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AAPI Designers Bringing Traditional Design to Modern Fashion

AAPI Designers Bringing Traditional Design to Modern Fashion

Tell me a bit about yourself and your brand. How did you get into fashion design, and what were some of your initial points of inspiration? 

Growing up, I loved shopping for fabrics during our family trips to India and was fascinated by the process of custom garment-making—choosing a fabric and silhouette and taking it to the tailor, the embroiderer, etc. I studied visual art in college and often incorporated fabric, hand-embroidery, and beading in my paintings, which led me into studying textile design. Learning how to weave, spin fiber into yarn, dye fabric, and even create homemade natural dyes later served as a basis for all of the custom textile development work I do now for my line. My heritage, the several different forms of traditional Indian dress, and the ways in which I saw people wearing bright, saturated color and embellishment back home were always something that really inspired me as a designer and as an artist. An obsession with color is something that unites my design work and visual art as well.

How does your Indian heritage play a role in your design process and inspiration? 

I started Abacaxi because I wanted to work with so many different traditional Indian handmade and handloom textile techniques—many of which are at risk of disappearing—[and bring them] into contemporary fashion and our everyday. I was always fascinated by the breadth of different embroideries, types of weaves, and intricate forms of beading that were possible in India, and it remains one of the main points of inspiration in my work today. There are so many regional and local heritage processes that I want to explore. Even after designing several collections over the years now, I feel I am just getting started and scratching the surface. The kaleidoscope of possibilities there is so rich.

What traditional Indian practices and techniques do you put to use when producing your collections for Abacaxi? 

I have designed with handloom woven fabrics such as ikat (when the warp or vertical threads are resist-dyed) and mashru (a beautiful type of weave from Gujarat where shiny silk shows on the face of the fabric while cotton grazes the skin on the inside). This season in my Stingray collection, which is available now for spring/summer 2022, I worked with skilled handloom weavers in Tamil Nadu, India, to create a custom yarn-dyed plaid with four different plant-dyed yarn colors and small stripes of rainbow Lurex. The result turned out brilliantly. It is a color-block design with a very wide warp without a repeated stripe on the warp. I intentionally designed it with overlays so you get to see several different shades of color with just four yarn colors. I actually just visited the weavers there this last month, and they told me it was the most difficult design they’ve ever had to execute.

Some of the traditional embroideries I’ve been working with are shisha (mirror work), phulkari (silk floss thread embroidery from Punjab), ari work, eyelet embroidery, and zari. Tie-dye techniques are another big one. I recently just launched a new website for Abacaxi, and now, you can explore each of these techniques, see videos and photos of the processes, meet the makers, and even shop by textile technique or by collection concept. 

Another traditional Indian practice which I’m now proud to say we are working with is actually the ancient way of cotton farming, also known as regenerative cotton farming, through a partnership with Oshadi. Our future cotton fabric productions will use this farmed fiber, and we are also incorporating more and more natural dyeing processes from India.

How did you learn about these practices and techniques? 

I didn’t have formal training in any of the Indian textile techniques, but I have realized that I learned a lot from my mom and other family members. I think the knowledge of textiles was passed down to me. My mom was always very particular about the type of fabric she would wear, and when we had traditional outfits made for weddings in India, I learned about some of the different types of embellishments. Then, because of my passion and interest in the topic, I did a lot of research on my own. I’m grateful to have been able to travel not just around parts of India but to several different places around the world now researching artisanal textiles.

What does it mean to you to be able to bring these traditional Indian practices and designs to new audiences with your work? 

It’s very meaningful to me and obviously quite meaningful and valuable to the makers—the weavers, artisans, cutters, sewers, and all of the people behind our productions in India. The work has a strong impact, and when you purchase one of our pieces, you’re not just getting a quality, handmade garment, but [you] are also supporting makers who are continuing an ancestral tradition. Every transaction has meaning by giving value to the work.

What are some ways that you modernize more traditional practices when incorporating them into Abacaxi collections?

One example is my use of shisha work or mirror work. This is an embroidery technique using small, usually round mirrors that are embedded into the embroidery, traditionally from Rajasthan and Gujarat. Oftentimes, you’ll see shisha in wall hangings or on very typical tunics or kurtas. My take on it was to do it on a rib-knit jersey fabric, and I added hand-beaded fringe for a 3D effect. I have a shisha knit shrug set, dresses with a line of mirrors down the front, and now a shisha pouch purse. I think to see this technique on a stretchy knit instead of a stiff cotton is one way to sort of modernize it or bring it into more everyday contemporary wear. 

Another great example is the Stingray color-block custom weave I spoke about. Yarn-dye plaids and striped cottons are very typical of South India— madras plaids are probably the most widely known example—but my take on it was to create a wide color-blocked warp design that is totally different on one end than on the other, thus bringing this traditional handloom technique into another level from a graphic and a design perspective. 

Oftentimes, in my design process, I start with the techniques and fabrics I want to use, and the inspiration or concept for the collection comes through, and I’m designing the textiles and putting together the palette and sketches. So the techniques themselves are often the basis for the inspiration.