Interview: SEJAL ANUJAH SHAH

Rhiannon D’Averc sat down with a designer who is successfully fusing Western and Eastern design, to talk about culture, ethics, and her journey into the world of fashion.

How long have you been a designer?

Technically, in my business, 18 months – but actually, since I was nine! I’m 25 now, so a long time.

What inspired you to get started at that age?

I used to sit there, and my mum used to get Hello! Magazine, and I’d flick through the back where they had all the red carpet events. I’d watch catwalk shows, and I’d just copy the designs with sketches of what I saw. It’s just what I used to do. I’d never draw anything else, I just used to draw clothes. It kind of stuck from then. My mum always said that when I first started drawing she thought it was a phase, and soon realised that it wasn’t. It just carried on, so that’s how I got into it.

Tell me about the ethos behind the brand.

My ethos is really built on the fact that I always struggled to find clothes. I’m not a standard size, and actually when you go to places like New Look or H&M or Next, their size 12 varies from shop to shop. I always struggled, so when I went to university I studied something called Fashion Atelier. It specialises in the high-end couture – so, everything is one-off, everything is bespoke to a person’s particular measurements, and having never really seen the couture side of the world apart from the beautiful gowns, it really opened my eyes to the possibilities. Everything that we do is either bespoke or made to order, which allows for adjusting to measurements if the client wants, and that’s really the core of how I started it. The other side of it is obviously I’m Indian – born here, brought up here, but my parents were from India – so I always felt that there was nothing that really encompassed my identity. The way that I design is really the kind of things that I would have wanted to wear and know that weren’t there when I was growing up. The kind of fusion – obviously, in London, it’s such a melting pot, so that’s really important.

There’s a real East meets West, classic meets modern style to your designs.How do you balance it?

It’s a work in progress at the moment. The last collection that I did, I tailored more towards the Asian market because it’s where I had my contacts, but actually, I found that I really wasn’t happy doing that. I’m working in a different way at the moment, and it’s about bring the best of both worlds. For me, the classic cuts and silhouettes and really sleek, modern lines that you get in Paris, London, wherever – that’s what I want to work towards from that element. When it comes to the East side, there’s a lot to do with colour, the fabrics, embroidery. It’s finding the balance between the two. A lot of the times when I’m reading Asian magazines I’ll see a lot where they’ll say they are fusion wedding dresses, when in actual fact, all they were were white wedding dresses with a bit of embroidery plonked on them. It was never really thought through, it was almost like an afterthought. It’s turning that on its head and saying, well actually, we want a fusion from the beginning, so what can we do with the silhouette as well instead of just plonking embroidery on it?

You’ve done some work with couture labels in the past, is that right?

Yes, I interned with Ralph & Russo. I got experience from that and some of my friends work there as well, so that was really my first experience with couture outside of my degree. When I left university, I worked for a designer just off Sloane Square doing the same thing. She produced a lot of stuff abroad, but we had a lot of fittings, hand-sewing and handfinishing, that kind of thing, that we did in house. It’s going the extra mile and doing the little bits and pieces, making sure that things
are perfect, and that’s one of the things that we do as well.

What was the biggest learning takeaway that you had from those experiences?

Just how much time you really do end up spending on these pieces. Because when I was at university, you’re really quite restricted in timing and that kind of thing, but when I was at Ralph & Russo we were working on a dress – it was actually my first day – they were working on a dress that was completely covered in flowers, but each petal was handcut, hand-shaped, and then hand-stitched. To see the time and the effort that goes into it, and the team that they had, really appreciating the craftsmanship that goes into it was the biggest takeaway that I had. It was crazy, it really was!

Who would you say is the woman who would wear your clothes?

I’m going through a change at the moment in terms of what I do. Like I said, I tailored the last collection towards an Asian market. This collection is more of the young generation, the woman who likes the finer things. They want to be completely different. One of my signature pieces is a bomber jacket, something that I’ve replicated in three different colour ways, and that’s one of the most popular pieces. So it’s someone that obviously has the money to spend on something a bit more expensive, but they know they’re getting quality with it as well.

How would you say your cultural background has inspired you?

It’s a massive driving force behind the label itself. It’s funny because when I was growing up, it never was something that I thought would be a factor in my designs. But when I went to university, I was in Kent, and I was one of a couple of Asians on the course. I was born and brought up in Wembley, so it’s a really heavily Indian area. Then I went to somewhere where there weren’t that many Asians, and you begin to really gravitate towards your culture a bit more and appreciate it, because it’s home and it’s comfort. That’s where I really found my identity, because I felt a bit lost there. It became something that I always wanted to have in one way or another encompassed in my designs.

Do you think it’s important, not just necessarily for you but for any designer, to bring that heritage through?

