Art and fashion come together in Shilpa Chavan’s work, whether it is millinery or installations.

Life is all about serendipity for some. For Shilpa Chavan, discovery is almost a way of life. She walks the line – occasionally a wall – between art and fashion knowing that what she does, creatively speaking, cannot be classified as either. Her choice of career was not a logically considered decision but she knew that she would do something creative, for pleasure rather than merely for money. Now in her mid-30s, Chavan was “brought up in a normal middle class Maharashtrian family” where her mother “would make something even from old, dried-up flowers”. Every school assignment “became an art and craft project, so helped us remember what we did better,” Chavan says. Her father was the disciplinarian, natural for him as a member of the police force.

Early days

Growing up, she designed her own clothes “when there was not much exposure to what we could do, apart from the basic course of fashion. I wanted to do architecture, but my father said it wasn’t something a girl should do, and commercial art wasn’t popular then.” So she indulged in a little scam, one that lasted about two months. Chavan started studying fashion at one college and a more conventional programme at another. “Then my parents found out, so I had to finish my graduation and then apply again for a fashion course after three very long years,” she recalls. But she knew that she “wanted to create more than just clothes”.

Chavan managed to make a mark doing just that; for her graduate presentation, she produced headpieces that earned her the enthusiastic approval of her professor, and the award for Most Innovative Collection. From there, carried along by the whimsies of destiny, she went on to assisting Hemant Trevedi, designer, mentor and perhaps one of the best known all-rounders in the Indian fashion world. In fact, he gave her the name she is known by: Little Shilpa; “Soon everybody was using it so I chose it for my label.”

She created headpieces for the leather show in Chennai and, with that, “I realised what I wanted to do: headpieces.” Trevedi suggested she study millinery - “That was when I understood that such a concept existed” - in London. But money was a problem, until “suddenly Channel V stuff happened and a new position called ‘a stylist’ came about,” as Chavan puts it. With television, glamour magazine shoots and other freelance assignments, she was able to take on a 15-day summer school course in London. It was not enough. “I am very anal about what I learn,” Chavan explains. “I believe that to break the rules, you need to have very strong rules.” After another stint of freelancing in Mumbai, this time for a year, she earned herself the Charles Wallace scholarship and went back to London for a six-month programme.

At around that time, the fashion wave swept India. The fashion week grew from a Delhi-based event to Mumbai, and Chavan spread her wings a little wider. Then serendipity took over. Just two days before the end of a London holiday, she called star milliner Philip Treacy’s office to apply for an internship. She met the designer and his team on a Friday, a day before she was to leave for India, and was asked to start work on Monday. “I worked with Treacy, doing stuff hands-on, learning about the international market, doing more sales and retail pieces.” That experience gave her the push she needed to graduate from stylist to headpiece and accessory designer. “I found I had enough for a whole collection. I used these as samples, went back to London, got lots of feedback, and signed up with Blow PR, who suggested more press work.” It had all started happening for the middle-class girl from Mumbai.

From fashion to art was a baby step. “I started doing installation work some time ago. My husband is a graphic designer; his company was part of an India festival. The curator of the show saw my work and gave me space to do whatever I wanted: an installation.” Then, another happy ‘accident’: Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Villa Moda in Kuwait, had bought some of Chavan’s work for his store; but “when he saw what I sent him, he wanted it for his art gallery!”

A woman's life

“Her Work Is Never Done”, the show curated by Krishnamachari Bose earlier this year at his Mumbai gallery, BMB, happened like that too. The name itself struck a resonant chord in Chavan’s creative synapses and she put together a mannequin that embodied for her, she says, and for those who saw it, exactly that: the endless routine that a woman lives, every day, without relief. The figure is composed of all those bits and pieces that make up the life of the average urban woman today: from dustpans to rubber-slipper straps, mosquito netting, plastic baby dolls, tea strainers and more. The head of the mannequin has gear wheels turning. Chavan said then, “She multitasks, making babies, working in the house; her brain is always functioning. And with all this, she holds a mirror; she is always thinking of being beautiful”.

According to Chavan, “When I do fashion shows, it is art. When I do art, it is more like fashion. I am in an in-between phase. I like combining old and new and creating something completely new. And I love colour!” Even as she works in the modern urban environment of Mumbai, London and parts beyond, “I am very drawn to my local roots and inspired by local art and craft, culture and colour.”

Though her designs may not always be lucrative or even saleable, “my styling money supports what I want to do. And now my family agrees that it is a good thing; they are really proud of me. My husband is my critic, he completely understands my work. People still feel that I need to tone it down to get orders. But I am not going to change; I do not believe in it.”

As destiny takes her along the journey she is on, the turns have worked for Chavan. As she marvels, “I haven’t planned anything I wanted to do, it just happened!”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012