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How Varana’s Sujata Keshavan took Indian craftsmanship to Dover Street

What are the chances of spotting authentic Bengali jamdani and Himalayan cashmere on London’s Dover Street Market, where heavyweight luxury honchos like Victoria Beckham, Jimmy Choo, and Christian Louboutin have their stores? We’d say high, thanks to Sujata Keshavan’s label Varana, which is all about Indian textiles interpreted in modern, contemporary pieces.

Image: Courtesy Varana

In the four short years since its launch, Varana has garnered global attention. The reason for that is how the label has made Indian textiles and motifs suit the international market. Think sheer shirt dresses with tropical embroideries; high quality silk dresses with ditsy prints; ruffled organza shirts; and tunics with The Tree of Life print. Urbane, sophisticated, chic. The pieces are all assembled in different parts of the world – fabric sourced from one place, cut, embroidered, stitched in another. We’d even go as far as to say the separates are couture-quality pret.   

For Keshavan, the inception of Varana was a serendipitous affair. While on a trip to Varanasi during Diwali, gazing at hundreds of little diyas lighting up the Ganga, Keshavan knew she wanted to explore Indian textiles. With Varana (inspired by the word ‘Varanasi’, and meaning ‘precious’ or ‘excellent’), Keshavan, a Yale graduate and former graphic designer, felt she could highlight a contemporary and international approach to design, something to make Indian products relevant to markets in other countries. At the heart of it, Keshavan wanted to create an artisanal luxury brand.

Image: Courtesy Varana

The result is a beautiful, minimal, multi-storey space on Dover Street Market, where one can experience and learn the story behind each Varana piece. We spoke to Keshavan on what makes her brand came together. 

On Varana’s ethos

Varana addresses a growing set of discerning international consumers who appreciate quality while being mindful of the way they live and what they buy. Our pared down aesthetic is focused on fine fabrics, clean cuts, and details. We source ethically and responsibly, promoting dignity within the ecosystem. At the heart of our work are the gifted artisans we work with. By reinterpreting the vocabulary of traditional craft through contemporary design, we hope to create new markets and patronage for the makers, giving them a livelihood and fostering pride in their knowledge and skills.

On working with Indian textiles

Fine fabrics are extremely important to us. Varana is unusual in that we have our own team of textile designers. Our bespoke fabrics are designed in-house and hand woven in Bengal or machine-woven in mills around Bengaluru. In terms of special artisanal fabrics, we have woven brocades in Benaras, Jamdani in Bengal, and block printed in Rajasthan. Our cashmere is from the Himalayan region. So the whole of the subcontinent is our playing field for fabrics. We do import the finest wool and cashmere from Italy, especially for our winter collections, where India does not have good options.

On building a global team

We have a team of people from many countries working together in our studio in Bengaluru. Our textile designers are from India as they need to have an excellent understanding of India’s weaving, printing, and embroidery traditions. The fashion designers and pattern makers are from Italy and France. Our knitwear designer is from Japan. Having a multicultural team means that our designers view the traditional Indian techniques through fresh eyes. They bring a contemporary sensibility to our traditional ways of making.

On her initial challenges

My journey since I started Varana is full of challenges, literally every day and at every level. In terms of product, there are daily challenges involved in making superior products by hand while maintaining consistency in quality. In India, artisans come from a different world from that demanded by the international fashion industry, which is very proscribing. Getting the two worlds to work together is a real challenge.

Image: Courtesy Varana
Getting a store on Dover Street was very difficult for a new brand. We were turned down by many different landlords. It’s important to persevere. We are trying to overcome challenges by being patient, by thinking through each one and by staying focused on the task at hand.

On her latest collection

This year we are working with the idea of The Tree of Life. Starting with an 18th century Palampore chintz painting as inspiration, we’ve deconstructed the elements and rendered them through appliqué cutwork, ari hand embroidery among other fabric manipulation techniques. Birds and flowers from the original painting have been re-designed into prints. We’ve used pretty and delicate colours for spring and jewel tones for winter. Stand out pieces include a fabulous organza hand-embroidered and cut-worked trench coat, and complex engineered printed dresses of The Tree of Life. For high summer, we have a specially woven linen capsule with little embroidered details that give pleasure to the wearer.

Image: Courtesy Varana

On working with Indian artisans

India has so much to offer the world in terms of its extraordinary textile and craft heritage. Some of our printing and weaving techniques have been traced back to the time of the Indus Valley civilisation, practiced within families for generations with knowledge being handed down from father to son and mother to daughter. Our hope in starting Varana is that we introduce new discerning patrons who will help our artisans to remain relevant as we fear that their extraordinary hand-skills are being lost or diluted due to lack of patronage.

Image: Courtesy Varana

On expansion plans

We plan to take the brand forward through a hybrid model of our own stores; online through our own website as well as multi-brand marketplaces and also to select department and specialty stores in other countries. America is definitely on our radar since we are getting a lot of customers from there. We have just started taking our baby steps out in the world and we plan to do many exciting things in the years ahead!

How Varana’s Sujata Keshavan took Indian craftsmanship to Dover Street

Anupam Dabral

Sr. Associate Editor

It was while studying fashion journalism at London College of Fashion that Anupam developed a keen interest in the anthropological aspect of the discipline; for him, fashion only makes sense when seen in the context of its environment. He is always on the hunt for great stories, and in his spare time binge-watches films/shows starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

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