London is such a melting pot. Even in my street, I’ve probably got about 10 different nationalities. I don’t think you can have such a mix of cultures in one space and not bring them together. I just think that when you’re surrounded by all these amazing things and cultures, you can’t just hide from them. That’s exactly why I’ve brought my culture into it.

Can you describe your personal style?

Right now it’s comfort over anything, mainly because I spend a lot of time in the studio. I’m working in there for 13 hours minimum, so it really is comfort. But I think I bring that into my designs as well, because I think when you wear it I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, because then you’re just conscious of it. Even in terms of my designs, I don’t design anything that I wouldn’t wear myself. I like certain things that are East meets West, I had one of mum’s old saris which is literally just six yards of fabric – she said “I’m not doing anything with it” and handed it over and I turned it into a jumpsuit, it’s got a halter neck and that kind of thing. I like to keep my clothing quite simple because I accessorise a lot. It’s an excuse for me to wear jewellery really, because I can make clothes so I don’t buy them!

Tell me about the new collection that you’re working on now.

I’m currently designing it. It’s a lot more contemporary – there’s jumpsuits, trousers, dresses, no Indian outfits as such. I’ll be bringing the Indian side into at the moment in just smaller elements. I decided to go against what I did last time, I’m going for quite a sexy, sleek look. A lot of sheer fabrics, just things that would look really classy and make a woman feel really empowerment.

Do you have the release planned?

I was hoping for October. I’m also working on doing a pop-up event. I would like to do a show but I’m working on a really exclusive event, so all that is in the pipelines. Just trying to get the collection there first!

In your previous collection you have more traditional Indian shapes. What advice would you give for someone that’s maybe from a Western background about wearing the Indian items?

Everything that I’ve made, I’ve made in a way that they can be mixed and matched. For instance, the crop tops – the Indian name for them is blouses, but I call them crop tops because that is exactly what they are – they are made in such a way that, actually, if you wanted to wear then with a pair of highwaisted trousers or a pencil skirt, you can do. It’s a case of just knowing how you want to style it. Some of the skirts are full-length, really full in terms of material, so they’re not easy to wear in a Western way. But the tops are done in a way that they’re just really simple. There’s one look that has a massive brocade skirt, but the blouse that is with it is just plain, and then it’s got beading on the back. There’s no embroidery on it, it’s just simple, plain, and classic, and really easy to mix and match in different ways.

What does fashion mean to you?

Fashion itself is ever-changing. I think fashion has a lot to do with trends, and what people are wearing and the designers are making at that particular time. I think that when it comes to the way that I work, I try to work more in terms of style – not what will be in for, say, a season, but things that will actually last. I’m charging the prices for these that you want them to live, and you want them to last through the seasons, and hopefully through the years as well. I think more than fashion, I’d rather take it more towards style, and making sure that someone’s personality shows through what they wear.

What’s your process for making sure you have that longevity?

In terms of the way that I work with clients, from start to finish, I start with a consultation, free of charge. They come in and we talk about what they’re looking for. I work with ideally a minimum of three months, but depending on what it is, sometimes I can fit it in, and it just depends on the work we’ll need. But they come in for a consultation and then I go away and design something. Once I’ve designed and they’ve selected the final fabric, we do sample fittings, and in that process if they’re having embroidery done I get embroidery samples done. I select fabrics for them to look at, all these different types of things. Then we go through the sample fittings and make sure that everything’s right before we go into the final production. In terms of our final production, we take the extra mile. Making sure that the seams – even though they’re not going to be seen – that they’re finished properly so that nothing frays, things are interfaced where they need to be. Without working to that couture level, it’s really important that some of the details that they might not necessarily think about are taken care of. Where needed, we do a lot of hand-sewing. I used a suede fabric once and I recently made a pencil skirt for someone, and the seam wouldn’t stay. It kept popping back up. I had to go along and stitch the seam allowance down, just to make sure that it sat properly on her. It’s those finer details that make sure that the clothes are going to last, and they are going to sit properly, and the wearer’s going to be comfortable.

Do you have any dreams for the future?

The ultimate dream is for an international business. I’d like to set up a studio maybe in America and then one in India as well. My embroidery, I get it done out in India, so it just makes sense with all the fabrics and everything to have a base there. Really, if I could – it’s something I’d have to work towards, but being able to showcase in Paris would be phenomenal. That’s the dream!

Is there any celebrity that you would love to dress?

There’s multiples! Anyone that comes to me at the moment, I’ll take it! I think there’s a few Bollywood actresses, like Ashwarya Rai, the likes of those who go to Cannes and that kind of thing. I’ve grown up watching Ashwarya Rai so actually she would be amazing! But I think when we’re talking Hollywood as well, someone like Jennifer Lawrence I think. She seems like such a quirky, down to earth character, and I think it would be really cool.

Find more of Sejal’s work at sejalanujahshah.com, and keep up with Rhiannon’s latest writings at twitter.com/rhiannondaverc

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