Ashdeen Lilaowala: Keeping the Gara flame alive

His thought is intensive. His vision is artistic. His sensibility is detailed. His fashion unfolds history. Ashdeen Lilaowala has not only preserved the culture of Gara embroidery but revived it successfully making his Gara creations extremely coveted.

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1I fell in love with his beautifully embroidered and contemporary chic sarees when I spotted them on the runway. His eye for design and composition combined with intense research and knowledge into the evolution of Gara embroidery affects fabrics that are inventive.

Traveling through Iran and China, Ashdeen collaborated with the UNESCO Parzor Foundation conducting a detailed research on Parsi embroidery for the Minister of Textiles. Documenting various Parsi Gara embroideries across various cities in India, he trained 120 crafts people in the art of Gara.

He showcased at the Lakme Fashion Week recently and I am looking forward on getting my hands on his chinese porcelain inspired saree. The uber chic Radhika Gupta of brings him to Singapore on Wednesday the 23rd at The Four Seasons Hotel.

The keeper of crafts talks to me about his journey with Gara and its immeasurable rewards. His creations ensure, you will leave an heirloom behind.

Do you have a fashion background in terms of academics or family lineage?

I wanted to be a doctor. I did well academically and was encouraged by my family and teachers to pursue medicine. While I was in middle school, my elder sister started studying fashion and that triggered my interest in design and fashion.

In school, I would be constantly drawing fashion illustrations in all my textbooks. Soon, I was convinced that I wanted to do something creative but didn’t know what and where. My parents made me meet a neighbor who was a commercial artist and he suggested I apply at National Institute of Design (NID). I did a reccee of the institute and immediately knew I wanted to join NID and study Textile Design.

As luck would have it, I got admission in my first attempt and joined NID in 1998.

6How did your label Ashdeen start?

In 2005-2006 with UNESCO Parzor Foundation, I conducted a detail research project on Parsi Embroidery for the Ministry of Textiles. I travelled through Iran and China to trace the routes and origins of the craft. I also documented several private Parsi embroidery collections in various cities of India.

I conducted four training workshops in Ahmedabad, Navsari, Mumbai and Delhi. More than 120 craft’s person were introduced and trained in Parsi Gara embroidery. I organized a symposium and exhibition, “Painting with a Needle” at NCPA, Mumbai and curated an exhibition titled “Parsi Panorama” held at IIC, New Delhi in 2011.

All through I had an embroidery workshop in which I did extremely fine Haute-Couture embroidery for a client in Los Angeles. People had started asking me to make gara saris for them. I made a few garas, which were replicas of antique pieces. All along I was thinking of ways in which they could be contemporized. With great support from my parents, I started my own eponymous label in October 2012.

35What has influenced you in your fashion journey?

Influences come from all corners. I just try and keep my mind and senses open to receive them.

Strong cultural references and embroidery are key features in your collections. How did that happen?

I have always wanted to create a cinematic journey in which magnificent examples of Parsi Gara Embroidery explore the long history of interaction between the Parsis of India and China. With the sea trade, the Parsis imported fabulous textiles and ceramics, giving rise to a lasting legacy of chinoiserie. I have always been inspired by this Chinese imagery and aesthetic. Each season, I decode the rich motifs, patterns, colours and details to create my romanticized notion of the exotic East. Each sari and garment is painstakingly created with a clear debt to old Chinese fine and decorative arts without slavishly reproducing it.

Can you elaborate on the different types of the embroideries used from the Zoroastrian craft?

Parsi Gara embroidery is a beautiful amalgam of Chinese, Persian, Indian and European influences. There has significant exchange of motifs, fabrics and ideas to create a unique garment patronized and worn by a very miniscule community in India. Parsi embroidery is largely done with satin stitch. Various types of satin stitches are modified to do the rendering. The popular types of satin stitches are the long & short stitch, encroach satin and a void stitch. The other popular stitch was the forbidden stitch or Peking knot.

Your design process…

Since the inspiration is largely the Orient and Parsi gara embroidery, I start with finding visuals and details from the craft for inspiration. I always sketch the full sari, as women would wear it, all the details are thought of. Then we start to find the right fabric for the embroidery. A detailed khakha or tracing is made of the embroidery design. This is pinned and then placed on the stretched fabric for transferring. The sari is embroidered on the adda or wooden frame. Often, four to five craftsperson work on the frame collectively. Once the sari is embroidered we decide on a detail for the finishing.

How do you contextualise embroideries into a contemporary woman’s life?

We have been making timeless, elegant saris, which women often wear on special occasions. These are not your everyday saris and thus the embroidery is special. I think most contemporary Indian women want a slice of tradition and culture in their wardrobes. Today, a lot of young women want to be connected to their roots and culture, a gara or any other sari, which has a strong tradition, gives them this bond. In a fast mass market, a unique sari can give any women a great sense of pride and individuality.

2A designer needs to experiment with techniques and a vary of materials all the time. How do you keep evolving in every collection?

We have been experimenting with fabrics and materials from the very first collection. The idea is to adapt the embroidery on new materials and take it in a new realm. For dupattas, we have used hand-woven silks from Bengal. Fine matka and tussar silks for our saris. We did a full collection in which we used leheriya dyed fabric for the saris and accessories. We have also been using metallic yarns in shades of silver and gold to do the embroidery. This has been our innovation for Parsi embroidery. We also combine traditional Indian techniques of applique, chikan and cutwork in our range.

What are the motifs commonly seen in the craft you endorse?

Parsi Embroidery is full of exotic patterns where flora and fauna mingle effortlessly with architecture. Dancing peacocks and soaring cranes are interspersed with blooming bunches of chrysanthemums, peonies and roses. Elegant pagodas and delicate bridges are embroidered with daily life of Chinese people. The most famous motifs are the China-chini (china man and chinese woman gara), the chakla-chakli (male and female sparrow) margha-murghi (rooster and hen garo). Other quaint gara motifs include the polka dots, which are called kanda-papeta gara (onions and potatoes) and the spinwill motif is known as karolia or spider.

10What’s special about the line you are bringing to Singapore?

For Singapore we are bringing a range of classic ASHDEEN Garas along with our recent collection, “The Scent of the Orient”, which was showcased at Lakme fashion Week 2015.

In this collection, we have infused Chinese imagery on traditional Indian saris and jackets. We have also introduced a range of Gara embroidery lehengas for the contemporary Indian bride.

The collection explores the charm of Blue & White Chinese Porcelain. Flora and fauna from these fine pieces have been delicately embroidered in tonal shades of blue and cream on the saris. Fluid chiffon and crepe silk saris have been dyed in rich tones of cobalt, crimson, burgundy and slate giving the perfect contrast to the embroidery.

Border details from Chinese Imperial jackets have been interpreted in saris and blouses. Floral patterns of roses, peonies and chrysanthemums along with exotic birds from chinoiserie and traditional Japanese kimonos have been have been embroidered with silk yarns, silver and gold metallic threads to give an elegant, yet opulent look.

Radhika Gupta of brings Ashdeen Lilaowala to Singapore on the 23rd of September @ The Four Seasons, Singapore.