Mumbai Ready to Embroider Itself Into Historic Moment With Christian Dior

MUMBAI, India – On Wednesday, the energy and anticipation was building around the iconic monument of the Gateway of India, where Christian Dior was preparing to make history with the launch of its pre-fall 2023 collection on Thursday.

The show will not only be unique for its choice of country and heritage location, but also in the fact that it was inspired by India.

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Huge logistical and security measures were coming into place as the Dior teams raced around the clock, the sets for the show were being mounted over the last five days, and flights were arriving with celebrities planning to attend the show.

More than 850 guests are expected to attend the event, which will be the first global launch of this scale in India of a calendar collection versus a capsule.

Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s artistic director of women’s collections, was composed and ready as she told WWD in an exclusive conversation that the show has been many years in the coming. “I am very emotional, this show in Mumbai has been a dream for a long time,” she said.

The upcoming show is also an ode to friendship.

Christian Dior show items with embroidery from the Chanakya atelier.
Christian Dior show items with embroidery from the Chanakya atelier.

Chiuri does not hesitate to ascribe credit to Karishma Swali, who directs the Chanakya ateliers and the Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai. “We met more than 25 years ago and immediately found a deep connection. This was also brought about over the excellence of craft, the savoir faire of a combined language, and celebrating our craft and countries collectively,” she said.

Swali clearly reciprocates the sentiment, referring to Chiuri as a “long-time mentor and dear friend.”

“When the energies are aligned and there is a strong commitment nothing seems tough really,” she said, speaking about the preparations for the show, for which Chanakya has created an enrichment of embroideries. “Dior has been extremely committed and extremely generous. I’m acknowledging what we have as a country, and celebrating it together.

“While it may have had its challenges, we were so clear on doing this together that I don’t think of it as tough,” she said. “I think of it as momentous.”

Chiuri spoke of the importance of energy and creativity, too, reminiscing about how these have brought about synergies, emphasizing alignment.

“Sometimes aligning energies can create things in a different way. I remember when I met Karishma and Nehal [Shah, the other cofounder] my dream was to realize accessories with embroidery; it was not usual for that time. We started with this idea, which was a little crazy for that time. We started only with passion and the idea of creativity — that for us was very exciting for the time.”

The Chanakya School of Craft, Mumbai
The Chanakya School of Craft, Mumbai

Swali recalled Chiuri’s determination to make this happen when she was at that time at Fendi and later at Valentino. “In the early ’90s it was revolutionary to have that level of hand-craftsmanship on accessories, but she was very fixated and determined  — and that marks the beginning of our journey together,” she said.

Chanakya itself was already on the map for fine embroideries and a high level of creativity.

“When my dad started Chanakya in the early ’80s, not many people were aware then — maybe that many people are not aware even now — that India is so blessed to have the deepest, widest artisanal base for craftsmanship in the world,” Swali observed.

As the conversation has deepened between Swali and Chiuri over the years, another dimension emerged: the Chanakya School of Craft, a means of keeping the tradition of craft alive, as well as furthering Chiuri’s passion for empowering women.

“Maria Grazia pointed out that traditionally the craft was handed down from father to son in India, and women haven’t really had the opportunity to express themselves creatively, to have financial independence and autonomy, so we decided to dedicate the school to women. We came up with a curriculum that is truly robust and prepares them for mastery over a skill. Once they have the mastery we can sit back and watch the confidence and how well they can express themselves creatively. We also felt this compelling need to preserve our crafts through education and innovation,” Swali added.

“We have collectively trained more than 1,000 women and are just overjoyed to be able to watch them today to be part of an artisanal community that really stands for our culture,” she said.

Christian Dior show items with embroidery from the Chanakya atelier.
Christian Dior show items with embroidery from the Chanakya atelier.

The Chanakya School of Craft has also taken the concept of art further, making creations for Chiuri’s focus on art legend Judy Chicago’s art for the couture spring-summer show in 2020, creating 21 panels for the show. A subsequent collaboration with French artist Eva Jaspin for the Dior autumn-winter 2021-22 collection created tapestries.

The Chanakya School of Craft, located in Lower Parel in Mumbai, appears to be designed for inspiration within its space as well.

Although large paintings hang on the walls — always emphasizing Chiuri and Swali’s points about the link between art, craft and different disciplines — there is a sense of openness, a fragrance of fresh jasmine flowers, and reminders of creativity across mediums. Students, who range in age from their teens and up, sit on chairs at white desks in neat rows, practicing different stitches and thread work.

“I think at the school we have begun to witness that there is certainly a paradigm shift in the way creativity works,” said Swali. “Today it is so much about collective effort. The artists bring a certain beauty with their design and then it is up to us to interpret that art through our craft and allow the women to explore different genres that they have learnt and to work with these artists.”

Ansooya Kini, who is 61, described the fact that, like the others, she heard about the course by word of mouth, and finds the learning motivating as she has completed years of work in other fields and now has a chance to follow her dream. Unusual encouragement for career enhancement in a society beset with age discrimination.

Chanakya School of Craft, Nisha Susvikar reinterprets Van Gogh
Chanakya School of Craft, Nisha Susvikar reinterprets Van Gogh

In another room, students working on an internship program, the last six months of the 18-month course at the school, make embroidered panels inspired by art, adding in their own interpretation. Nisha Susvikar, who chose a Van Gogh to re-interpret, said that the challenge of creating her own version mixing colors with different threads was keeping her going toward her final aim: joining Chanakya atelier for a job.

The atelier itself has put together a showcase of some of the magic created with Dior over past years, showing a body of the work with more than 50 pieces highlighting some of the Chiuri–Swali collaborations, embodying the embroideries and a variety of crafts that made their way, via Dior runways, to the world.

In a separate building at the atelier, master craftsmen and weavers showcase their work, bringing to life its painstaking aspect and the process with which panels are created, some taking hundreds of hours of fine thread work. They showcase 11 schools of hand-craftsmanship brought to life through the collaboration with Chiuri, including crochet; zardozi embroidery, which is sewing with gold strings; lace making appliqué, and others.

Swali’s point is perhaps the same as Chiuri’s, translated into the atelier and school: inspiration is everywhere — seamless and borderless.

Launch Gallery: Behind the Scenes of the Dior and Chanakya School of Craft Collaboration

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