the joy on his face because he was this magnificent, beautiful man who was pulling fabrics around you—it’s just such a cherished memory. I have to thank my mother, how many seven-year-old girls get a chance to do something like that? It was also like just the interaction with him and the kind of joy that it gave him to see his clients happy.”
What made you want to take this leap from Bombay to New York City? What was that transition like?
SM: “If you ask anybody from Bombay what city they feel most at home, it would be New York City, It’s the same hustle and bustle. I grew up in the middle of that, so for me there was no other option except for New York. It was New York or nowhere—and it still is! So when I decided to actually pursue [fashion] as a career, I was talking to my sisters who studied in the US as well and they said, if you want to do fashion seriously, the best school is the Fashion Institute of Technology. I had my eyes set on FIT, and the day I got into FIT is still one of the best days of my life. You could be really good at what you do as a medium fish in a small pond, but then when you come to school where every single person has the same dream you have, it brings it all to reality and you kind of have to step up your game as well.”
Tell me about the process of building your brand, when did that dream come to fruition and what was that like for you?
SM: “I started working in the corporate world, I thought it was amazing and it’s what I wanted to do, until I realized like I missed the creativity and I missed doing something for myself and actually getting immersed in that world. While big companies are great and they teach you a lot, you get a small section because you’re a cog in the machine. I thought, if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do this. The French talk about savoir-faire and they do an amazing job with it—but us Indians, we have it too. It’s called “karigaree” which means artistry. This artistry is what I wanted to understand better, and how do you convert that into something that’s wearable for every day? So that is how I started this brand; it is a homage to my country and its artists.”
You hold an MBA in luxury brand management from ESSEC Business School in Paris, Do you think it’s important for young people in fashion to understand both the creative side and the business side?
SM: “One thousand percent, yes. Fashion is a multi- billion dollar business, how did we get to that point? I’m not a subscriber of the fact that people think just because you’re creative, you don’t have that side. I think, it is hard for creatives to kind of maneuver some of the technical and financial aspects—but the truth is, I think if you’re interested in any sort of business, you need to understand the makings of it.”
How have you found fashion to be different in each city that you’ve studied or lived in?
SM: “To me, in New York City, people dress only for themselves. There’s a certain energy that the city gives you. You can find somebody who’s dressed in sequin head to toe, and someone in a three-piece suit, on the same day, the same street, at the same minute, and nobody looks twice—that’s New York. In Paris, I will say the French dress beautifully and it is part of who they are. It’s not that, “oh, because I’m French, I’m going to be wearing this,” it’s more of, no, this is who I am. And India, wow. I would say India is at a cusp where people dress traditionally, but then you will find the new generation who don’t really care and will wear what they want, traditional or not. So there’s an exciting balance between the two. I look forward to seeing what happens in the next 20 to 30 years.”
How do you borrow these pieces of very traditional Indian garment making and modernize them?
SM:“My process basically started off with one of my resin paintings. I was back in India at home all day painting, and I started thinking, how can I translate this into fabric? How can I make this something that’s a combination between India and New York? So that’s what I would like to show the world. I went to these different regions in India where similarly to France, each region is responsible for a different kind of embroidery and fabrics. These techniques have been passed on from generation to generation. Some say that it’s going to be a lost art because as I said, there is that dichotomy between the two, the traditional and the new generation, right? But I hope that doesn’t happen and that’s what I would like to try and preserve as much as possible. For me, I didn’t want to create the designs in a traditional manner, I wanted to see how I can make it my own and also how it can appeal to the Western consumer.”
What is your process of creating your designs? Do you have any sort of inspiration that you look to when you need something to kind of jolt your creativity?
SM: “I went to this region which inspired my current collection which is the salt flatlands of India, it’s called the Rann of Kutch at the border of India and Pakistan. It’s like looking into the vastness of just salt flats. The women in this region wear bright colors and they come from different tribes with different embroidery. It’s also extremely inspired by New York. One day I was looking out of the window in my apartment and you know and in the winter you get the steam coming out of the grates on the streets? I don’t know why, but that really appealed to me. It’s the atmosphere of New York City, I think there’s something really poetic and beautiful about it.”
When you source these artisans to help you create elements of your collection, how do you even go about doing that? How do you select them?
SM: “I am somebody who believes that you need to have a very strong team. So even before I started this journey, I actually met with my current head of production in India. She and her family have been a part of the textile industry in India for a long time. So it’s kind of ingrained in her and she is the one who is responsible to get me the right artists because that’s her forte she does an amazing job at it. I meet with artists and I tell them what the idea for the collection is, and then I tell them to do their own thing as they are the experts. So I definitely believe that it’s a collaboration of artists across the board.”
SM: Is there any ultra-unique process that you’ve come across working with artisans in your time designing?
“We started talking about doing tassels in the collection and India is known for its macrame, a technique called “Patwa”. They braid the yarns by hand and they use it for of course the tassels, but they also use it in different techniques and products like jewelry and accessories. So that was something that I was interested in because just looking at them do it, it’s so exciting to see and they do it in about 30 seconds, I don’t know how they do it.”
How would you describe your own style?
“Like my country, like everything, I like to have a sense of dichotomy. It’s all about mixing and matching, I’ll wear a feminine blouse with a structured jacket. So I would say, in terms of the silhouettes, I keep it simple, but then I’ll embellish it in my own way. I think style is something that changes so much, I know this sounds crazy, but I think I would be the most comfortable in a high heel.”
The Fine Print Collection by Shwetambari is now available on shwetambari.com.
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