Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Parsi Gara: Using History For a New Story

How Ashdeen Lilaowala keeps traditional oriental embroidery craft distinct without adapting to the millennial culture

Seated in the plush, spacious, newly launched store of textile designer and author Ashdeen Lilaowala, one can’t help but notice how this space like his oeuvre of work is an amalgamation of influences.

Article by Chirag Mohanty Samal |The Voice of Fashion

The Parsi gara revivalist has incorporated traditional Chinese and Indian elements into an otherwise chic and modern store, his first, which was launched in August at Defence Colony, New Delhi. Wooden screens with golden highlights and Chinoiserie motifs hand-painted by an artist from Jaipur to dainty pink and greyish purple walls provide an apt backdrop to the numerous gara saris that Lilaowala has created over the years. Perched on a coffee table, at the centre of the store is Threads of Continuity–The Zoroastrian Craft of Kusti Weaving, a book he penned under the aegis of UNESCO’s Parzor project. As he settles down on the sofa next to it, for a chat he points to the book and says, “Even if the dwindling Parsi community becomes extinct, their culture and heritage will live on for posterity through this book.” His statement sums up the purpose of his work as well.

5baa016e580ff

Ashdeen Lilaowala’s flagship store at Defence Colony, New Delhi.

Making the Past Fashionable

His latest collection titled ‘Vintage Tales’ delves into the fad that possessed Parsi women in the 19th and 20th century—they posed for portraits wearing Parsi gara saris. Sadly, the dense embroidery of butterflies, mythical birds, flowering trees, plants and vines, which were done on rich silks, were never attempted beyond this century. Lilaowala brings alive the intricacy and opulence of these garas of yore in his collection. He dug up photos from family archives, studied portraits at Parsi-run institutions, fire temples, libraries, schools, and hospitals around the country to re-create the elaborate motifs. He confides this was his attempt to capture the aesthetics and the ethos of the community that’s steadily declining at a 10 percent rate every 10 years, as reported by UNESCO. His diligent research is visible on saris in a slew of fabrics such as silks, organza, chiffons and crepes in colours ranging from reds and violets to blacks. “In today’s time and age, wearers’ sartorial choices are governed by comfort. So we do use lightweight fabrics,” he says. This is where Lilaowala’s expertise lies. He picks up inspiration from the past and presents it in a modern context. “I experiment with colour, form, sizing and shapes. Besides, the regular solid jewel tones, I do pastels and ombres or dual tones. But whatever the intervention, I ensure the end result looks like authentic gara. There’s a lot of information available and the buyers even the younger ones know what gara is,” he adds.

5baa016fcf451

A sari from the collection titled ‘Vintage Tales’

Another innovation that he introduced was to remove the restrictions from the kor or border of the sari. “In earlier days, Parsi women had detachable borders sewn to their saris. Simply because they did not want the sari ends to get soiled or damaged due to several washes. They would detach the border, wash the sari and reattach it. Though detachable borders were discontinued, the concept of a distinct border persisted. In my first collection, I tried to create a border that merged into the rest of the saris—there were no clear demarcations,” he says. A close look at his saris would reveal cranes flying off or vines growing out from the borders into the sari. A signature element, as Lilaowala calls it, has stayed on with the brand through the years. Recently, actor Sonam Kapoor wore a sari from his 2013 collection titled “China Girl” for a scene in the movie Sanju.

5baa01713e28c

Actor Sonam Kapoor wore this sari from the ‘China Girl’ collection for a scene in the movie ‘Sanju’.

The Business of Strategies

In 2013, Lilaowala got his big break, when he got to showcase at the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) Summer/Resort 2013. He presented Paris gara on Western silhouettes—there were gowns, short dresses, tunic blouses and pants besides saris. The fact that the embroideries were minimalistic, struck the right chord with the audience. He went back to LFW in 2014, with a collection called “Orient Express”. The immaculate construction and embroidery on dresses, gowns, saris and blouses caught a lot of attention as did the fabrics. He steered clear of the regular silks and used Chantilly lace, organza, crêpe, brocade, satin and lamé in shades of cream, fuchsia, orange, black, red and gold. However, after his second stint at LFW, Lilaowala was convinced his forte laid in saris and not Western silhouettes. “I wasn’t trained in pattern or construction. I decided to stick to what I knew best. In 2015 I showcased a collection of saris at LFW,” he says. Staying focused helped him create a niche in the market, he stresses.

5baa01727f327

Ashdeen Lilaowala

After his first show at LFW, Lilaowala started taking his craft to different cities through exhibitions. This gave him an ideal platform to meet his clients face-to-face and cater to their requirements. “The interactions helped gain a grip over what the market wanted. We had repeat customers and word of mouth spread,” he says. A small inventory helped him skirt losses in the business. “We did not have readymade garments, so there was no need for stocking different sizes. One-size-fits-all saris were economically viable” he reveals.

Distancing himself from trends paid off dividends as well. Lilaowla did not create pieces that were seasonal. Did this not keep the younger crowd, so taken in with trends, away? “Millennials are not my target audience. It’s the matured connoisseur of art and craft that I want to engage,” he replies. Having said that, he points to the plethora of accessories at his store—clutches, stoles, dupattas and sappats (slip-ons fashioned around traditional Parsi house slippers) and mentions the entry level products are meant for a younger audience, to initiate them into the world of Parsi gara.

5baa0173b56d5

Clutch purses adorned with Parsi gara

Price points for all the products have been carefully decided. For someone who does not want to shell out ₹60,000 and above for an embroidered sari, there are printed chiffon saris with lace borders that start from ₹20,000 onwards. And someone on the hunt for a treasured legacy, can buy a fully embroidered sari for ₹ 3.5 lakh.

Take a look at his efforts to revive gara

Sustaining the Intangible Heritage

Talking about the road ahead, he stresses he has no plans of opening any store abroad as he feels nothing can beat Indians’ appreciation of craft and textiles. “Most contemporary Indian women want a slice of tradition and culture in their wardrobes. They want to be connected to their roots, a gara gives them this bond,” The advent of global luxury brands has also made the buyers more aware of the value of owning a piece of luxury. “A woman who invest ₹1.5 Lakh for a Louis Vuitton bag no longer cribs about a gara sari being overpriced,” he adds. This augurs well for the craft and he plans to beget more patrons by continuing with his travelling exhibitions. This year he is taking his collections to Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Singapore.