How one small Indian label sold its hand-embroidered cashmere shawls to Chanel and Dior

We chat to Jyotika Jhalani of the hand-embroidered cashmere shawl company, which she started from her bedroom in Delhi

Hand-embellished butterfly shawls by Janavi. Courtesy Janavi
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"To me, luxury is enjoying everything you do – whether it's a book you read, a fruit you eat or a shawl you wear," Jyotika Jhalani tells me over the phone from her home in Delhi, India. "It's not driving a fancy car and being miserable inside. If you sit back and think about what you actually want, it's very simple. You want to be happy, and you can be happy just looking at a beautiful sunset."

This almost meditative mindset is what led Jhalani on an unorthodox business path. Having dropped out of school when she was 15 ("I decided it was not for me"), she spent a decade working at the World Bank, an experience she describes as "incredible". She then realised she wanted to help promote the unique heritage of handiwork that her home country boasts and, despite having no formal education in design, in 1998, she opened a tiny atelier in what was her son's childhood bedroom, and Janavi was born.

Jhalani started out making lace shawls. Word soon got around of her label's exceptional ­quality, and soon she was producing pieces for Fendi and Valentino. Cashmere shawls followed. "For me, it has always been about getting the 'made in India' label out there to international brands like Hermès, Chanel, Dior and Ferragamo, and they all became very dear to me, almost like family," she says. "It's great when a brand that is already well established wants to buy from you. It's very trying, but also very exciting."

The cashmere is ethically sourced from Inner Mongolia, Jhalani says with a distinct sense of pride. "Our goats are very well treated – I can send you pictures of them smiling. We do our own dyeing, weave our own cashmere and make everything in-house, even our packaging."

The 500-strong team have India’s vast design heritage at their disposal, and each shawl is beautifully decorated and embroidered with motifs such as flying birds, roses in full bloom, Monarch butterflies and delicate blossoms. There is even a collection entirely in pink and decorated with elephants – an ode to Jaipur, the Pink City of Rajasthan.

A blossom embroidered shawl by Janavi. Courtesy Janavi

"Nature really inspires me, so you will see a lot of that in our shawls. I see every shawl as a canvas, an expression of art. You will also see a lot of quirkiness and playful elements … flamingos in the sun, monkeys doing a dance," she says. Other designs are not quite as literal. There are inky black shawls scattered with diamante stars and others covered in bold geometric patterns such as two-tone circles. When actress Catherine Zeta-Jones visited Delhi earlier this year, she wore Janavi's bestselling linear pattern called "fluttering colourful pipes".

For a royal family wedding in the GCC, the bride wanted a peacock, so we put one on a shawl and she gave it to her guests

What unites all these designs is the free rein given to Janavi’s craftspeople, so each piece is, literally, a labour of love. Sometimes, however, things can take an unexpected turn. “One of the guys started making shawls covered in mushrooms, turnips and all kinds of vegetables. I said: ‘What on earth are you doing?’ And he said: ‘Show it to [John] Galliano.’ I said: ‘Galliano is not going to be eating our shawls.’ But he insisted, so I did, and Galliano put one in a Dior collection. That’s how crazy [our creative process] can be.”

Having spent years manufacturing products for other companies, Janavi has a vast bank of expertise it can draw on, even the ability to replicate handwork. “Of course, we can repeat the same thing if needed. When we made for Chanel, it needed 2,000 identical shawls. For a royal family wedding in the GCC, the bride wanted a peacock, so we put one on a shawl and she gave it to her guests. All 700 women wore their own to the wedding.”

Peacock shawl by Janavi. Courtesy Janavi

The years of collaboration with major brands, however, eventually led to a business rethink. "I never thought of launching anything with the labels until recently. I told Loro Piana: 'I will produce for you, but from now on we need to call it Loro Piana x Janavi'. This is a major change for us," says Jhalani. "Next we are collaborating with Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter, Kiera, on a luxury label that will be launched at fashion week in Paris. It's very 1920s Art Deco-inspired."

Shawls aside, Janavi also dabbles in handbags, cushions, baby blankets and toys, all handmade in Kashmir. “Handwork is important to me,” she says, “because I think it is the only way you can actually express, beautifully, what you are able to do.”