Gracious Glory of Gara 

Designer Ashdeen Lilaowala marks the 10th anniversary of his label with a new collection, alongside a photo exhibition. 
Photograph of the Sethna sisters
Photograph of the Sethna sisters

A couple of years ago, when fashion director Malini Banerji was looking for an outfit to wear at the Couture Week, Ashdeen Lilaowala made her a Gara kimono. Banerji loved the Parsi needlework so much that she styled Oprah Winfrey in a Gara saree by the designer for a magazine cover shoot. 

Delhi-based Lilaowala, also known for his work as a craft revivalist, recounts the story as he points towards a photograph of the kimono-clad Banerji displayed at his Mumbai store. It is among the images of 13 women who have played a significant role in his creative journey. The photographs, shot by the internationally acclaimed Rema Chaudhary, were part of a recent exhibition titled, Threads: 

A Decade of Ashdeen, which celebrated 10 years of the designer’s eponymous label. “The idea was to have something more permanent and not a one-off event. So I contacted Rema last year to start work on the photo series,” he recalls.

Delna Mistry
Delna Mistry

The women, renowned personalities from the fields of education, philanthropy, fashion and art, graciously opened their homes to Chaudhary who, in turn, captured them in Lilaowala’s creations, with the artful aesthetics of their homes not just providing the perfect backdrop, but also offering a glimpse into their rich lives.

Lilaowala believes he is a keeper of stories, which are aplenty if the exhibition is anything to go by. There’s of course his mother Shernaz, who makes for a stunning model in her chic bob hair, red lipstick and a purple Gara saree. Next to her portrait, hangs an exquisite black Gara saree, hand-embroidered by the designer’s great-grandmother. “My earliest memories of my mother are in this drape,” he says. 

There’s also his philanthropist neighbour Mackie Majra, whose house he often stayed at after-school when his mother would still be at work; and pianist Kermen Mehta, whose dog, Maggy, turned out to be a natural poser in front of the camera. Then there’s homemaker Roshan Cama, who helped Lilaowala establish connections before he found his footing in the fashion world, and whose daughters and granddaughters have, over the years, been dressed by him. Textile designer Mala Sinha gives a peek into her minimalist home as she poses next to a table topped with photo frames. In sharp contrast is entrepreneur Delna Mistry’s glamorous abode, where she is photographed dressed in a gorgeous black, white and red saree. The Sethna sisters—Dr Niloufer Shroff, Rukshana Shroff and Dr Shernaz Cama—smile into the lens as they sit in the living room of their Delhi home boasting a grand display of their mother Khorshed Sethna’s crockery collection. 

Besides the exhibition, the designer also marked the milestone with the launch of his new collection, The Birth of Venus, with which he goes back to the origins of the Gara. Heavy floral motifs in jewel-toned sarees hark back to the traditional embroidery designs, which seem to be the perfect offering for the ongoing festive and wedding season.

Lilaowala’s journey has not been without its share of ups and downs. When the textile design graduate from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad decided to revive Gara, which has its origins in China, he was clear he wanted to give it a modern makeover. “The idea was to give it my voice. We would take traditional elements from Garas—floral motifs such as peonies and chrysanthemums, Chinese men and women, cheena cheeni, cranes and other birds in flight—and give the narratives our own spin,” he says. Expectedly, the designer faced resistance from the Parsi community. It was only by the fourth year of his label that his innovations started gaining acceptance within the community, and outside it.

Today, Lilaowala uses Gara embroidery on sarees, lehengas, kimonos, shawls, gowns, pants, stoles and even accessories, including  bags. “I believe that the Parsi Gara is an aesthetic and not defined by a stitch or material. It was always evolving even when it was in its prime, and that’s the beauty of craft,” he says, recalling that one of his clients, a Parsi bride getting married to a Christian man, wanted her gown’s veil to have the traditional embroidery. “We are packaging and presenting Gara to today’s consumer while maintaining its relevance,” the designer says.

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The New Indian Express