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Craft preservationist Maximiliano Modesti on the future of India’s textile heritage

When we speak, there is an inexplicable sense of excitement in textile designer and craft preservationist Maximiliano Modesti’s voice. I put it down to his keenness to understand, explore, and create, something that also resonates with curious students, revered designers, and textile enthusiasts, who he is always surrounded by. One would imagine working with Indian crafts for 26 years would have worn him down, but if anything, he is more reassured and hopeful about the changing fate of Indian karigars than ever before.

It is a belief that comes from having worked extensively in India, and for some of the most prestigious brands such as Azzedine Alaïa. In 1998, he founded Les Ateliers 2M in Mumbai, an embroidery and textile development firm which boasts an illustrious list of clients such as Isabel Marant, Chloé, Hermès, Dior, Balmain, YSL, and Bibhu Mohapatra. More recently, in 2013, Modesti, along with Yash Agarwal, co-founded Jaipur Modern, a concept store housing some of India’s most promising designers. 

Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti

Having studied fashion design, it was while he was pursuing an MBA in Fashion Management that Modesti stumbled upon an extensive database of India’s crafts. Enamoured by the country’s rich textile heritage, he came to India first in 1993. Several trips followed, which eventually led to him setting up his firm.

Modesti is a man with a vision, and considers India to be a fortunate, creatively chaotic space where there is immense potential for growth. He spoke to Lifestyle Asia about his understanding of Indian crafts, designers he looks up to, and his journey so far. 

A model in Azzedine Alaia. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
A model in Azzedine Alaia, featuring embroidery by Les Ateliers 2M. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
From working with the iconic Azzedine Alaïa to coming to India and exploring art and craft here, how has your journey been?

It’s been fantastic and a unique journey. I came here without any preconceived ideas, I didn’t know what I was going to find. It almost grew organically. There was no master plan, there was no marketing plan. There was just a desire to understand and master crafts. And also a vision that if you are able to do both then you can create that something others can’t create. So, after 26 years that’s the sense that I make out of my journey. 

You have been working out of India for more than two decades. How have you seen the state of Indian craftsmen changing?

It’s has gone through a drastic change. When I came to India in 1993, I knew that the West was enamoured by Indian crafts but I was also surprised to know that it had small appeal within India. After 26 years, however, now I can say finally we are in a great place; finally, the country is waking up to its own craft, designers are waking up to their own history, traditions, and DNA. It is the responsibility of the Indian designers to create emotions through their work. It should not just be about creating a product. It’s all about ‘how do you make yourself different; how do you make your story different’. 

Red crocodile Hermes bag. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
Red crocodile Hermes bag, featuring embroidery by Les Ateliers 2M. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
Do you think the appreciation of Indian crafts has increased in the domestic market as well?

Yes, it has, over the past quarter of the century it has evolved. I think the future of Indian craft has to do everything with the Indian market. We cannot expect the world to save Indian craft, or be able to supply enough orders or pump money in the system. The primary consumer of the Indian craft is the Indian consumer. From Good Earth, Fab India, Nilaya to Sabyasachi, there is a product for everybody. The best part is that the Indian costumer is slowly getting educated. They know that behind one product there is a kaarigar who has been diligently working on it, and this is what is important because this translates into 50 million jobs in India. After agriculture, it is the second larger employer. We need to think about how do we continue to create new products to increase the revenue for this population. 

A bag created at Modesti's Les Ateliers 2M. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
A bag created at Modesti’s Les Ateliers 2M. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
What do you think is the biggest challenge they face?

If you have to be a craftsman, you have to generate a decent enough revenue. Unfortunately for a number of years, craftsmen were at the lower scale in India. So, there is a tradition of bargaining: ‘You can give this to me for half the price’. But the reality is that if the craftsmen have to spend a month embroidering that piece, it carries a certain price. This is one of the biggest challenges the Indian market is facing. We need Indian consumers to be synchronised with the reality of the artisans. Exceptional products do carry long-time research and require effort in the making. 

You have been associated with a number of global brands. How do you think ‘Made in India’ is valued in the international context? 

Owing to its vast database, craftspeople now come to India to increase their know how. It is no more a place for cheap products. Luxury brands today are not hesitant to say that their products are made in India. 

A model in Bibhu Mohapatra. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
A model in Bibhu Mohapatra, featuring embroidery by Les Ateliers 2M. Image: Courtesy Maximiliano Modesti
Tell us about a few of your initiatives that are helping the cause of Indian crafts and craftsmen. 

One of our initiatives is The Lucknow Design Trust, and as a part of this, we have recently launched Kalhath Institute in Lucknow. It is a training centre for embroidery artisans. I felt that after spending so many years in India, it was my responsibility to give back. So, Kalhath is a place we enroll motivated artisans and enable them to explore their strengths. Many artisans do not get a chance to attend schools or get professional training. Some of the artisans are exceptional at what they do. However, were they born in a different family they would have successful entrepreneurs. So we select them, give them a paid year-long opportunity to attend the institute. Les Ateliers 2M is the manufacturing unit based out of Mumbai, that I run for the luxury brands. 

How are the probable candidates chosen?

We focus on motivation; a candidate might be little less talented in terms of craft but if he is very motivated, we taken them in. We try and identify people who can lead a change in their community. Our job is to enable them to start their own businesses 

A brand that excites you?

Bibhu Mohapatra. I have been associated with him for almost five years. If you want the West to have a different approach to Indian fashion, it’s important that a designer like him succeeds. Indian market is currently centralised over the country. We are lucky that names such as Ruchika Sachdeva and Suket Dhir are leading a new generation of designers who I think can change the way rest of the world is looking at Indian fashion. 

There is a lot of dialogue on preserving Indian crafts, but what do you think is the way forward? 

Preserving Indian craft is a bit crazy where you have 50 million artisans. You can preserve the excellence of craft and certain aspects of it. I believe India and its craft entrepreneurs have a fantastic economic opportunity to grow. The government is also realising that the second largest employer in the country is not left behind. I am sure India can preserve while keeping innovation in design as a focus. 

Craft preservationist Maximiliano Modesti on the future of India’s textile heritage

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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