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At the Intersection of Art, Fashion and Craft

By Joshua Williams

26 Jan 2021


Each month Sass Brown, an expert in ethical fashion, sustainability and craftsmanship, shares a fashion brand that approaches business differently and innovatively or operates outside of the main fashion systems and capitals. Sass is the former Dean of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the founding Dean at Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation.

You can also listen to this story. For the full podcast with Sass Brown featuring Swati Kalsi please click here.

Swati Kalsi, based in India, is known as much for her fashion designs as her museum art installations. “Swati works predominantly with traditional Sujani embroiderers out of Bihar in India, who have a long tradition of embroidery, mostly for home wares.” states Sass. “Their work is often pictorial and often tells the community history; it’s the women’s tradition of embroidery.”

Due to the high level of craftsmanship and artistry, Sass points out that much of what Swati does doesn’t come cheap, adding “she’s known first and foremost for these exquisite, museum quality collectors items. They are indeed intended to be worn, but they’re so precious. In many cases, I think people end up putting them on their wall.”

To achieve this level of design within her collection, Swati works has workshops in Bihar where she collaborates with Sujani artisans in a collective, creative process. According to Sass, “Swati comes to them with some initial ideas and thoughts and theming, and works with them as they free form embroider, on the fabrications that she has brought in.” And much of their focus is on fairly unstructured outerwear or over pieces—much like kimonos—that aren’t gender or size specific. Sass continues, “they take days and days to produce, with as many as fifteen artisans working on a single piece. Hence, why they’re considered museum quality and collectors items.”

In addition to these really high end art pieces, she has a little bit more of a traditional, ready-to-wear line, similar to other designers. Sass emphasizes, “There are only so many people that can afford her artisan-intense pieces. So, she does a ready-to-wear collection, which does involve some artisanship, such as block printing, hand weaving and even some Sujani embroidery, most of which is produced out of her studio store in Delhi.”

Over the past several years, European luxury brands have relied on Indian craftsmanship to support their own couture collections, as these skills are disappearing on the continent. And yet this fact is often not shared with customers. Sass stresses, ”I think that’s where we have a massive disconnect. You have LVMH who’s bought the French métiers d’art, to help continue those traditions of luxury craftsmanship. Nevertheless, those same luxury brands produce with these artisans predominantly in India.” She continues, “the future of luxury artisanship is in India, where they retain this incredible breadth of traditional craftsmanship and artisanship that is sought after, even if it’s not always paid for fairly. And I think that we have a lot to learn about working with artisans around the world, like Swati Kalsi, as we do with artisans in France or Italy and other Western locations.”

To learn more about Swati Kalsi, you can visit their website, Swatikalsi.com or visit their studio store in Delhi.

Listen to previous episodes with Sass Brown featuring Mexican brand Carla Fernandez and Zazi Vintage from The Netherlands.

Swati Kalsi