During the past 15 years, Ayesha Depala has developed an enviable reputation for creating highly covetable handmade gowns. In trademark shades of dusky nude, buttermilk and blush, with layers of tulle lavished with handworked beading, her dresses walk that indefinable line between old-school glamour and elegant restraint. Such a deft touch has made Depala a go-to for women seeking one-off pieces that combine expert tailoring balanced with skilful embellishment.
Never one to rest on her laurels, however, Depala recently expanded her eponymous company, venturing for the first time into ready-to-wear. And what may come as a bit of surprise for those familiar with her work, is that the new collection consists of ginghams, candy stripes, camo print and black. Lots and lots of black.
"My personal DNA and aesthetic has always been a little stronger, a little edgier, mixed with a feminine side," Depala tells me at her showroom in the Dubai Design District. "The main driving force behind the shift was looking at me, Ayesha, as a client. So when I walked into my store, I asked: 'What are the pieces that I want to see in my wardrobe?' And the line evolved from there."
Evolution is the best way to describe Depala's new direction. It does not replace the handmade, to-order-only couture and eveningwear collections that Depala is so well known for, but instead adds a new dimension for those looking for something a little edgier. Comprising cropped poplin bomber jackets (softened with appliqué flowers), a man's shirt deconstructed into a strapless top (with a knotted bow and raw seam) and a gaberdine parka, the collection also has the drop-crotch harem pants that first appeared in her boutique a few years ago. Then they were in luxurious, peach-toned silks. Now, they are in uncompromising black.
“It’s been very exciting seeing the client who wants a pretty little tutu dress also getting a jacket for when she goes to lunch,” she says. “It’s the same client. I have always spent time dressing my client – and they are couture clients, so they obviously wanted more: more flowers, more beadwork, more colour. So I devoted a lot of time dressing my clients and catering to their needs, and forgetting about my own. We have a saying in India: ‘The carpenter’s door is always broken.’ I never have enough time to dress myself.”
The new collection is an insight into Depala's everyday existence. Some may like to think of their designers as ethereal souls who never get their hands dirty, but in this instance, that could not be further from the truth. Practical and no-nonsense – she is running her own business while raising a family – Depala confesses to loving every aspect of the demanding business. "I am very hands-on. I like being behind the scenes, in my flats, with my workmen. I have a team of men working for me, and I am usually squatting on the floor with them, working on the beading. So for me, the idea of wearing a leather jacket and Louboutins to work is just a fantasy."
While some designers prefer to sketch out ideas on paper, Depala works by placing fabric directly onto the mannequin. "I drape a lot, and you can't sketch that. Fabrics have a certain texture and movement, and you have to respect that. Sometimes you imagine a fabric hanging a certain way, but sometime, despite the 15 years of draping experience I have, it doesn't do that. Sometimes you get surprised, and that's where the fun comes in."
Despite having lived in the UAE for many years, which could explain her love of muted and faded tones, she does still draw on her Indian heritage for her designs. “Where I hail from, we see the most beautiful buildings,’’ she explains. “The Mughal work; the architecture. If you go back through my collections, you will see some of the inspiration coming through in my eveningwear.”
Moghul architecture was the starting point for an as-yet-unfinished piece that she shows me in her studio. "This is one of my favourites right now," she says, showing me sections of gunmetal beading so densely worked that it is impossible to see the ground fabric. "See this trellis work? It is based on Mughal carved windows called jali, which they did in marble. This piece is so labour-intensive, we sent it to places in India to try and replicate it, but they couldn't do it."
With many weeks, and sometimes months, of work needed to create her gowns, I am curious if she ever finds it hard to let them go once they are finished? “We do keep some of our pieces for the archive, and, yes, I am quite attached to some of them. It can be difficult letting things go, I have to say, but for some more than others,” she explains. “For instance, the wedding dresses, I never get attached to, because I see the brides and mothers get so emotional about them; it’s almost like they are not my territory to claim. The ones I get really attached to are often other couture pieces that we have designed. Because these are very laborious, mentally
Depala looks across the studio, gesturing to the beaded jali work she just showed me. “This particular piece of mine has taken a very long time. Months. We had to draw the whole piece out. Every flower, every trellis, every line. So a lot of thought goes into it. It has shades of grey and nudes, so there is a lot of conversation about which colour goes where, on which flowers. So this is very time-consuming, to say the least, but it’s fun.”
Such intense attention to detail is at the core of couture. Producing a dress that has been cut, pieced, stitched and embellished by hand can take weeks of painstaking work that is reflected by the price tag. Luckily for Depala, however, in the UAE she has found an audience appreciative of the process. "Women here understand the work that goes into a piece. They value it and view it almost as an heirloom piece that they will buy and keep and pass down. We look at some of our clients who have worn things five years ago and they keep the pieces, which is so lovely. Everything today is so trend-based, but we are not – we have never claimed to be a trend-based brand; we don't even buy trend reports. We have a different clientele."
Which brings us back to the ready-to-wear line. The soft poplin cottons and relaxed cuts look not only directional, but comfortable, too. The camouflage pants have a drawstring waist, an oversize shirt is cut to billow out at the back, and an asymmetric ruffled-sleeved top is loosely cut. Despite the bare shoulder, it is just the sort of top that would look perfect with a pair of jeans. "There is much more coming," Depala says. "There is a denim line we are planning to launch, too."
Excited by another new venture, she explains her ready-to-wear motivation. "I have travelled everywhere and been to every major store trying to find jeans. I am doing this because I feel I cannot find the perfect pair."
A couture house making jeans? It is difficult to imagine the two co-existing, yet it makes a lot of sense. Although they look relaxed and casual, jeans are among the most complex items to manufacture, while the intricacies of construction are the lifeblood of every couturier.
Rather than using plain cotton denim, Depala is heading straight to the top end of the market. By adding up to 10 per cent cashmere to the fibres, she promises the jeans "will be soft on the inside and, like well-constructed dresses, will sculpt the wearer".
As we trade jokes about jeans that could double as Spanx, Depala neatly sums up why designers do what they do and how sometimes the directions are as much a surprise for them as for the audience. "Designing," she says, "is a leap of faith."