What do you get when you combine a 30-year love affair with Indian textiles and global business smarts? The enviable career of designer Karishma Swali.
The award-winning managing and creative director of Mumbai atelier Chanakya International and Chanakya School of Craft, one half of couture brand Jade and one half of luxury ready-to-wear brand Moonray, Swali is one of the most influential names in Indian fashion right now.
Ready-to-wear is not what Swali is best known for, though. Hers is a name that’s been associated with Indian bridalwear and high-end couture for more than a decade. And Dior’s autumn 2023 show in Mumbai earlier this year catapulted Swali and Chanakya to instant international fame. All eyes are now on Indian fashion in a way they’ve never quite been before.
“I know it seems like we came suddenly, out of nowhere,” Swali says with a laugh, “But actually, we’ve been involved in the conservation, revival and innovation of the Indian arts since 1986, when my father Vinod Shah established Chanakya. His vision then, which remains our vision today, was to share with the world India's artisanal legacy and depth.”
Chanakya’s clientele are some of the biggest names in luxury. In addition to Dior, there’s Balenciaga, Gucci, Balmain, Fendi, Moschino, Prada, Versace, Valentino, Ferragamo, Roberto Cavalli and Saint Laurent. The atelier’s relationship with Dior itself goes all the way back to when Maria Grazia Chiuri took over as the French brand's creative director in 2016.
“I’ve known Maria for 27 years now, from when I was training under Alberta Ferretti in Italy and she was an accessories designer at Fendi. From the start, it was a meeting of minds and sensibilities,” says Swali. “We’re both passionate about spotlighting craftspeople who, in many ways, are the archivists of a culture’s diversity and traditions.”
This shared history and ethos aside, it was the spectacle of Dior’s audacious travelling show in Mumbai – complete with a 46-foot embroidered installation set against the monumental Gateway of India on one side and the Taj Mahal hotel on the other, plus elaborate floral rangolis on the runway, and hundreds of local and international celebrity guests – that has ensured the Chanakya name is now indelibly linked to Dior’s.
Despite the masterclass in fashiontainment, not everyone was a fan of the collection that was touted as a celebration of Indian savoir-faire. Dior’s creative choices – tiger, peacock and banyan tree motifs as well as Nehru collars, sari-wrapped skirts, Madras checks and a Jardin Indien take on the familiar toile de Jouy – were received with mixed feelings.
Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic at the New York Times wrote that the clothes “spliced familiar Indian aesthetic tropes into familiar Diorisms while dancing on the verge of cliche”. On the other hand, Sarah Mower, Vogue.com’s chief critic felt the collection was “deftly elevated to a level of sophistication that could only come about through the joint ambition of Indian artisans and a French house to make something new in the service of modern, wearable fashion”.
What was universally praised, though, was the flawless exquisiteness of Chanakya’s craftsmanship. Swali says her team are thankful for the praise and adulation, but are more focused on what comes next.
Soon after the Dior show, Chanakya opened its doors to the public for the first time for an immersive art exhibition called Muḷ Mathi, which translates to “from the roots”. This was filled with 22 wall-sized textile-art pieces based on the paintings of artists Manu and Madhvi Parekh; 50 looks from Chanakya’s last 50 collections; and 100,000 textile, embroidery and craft explorations from its archives.
“We easily do about 1,000 explorations every season for clients. So, over time, it’s become a precious reservoir of Indian crafts,” explains Swali.
Next on Swali’s agenda is widening the reach of the Chanakya School of Craft, which she cofounded in 2016 to focus on training more artisans in Indian crafts and techniques. She is particularly keen on helping women become master artisans, a field that has traditionally been dominated by men.
Currently, the school has an 18-month programme that integrates craft and design to equip its students with both technical and design know-how, and preps them to join the fashion industry.
“I’m keen to make the programme global and share our knowledge with, as well as learn from, other craft communities, especially underserved women, across the world,” says Swali. “Design schools, globally, are realising that craft is not integrated deeply enough in their programmes. We’re hoping to remedy that through different levels of immersion – through summer school or short or long courses.
“Craft is an infinite, interdisciplinary medium that is breaking so many boundaries in the most exciting of ways. The preciousness of handwork can become an important part of a student’s design language, even if they’re not looking to become an expert,” explains Swali.
No conversation about traditional crafts and the communities that practise them can be complete without the hairy question of cultural appropriation.
Swali says she’s more concerned about preserving a technique and the cultural and environmental importance of being able to do things by hand, than drawing borders.
“Every craft does not necessarily belong to a specific community. Across centuries, communities have found their own way to identify themselves through the same craft,” she says. “Take the example of the satin stitch. You see it in both traditional Chinese and Japanese embroidery, but both have distinctly specific ways of doing it. We also see the satin stitch in Eastern and Western Europe through the Renaissance period.
“It's the knowledge of the technique that allows these diverse identities to thrive. So we’re happy to share this knowledge whether that be helpful to a community in Mexico, Malawi or Mumbai.”