In March 2011, Swiss designer Vanessa Meister went with her friend Natalie Bissig to buy fabrics from Jaipur. They went to several shops and saw numerous bolts of fabrics. “The shopkeepers kept asking me what I wanted,” says Vanessa. “I was thinking, ‘What kind of colours do I need? What will work in Switzerland?’ I was trying to calculate the price in Swiss Francs. In between people asked me whether I wanted tea or coffee. A few of them knew French, so I had to be careful about what I was talking with Natalie because they could follow what we were saying. If we told each other we liked something, they might increase the price.”
In the end, after some frantic bargaining, the duo bought several fabrics, but when they reached their hotel, in the evening, they collapsed on the bed, numb and exhausted.
“That’s India for you—overwhelming and intense,” says Vanessa, with a smile. “Yet I love the country because it is so different from Switzerland.”
And she elaborates on the reason why. “In India, I experienced a huge sense of freedom,” says Vanessa. “Unlike in Switzerland where everything is so regulated, in India, there is more space to do things, without being restricted by some kind of law. But it has its downsides. Sometimes, it can lead to a chaotic situation.”
Nevertheless, Vanessa fell in love with India, which she first visited in 2005. When she returned to Switzerland, she wanted to learn Hindi. So, she looked around for somebody suitable, and met Krishnan Varma, a scion of the Cochin Royal Family. Krishnan was doing his masters in architecture from the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
Even though Krishnan did not know Hindi, they fell in love, and got married in January 2010. The couple moved to London and Vanessa got a chance to work under the famed designer, Vivienne Westwood. “It was a valuable learning experience.”
Earlier, Vanessa had also done a three-year course at the University of Art and Design in Lausanne.
However, in October 2010, Krishnan and Vanessa relocated to Tripunithura, a suburb of Kochi, where they reside in a 200-year-old bungalow that belongs to Krishnan’s family. On the first floor, at the enclosed balcony on one side, Vanessa has her design studio and production unit. On the wooden beams above her studio, her design label, ‘Trumpet by Meister’ has been stencilled in black letters.
Ever since she has brought out five collections of men and women’s clothes, accessories and bags. But, perhaps, her most interesting is the Goonda collection (Spring/summer 2012). This was inspired by the 2010 Malayalam super-hit film Best Actor that she saw.
“Mammooty and all the other actors were wearing mundus (dhotis) and shirts in very bright colours,” says Vanessa. “The way they combined fabrics and colours was amazing.”
So, in the Goonda collection, there are bright orange blouses matched with blue shorts, green tops with pink shorts, and a pink shirt with striped black trousers.
Since Vanessa sells all her clothes in Switzerland, she did not want to make the clothes too loud. “Most people in Switzerland wear black and grey,” she says. “I have learnt to adjust the level of colour in my clothes. At the most, the Swiss would prefer one loud colour, while the rest should be muted.”
Creatively, Vanessa does not have to look far for inspiration. The moment she steps out of the house, she is assailed by colours. “The greenery of Kerala, apart from the vibrant colours of the salwar kameezes and the sarees, is very exciting,” she says. “Even the labourers wear bright blue shirts and maroon mundus.”
But dealing with the labour—local tailors—has not been that easy. “The male Malayali has plenty of ego,” says Vanessa. “Being a woman and a foreigner, the tailors found it difficult to accept orders from me. If I point out an error, they will get offended and say, ‘You don’t appreciate my work’. There is a lack of professionalism. Criticism is taken personally.”
But at the same time, some of the tailors are very skilled and are able to solve problems in a creative manner. “So there is a mix of good and bad,” says Vanessa.
Meanwhile, one of her good moments happened a few weeks ago. Whenever she interacted with the local people, they would call her ‘madama’ (a tongue-in-cheek term for a foreign woman). “But when I went to the market the other day, the shopkeepers began calling me ‘chechi’ (sister),” says Vanessa. “So I am finally being accepted here. I feel very happy.”