In Bombay, the discreet embroiderers of global luxury

Sitting in the lotus position, four men pass pearls through a gold thread on an organza panel.

This is how the haute couture wedding dress by Julien Fournié was born at the embroiderer Shanagar in Bombay, destined to dazzle the public on Tuesday during its parade in Paris.

Denouncing “the imperialism of design”, the French couturier has chosen this season to highlight the “ancestral” and “unrivaled” Indian know-how enjoyed by the big houses around the world, without usually claiming it too much.

Inside a plain-looking beige building, dozens of men in gray polo shirts, barefoot, work seated on cushions on the floor, their heads bent over large pieces of fabric stretched flat by frames metallic.

In India, embroidery is a man’s job.

The silence in which one hears only the clicking of needles and beads and the whirl of ceiling fans, is disturbed by the roar of planes flying low to and from the international airport of India’s economic capital .

– “Number one in the world” –

The Shanagar workshop – which means “to adorn” in Sanskrit – has for decades played an essential, but discreet role in the execution of intricate embroidery for major fashion houses in Europe, the United States and Japan.

In India, we embroider for centuries with particularities in each region of this vast country.

“They have a range of techniques that we don’t have here”, underlines Jean-Paul Cauvin, director of the Julien Fournié house.

Biswajit Patra, 31, embroiderer at Shanagar, already has 15 years of experience. “I learned the trade in my village of Calcutta at home because my father was doing the same job and my brother and sister are also doing this job.”

“It’s ancestral. While we in Europe in the 16th century wore hennins and poulaines (types of headdresses and shoes, editor’s note), there were maharajas in gold-embroidered outfits, they are very advanced, it is the number one in embroidery in the world”, emphasizes Julien Fournié.

“What they know how to do better than anyone is to embroider with gold thread, to weave the threads inside the beads to create color gradients,” he explains to AFP. .

This creates an “aged and elegant” look. The wedding dress “shines, but not too much. Haute couture customers don’t want to be Christmas trees.”

“I worked with great French embroiderers and each time it’s complicated, everyone wants to put their two cents in and you never get exactly what you want,” he continues.

– Alaïa, Gaultier and Hollywood –

Chetan Desai, 55, whose father started “Creations by Shanagar” more than 60 years ago, lives for fashion.

The business had started as a workshop for hand weaving and embroidered saris.

But in the mid-1990s, he looked further to France, where he forged a partnership with the Franco-Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa, whose dresses embroidered by Shanagar were worn by Naomi Campbell, among others.

Remaining discreet about his current collaborations –except the one with Julien Fournié–, he remembers the embroideries made for Jean Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto and Donna Karan.

Even Hollywood came knocking on the door, with Shanagar helping design Nicole Kidman’s costumes in the 2001 musical “Moulin Rouge.”

“I love working with Julien Fournié. He pushes the limits. It was a difficult and at the same time very fruitful exercise because some of his ideas surprised me,” Chetan Desai told AFP.

Once the embroidered panels have arrived in Paris, Julien Fournié irons them carefully himself, before the workshop assembles the dress. “60% of the haute couture model is ironing,” he says.

The collection that will parade in Paris on Tuesday is entirely embroidered with beads and threads at Shanagar, with some new techniques such as embroidery made from pieces of tulle rolled up to create flowers.

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