Profile | Big Shilpa

MINT

Profile | Big Shilpa

A day before she showed Vesper Bloom, her Autumn/Winter 2014 accessories line, at the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) last Sunday, I met Shilpa Chavan, or Little Shilpa as the industry calls her (that’s the name of her label), at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt hotel. People were milling around in the lobby—some of them with overstated fashion auras; others wearing an impatient urge to belong.

Chavan, who’s 40 but looks 20, sliced through the air like a zippy meteor in a black dress with a dark pink fringe, pink stockings, white and gold flat shoes, a gold tin purse from Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, her hair in a sadhu’s knot, and gold eyeshadow on the inside corners of her eyes.

Chavan’s Vesper Bloom presentation stunned audiences with its starkness, blackness and conceptual complexity. In a darkened auditorium, models entered like walking art installations carrying their own lights, wearing Chavan’s by now recognizable mix of audacious headpieces—lace flowers, hats and masks with black sweatshirts designed by her. “Dracula, sunset, lace forests, flowers and organisms of the beautiful dark, punk pieces, Kardana (locally made pipe-shaped plastic beads) necklaces…,” she had said earlier, describing it. “I know what people say about white as a calming colour but I am totally engrossed by black these days. It is my tool to look inside and question myself; black is in my wardrobe and in my creations,” says the designer, whose style would have been difficult to pin down in the past without bold colours.

This rare play of delicate build and enormous intellect can be a bit enervating. As are her products. Audacious, outlandish headpieces—from large and small feathered hats to hairbands, jazzy crowns and head corsets, lacy or thorny flowers, pin-up ringlets in multihued felt, military epaulettes, armour-like shoulder pieces and belts, nose ornaments that remind you of warrior tribes, fluorescent visors, plastic cuffs and a variety of intimidating masks.

Chavan’s shows are always spectacular. Half saris, some pre-stitched, walk out on the ramp tucked into long white shirts with floppy sleeves and you suddenly notice the ingenious use of traditional textiles, even Kanjeevarams. Gender is incidental. A golden nose ornament will be seen on a male model; steely armour on a female.

The materials Chavan has used since she debuted in 2008 at the LFW in Mumbai range from crushed crystals, beads, lace, felt and broken bangles to steel, plastic, Indian fabrics, and sexy net. Waste material like trashed pieces of glass, shattered mirrors, fabric strips, even broken toys have fascinated her since childhood. Metal meshes, mohawks, batwings, spines and cones, scary eyes become focal points of her lighting. She is drawn by the ceremonial uniforms of the Armed Forces. One of her best collections, Battle Royale (2009), was military-inspired.

Being short is a banal fact of Chavan’s life. Never something she wanted to consciously disguise or the reason of an anxious spin. She has never been a girlie girl either. No frilly frocks for her though she did wear the green Maharashtrian bridal sari for her wedding. “I may do stilettos sometimes but in my own fierce way,” she says.

Today she is a much sought after modern artist who lives in London and Mumbai and shows from Spain to Milan, Italy. She does collaborations, like designing phone covers for instance, but is still learning to convert the Indian market to her bold, unapologetic pieces. Her collections in the last few years—Walt Disney, Rainbow Totem, Headonism, Schooled, Grey Matters, Battle Royale, Invitation to the Voyage, Fleurs du Mal, among others, have received acclaim abroad. But India is a different ball game. “Here, I still make money from styling for magazines and designers, fashion films and doing photography,” says Chavan, adding that Indian fashion has a long way to go. “Fashion is a global reality, so being limited, Indian, ethnic or exotic doesn’t fulfil its holistic needs,” she says. Her Good Earth line is a thoughtfully made series of accessories priced from 5,000-30,000—she feels it will work for Indian consumers, who are becoming experimental.

One question catches her off guard: Do you sleep well? She stares back, smiles, pauses till her gaze returns again. “I can’t believe you asked me that. I am always working in my sleep, solving some riddle. I get into bed, then start feeling uncomfortable,” she confesses.

Big Shilpa—working all the time, even in sleep. The price, perhaps, of a head always in gear.

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