What if women ruled the world? Would buildings resemble wombs? Would God be female? Would there be equal parenting? Though these questions can easily stir up debates, yesterday at Dior’s Spring Couture 2020 show at Rodin Museum in Paris, they took centre stage quite literally.
For Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Dior, fashion is best understood when it’s placed in today’s context and feminism has been a recurring theme in her shows. Right from her first show where she rolled out a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘We should all be feminists’ inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay of the same title, to her second show where she paid tribute to art historian Linda Nochlin with a top embroidered with ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Chiuri has carved out different ways of evoking emotions.
Dior Spring Couture 2020 show saw American artist Judy Chicago’s set design seamlessly blend in with Chiuri’s exquisite couture pieces. Even better, India registered its presence too. Chiuri and Chicago collaborated with the Mumbai based Chankaya School of Art to create panels for the set design. Headed by designers (and sisters-in-law) Karishma Swali and Monica Shah of the label Jade, the craft school founded in 2017 is an off-shoot of Chanakya, an export house launched by Vinod Maganlal Shah ( Karishma Swali’s father) in 1984. For decades their brand has been synonymous with Indian craftsmanship and has collaborated with the likes of Gucci, Maison Margiela, and Alberta Ferretti to name a few. However, both Swali and Shah can be credited for not just retaining an undiluted sense of purity of craft but also packaging it in a way so that the world takes note.
Their latest collaboration with Dior stands out. All 21 panels at the show, emblazoned with empowering and feminist messages, were hand embroidered by their students and took hundreds of hours to finish. We spoke to Karishma Swali and Monica Shah on diverse creatives forces aligned to deliver a perfect couture moment.
On working with Maria Grazia Chiuri and Judy Chicago
Our relationship with Maria Grazia Chiuri is a precious one; we have worked with her on embroidery collections for over two decades. Maria Grazia is a creative genius, a champion of craft, and a general humanitarian. When we were considering a center for craft excellence, it was Maria Grazia who suggested that we dedicate this school to the empowerment of women, who have historically been excluded from artisan roles in India.
For the set of her Dior Spring Couture 2020 , Maria Grazia asked us to collaborate on her art commission, The Female Divine by Judy Chicago. The Female Divine embodies an immersive sculptural feminization of space, and we were incredibly honored by this invitation and opportunity. Chicago’s work, ‘The Dinner Party’, was a groundbreaking feminist art instillation produced in the 1970s, which espoused the values of community and collaboration.
On the creative process involved
The 21 panels our students crafted for this installation are in every way complementary to the Dior Spring Couture 2020 show. The project was realised over one month with the participation of 150 female students, and each panel, which measured up to 3×2 meters, required anywhere between 500 to 2,800 work-hours.
The panels required 11 individual processes to put together: From embroidering individual letters on tulle to finishing with a thick braided border. One of the most difficult techniques used in this project is called sfumato or the art of the perfect degrade. This technique utilises small needle points, which gives the appearance of colours moving seamlessly into one another like in an Impressionist painting.
On aligning with other creative forces
It was actually very easy since all three (us, Judy and Chiuri) of our values are in sync. We all believe in the power of craft, the power of community, and the need for women’s empowerment. Our school is very fortunate because Maria Grazia is a creative visionary, which is evident each season at Dior, and a true professional.
On changing the global outlook towards Indian crafts
Craft is more than an assortment of techniques and processes- it is a part of our global heritage. Craft truly comes from all people and all places; it is integral to the meaning of luxury. As luxury grows, so will the importance of craft. We’re lucky in India to have a rich history of craft to draw upon, and at The Chanakya School we’re proud to teach and celebrate over 700 global craft techniques in an integrated curriculum that encompasses art history, life skills, philosophy, and female empowerment. By doing this, we pass on these global treasures for future generations to enjoy.
On women who inspire the school
One of the values of our school is Freedom- the ability to dream, challenge and express oneself. Many women today enjoy freedom, but there is still work to do. We look up to women like Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female artistic director at Dior, in their endeavors to shine a light on other women from around the world. We hope to do the same in our small way at The Chanakya School of Craft.