As fashion designer Vaishali Shadangule is set to stage her Paris Couture Week debut on July 8, she becomes the first Indian woman to achieve this feat. The designer’s eponymous label Vaishali S is set to be in the prestigious company of design powerhouses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Schiaparelli on the physical runway.
“I feel this is a unique opportunity and also a big responsibility: India is a country that has contributed immensely to the world’s design, textiles, fibers, yet it has been relegated to the margins by operating as the workshop of big Western brands for intricate and precious work only. But India has much more to give. We have at least 300 different hand-weaving techniques, precious raw materials and amazing embroidery skills. This is what needs to be stated,” says Shadangule ahead of her Parisian runway debut that brings back live presentations after two seasons of a phygital showcase.
The designer who has been showcasing at New York Fashion Week since 2015, is widely credited with reviving the forgotten khun weave, traditionally used to make blouses in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Part of the Vaishali S fame also draws from gossamer Chanderi creations and the signature technique of manipulating textiles into cords on indigenous looms resulting in avant-garde silhouettes. Shadangule is known for promoting circularity in design, one that is committed to accelerating the lives and livelihoods of local communities by combining their traditional handwork techniques with contemporary design innovations.
Mainstreaming a narrative of ‘India Local’ through indigenous weaves and hand-weaving techniques on a global Haute Couture stage is thus an organic extension of her work and ethic. “My garments will have some amazing embroideries but will rely also on unique handwoven materials made out of precious khadi yarns featuring stunning silhouettes. It can really help to make a shift in the perception of where we stand. This is the reason I really want to leave a mark there, in a global way, yet extremely loyal to our own heritage and culture,” stresses Shadangule.
Breaking barriers, giving back
The Mumbai-based designer who unveiled her plush Mumbai flagship store at Kala Ghoda last year, was born and brought up in Vidisha (Madhya Pradesh). “I left Vidisha at the age of 17 to pursue my engineering studies, and when I graduated I moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) where I started my first and a very tiny boutique. From there I opened three more that eventually helped me to pay for my Master’s degree at Pearl Academy and then at Domus Academy in Milan, Italy. My real education though remains my experiences in Vidisha and the neighboring Chanderi, and the forests in between,” says the 43-year-old designer.
“I started my career to promote artists who are handweavers,” says Shadangule. It is not easy to convey the full value of hand weaves till someone tries them on in the form of garments, reminds the designer when asked about her persistence in reinterpreting traditional techniques in a global language. The attention and appreciation received from clients worldwide creates a demand for these unique weaves, and this entire exchange helps her to guide skilled workers in updating their motifs and repackaging them for a wider appeal, in turn, helping them earn bigger profits and recognition. “This has helped in preventing a younger generation of workers lapse into a void, a stranded life in the big cities, while preserving old and (then) dying weaving techniques,” remarks Shadangule.
While coming from MP and not being mainstream enough might have made her early career harder, it is also what makes it deep, true and consistent. The designer’s first memories, in fact, are her mother’s beautiful Chanderi saris she used to wear for everyday working life.
Today, sustainability is a global movement, as communities and even the corporate world has realized it is no more a choice. “Suddenly, I realized I have been shaping Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) sustainability all along, focused on circularity, social impact and equanimity along the value chain. In all this, women are often the repository of skills and powerfully regain value along the chain,” she says.
And, what about gender-based barriers in charting this journey so far? India has always been a patriarchal society, though a lot is changing now, asserts the designer. “Nevertheless, I also think that part of the problem is our own mindset. You have to set your mind without limit and just work to achieve it,” concludes Shadangule.
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(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)