Chanakya School of Craft: Empowering women through embroidery
Few fashion resources have as close of a connection to a top rank luxury marque as the tight knit link between Chanakya in Mumbai and Christian Dior in Paris, recently celebrated in splendor in Dior’s Mumbai show.
Dior has long used the famed Chanakya supplier of superlative embroideries, but after the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as women’s creative director of Dior the relationship has taken on much more significant, and feminist, proportions.
From that time, the school began a long-term project of training women to become skilled embroiderers – a profession previously restricted to men. Women have always done a tremendous amount of embroidering in India, but before they were restricted to working in their own homes. Since launching Chanakya School of Craft thanks to Chiuri’s mentoring, over 1,000 women have graduated, allowing them to take on the profession in Indian ateliers, or to create their own businesses.
Chanakya skills were luminously evident throughout last week’s show, staged at the Gateway to India, a monumental arch overlooking the Indian Ocean: on a perfectly hung blazer over whose back leapt a remarkable golden tiger, made using Zardosi needle embroidery; or a slimline dresse made using a block printing technique first developed in the Indus Valley some several thousand years BC.
All the way to delightful ecru silk pyjamas embroidered with an aubergine and orange elephant in a tropical forest over the motto, L’Union Fait La Force, using the Toran technique – dating back to the 3rd century BC. The phrase – to highlight the line from Homer’s Iliad, and a neat reference to this unique fashion partnership.
“I began coming to India in the 90s for Fendi when the mood in fashion was minimalist. Speaking of embroidery back then was so out of style! But to me, India represented a series of unique skills and artisanal techniques that I wanted to harness as a designer,” explained Chiuri, sitting beside Karishma Swali, the creative director of Chanakya.
Addressing their partnership, Swali cautioned: “There is no real business plan. We are just trying step by step to see what we can do together organically. There is no sense of competition between us. It’s about sharing stimulus.”
Chiuri noted that she was from a generation that actually sewed at high school, helping her to respect the métier, something she lamented Generation X and Y have largely dismissed. The Dior designer also reflected that like women in India, many women in Sicily also made fabrics and embroidered in their own home too, until relatively recently.
“But now there has been a generation in Italy which refused this sort of idea of work,” she lamented.
Dior has also radically expanded the potential of Chanakya, by sourcing giant tapestries and wall hangings seen in major Dior ready-to-wear and haute couture shows in Paris - like Mickalene Thomas, Eva Jospin and Judy Chicago – from the Indian atelier.
It should be noted that Chanakya boasts a roll call of great Milan and Paris clients: Alberta Ferretti, Balmain, Balenciaga, Celine, Chloé and Dolce & Gabbana, to Max Mara, Roberto Cavalli, Ralph Lauren, Saint Laurent and Versace, to name a few.
On the morning of its show in Mumbai, Dior organized private tours of Chanakya Ateliers and its special school. In the atelier, artisans wowed with remarkable examples of using Zari metallic thread, densely woven animals, similar to a new collection of baby elephant Dior handbag hangings.
The school provides an 18-month course, the final third an internship program. Over one third of the graduates are offered places in Chanakya, many of the rest create their own businesses. All told, Chanakya employs over 700 artisans.
In effect, though Dior had worked with Chanakya for several decades, the school was born thanks to Chiuri’s mentorship. Before that only men were employed within the company, though some women working from home did supply Chanakya.
“Today, our school provides courses in finance and management, English speaking classes, and trips to museums and other cultural centres to women in Chanakya. The intention is to create a holistic program with a three-dimensional approach,” explained Chanakya Senior Design Manager Vaishali Lakhan.
That morning, some 30 students – attired in white lab coats - were quietly busy studying stitches - basic, running, herring bone and stem - while others used Arai needlepoint to dream up fish with cherry tree tails or deer with antlers that blossomed flowers. Several graduate students were finishing off large format embroideries based on digital art or photocopies of Van Gogh oil paintings.
One happy result is that these women graduates now work on many of Chiuri’s artistic projects with Dior, while the commercial work is done by men. That morning, a team was busy on the latest installation by Jospin, deftly sewing on large panels.
Though perhaps the most bravura display was in Cosmic Garden, an exhibition inside Chanakya School of Craft of the work of the award-winning artists Madhvi and Manu Parekh, who created a giant series of originally commissioned tapestries for Dior’s January 2022 couture show. The retrospective Cosmic Garden included acrylic on paper, pulp and bamboo statures; or canvas paintings of mythological figures and diabolic characters.
Though the stars of the show were Three Goddesses, three-meter-tall divinities - multidisciplinary works built of wire frames and finished in hand crafted needlepoint, embroidery, laces, silk ropes and cable wool, among other techniques.
“Don’t forget Monsieur Dior once owned his own art gallery. To me, the story of India is a story of emancipation! Where the position of women has evolved too. What I also find similar in France and India is this great respect for artisans. You can feel that in this school thanks to these very courageous and determined women. I find them inspirational,” insisted Chiuri.
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