Smita Singh Rathore on inhabiting the dual worlds of food and fashion

Tucked in a first-floor space in the middle lane of Hauz Khas Village, it hasn't taken much time for Elma's (“cakes and tea room”) to become the hub of old-world cool in an area that has its share of popular eating places. Six months since setting up, patrons love it as much for its breads and scones as for the floral china and furnishings. It's a cosy place, conversations from different tables mingling in tea-scented air. The lady running the place, Smita Singh Rathore, incidentally, is also the founder of design collective Celldsgn, which she set up with Shani Himanshu in 2003.

With the principles of sustainability knitting themselves into its core practices, CellDSGN is one of those brands where much skill and technique is employed to make things that look super simple. At 11:11, CellDSGN's clothing label, it's “anti-fashion” if you may — in abhorrence of seasonal trends and inclination towards things more lastingly relevant.

“It's a kind of dichotomy, having a food business and a fashion business,” Smita grins when we meet at Elma's. “If you are in the food business you can never really stay thin, if you're in the fashion business you do not exist if you are fat. I'm trying to balance the two.”

After finishing at Domus Academy in Milan, Smita and Himanshu set up CellDSGN in Italy as a design-consultancy studio, where they worked with brands like Diesel (on their product R&D), Gas jeans and Miss Sixty. There was also a range of luxury leather carpets made from leather scrap, which they made for Pachamama (which still retails at Harrods). Constant travels to India and the successive recession that hit Italy and the rest of Europe meant operations shifted to India by 2008.

11:11 was started without much advance notice. Gitanjali Kashyap of Delhi Fashion Week visited their studio and offered them a free show at Delhi Fashion Week in 2008. “There were 15 days left to fashion week and we said we don't have a brand. I think in our heads we were always doing interesting things which we thought we would one day use for our own line if we ever had it. So that kind of came to fruition, and that's how 11:11 was born,” recalls Smita.

While CellDSGN's portfolio extends to everything from installations and exhibitions to products and space design (they designed the space for the Penguin party at the Jaipur Literature Festival), she admits that a ‘fashion' label provides one's brand a visibility that doesn't come with consultancy. “With consultancy, it's always the brand that you're working for. We were doing the Red Loop line for Levi's in India for two years. No one ever knew that,” Smita points out.

Elma's too, she explains, started in an organic way; all they wanted was a place where they could install an oven and bake bread for The Living Room located close by, owned by Gautam Aurora, Smita's husband.

“Then we found this place,” smiles Smita over a plate of bruschetta and light-as-cotton cucumber-cheese sandwiches we all dig into. “It was a very nice spot and we thought maybe we could put a few tables and just make sandwiches. Then I set out designing the place and could somehow imagine a tea room in here.”

The crockery is what the couple's been collecting over the years. “It's almost an extension of our house. We didn't have enough space to stock everything, so we were like ‘Put it at Elma's!'”

Food love runs in the family. While she considers herself and Gautam big foodies, the latter's mom is Cordon Bleu chef Shelly Sahay, who's done the food at Elma's. Smita likes to add that she herself is not a good cook. “But I'm a bit of a traditionalist, so I like to follow recipes. I don't experiment too much. But a lot of the ideas came from me because I absolutely love English tea rooms. Every time I'm travelling through U.K. — my husband's from there — I see the way they do it. The old Grandma-style baking and cooking… So that's the kind of idea I had in my head when we were doing the place and it rendered into the menu as well — good home-style cooking but very wholesome and really done in a good, traditional way,” says Smita.

Heavenly apple crumble cheesecake and red velvet cake soon arrive at the table. Fashion or food, it's about a lifestyle, according to Smita. “It's a way of being. It extends from clothes to what you write with to what perfume you wear, where you live and how you eat, the style of serving. That is what really fascinates me. And fashion is very, very evident in food places.”