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Celebrating the past, present and future of Parsi ‘gara’

In an interview, textile designer Ashdeen Lilaowala talks about his new store in Colaba, reviving the traditional sari and influences which shape up his universe

A ‘gara’ from Ashdeen Lilaowala's Paradise Crafted 2021 collection
A ‘gara’ from Ashdeen Lilaowala's Paradise Crafted 2021 collection

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Delhi-based textile designer Ashdeen Lilaowala is known for his research and revival work on the Parsi gara. Through his eponymous label, Lilaowala has been crafting magic with his creations, specialising in hand-embroidered saris inspired by the storied craft.

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He's now celebrating returning to his home base, Mumbai, with a flagship store in Colaba. Dressed in soft hues with a subtle nod to the Art Deco movement, the store is a tribute to the heritage of the Zoroastrian culture. What's more, Lilaowala's new collection, Liz In Bombay, has been shot in one of the most iconic Art Deco structures of the city: the Liberty cinema.

Lilaowala studied textile design at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, following which he conducted extensive research on Parsi embroidery for the textiles ministry alongside Unesco’s Parzor Foundation that took him on a journey across China, Iran and India.

His seminal research on the traditional and vanishing craft of Zoroastrian Kusti weaving has been published as a book, Threads Of Continuity: The Zoroastrian Craft Of Kusti Weaving.

In an interview with Lounge, the designer talks about his work on gara, practising silent marketing and his fascination for the late actor Elizabeth Taylor. Edited excerpts:

In this era of heavy ‘zardozi’ and shiny brocades, how do you keep Parsi ‘gara’ relevant as an evening attire?

We've noticed that many of our clients prefer the elegance, subtlety, and quiet glamour of the Parsi gara. Our black and white garas are, in fact, very popular for cocktail evenings. We've innovated with gold zari embroidery on our saris which has also been a huge hit and a great alternative to zardozi for those looking for an option.

A ‘gara’ from Ashdeen Lilaowala
A ‘gara’ from Ashdeen Lilaowala

In the quest of making something contemporary and modern, designers often cross the border of tradition. How do you reconcile innovation with craft heritage?

At the heart of it, I am a textile researcher and designer. I've extensively studied and documented the framework for Parsi gara embroidery, and this intimate knowledge helps me and our team to push ourselves to innovate while remaining true to the core essence of the tradition. Certain rules, such as ensuring that our embroidery is a hundred percent hand-done, are non-negotiable even while we innovate.

‘Gara’ is for Parsis what Paithani is for Maharashtrians or Kanjeevaram for those living in south Indian. How do you take ‘gara’ beyond the community and lend it a universal touch?

We've been fortunate to cultivate, and this is probably because of our storytelling and engagement with our clients, a multi-faceted cultural audience across India and the globe. These are individuals that value good design, textile, and craft regardless of the specific community it originates from. They are engaging with the beauty of the craft and the pieces we create. Several brides have chosen to wear lehngas with Parsi gara embroidery for their big day and nothing gives me more joy. Over the years, we have collaborated with Ekaya to create a range of Banarasi woven garas and recently worked with Kanakavalli to add our signature embroideries on classic Kanjeevarams.

Could you share some trivia, which surprised you when you started working with the craft?

As mentioned earlier, I've extensively researched Parsi gara for 10-15 years. A journey that took me through Iran, India, and China where I traced the roots and routes of the Parsi gara tradition. The most exciting part was finding the common threads that run through the motifs, textiles, and cultural symbols of the craft across continents and eras. For instance, while conducting my research in people's homes, it was fascinating to discover treasures that the family would be unaware of possessing. An old gara that was presumably covered in butterfly motifs turned out to be ornate bats, a motif deeply revered in Chinese mythology.

Mumbai has always been part of your brand aesthetic and Parsis were the founding community of the city. How much does the city inspire you as a designer?

I was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) and spent my impressionable years in the city, before heading to NID, Ahmedabad, to study textile design and then settling in Delhi. My parents still live in Mumbai and it's home before it's anything else. The Parsi gara also has history in Bombay. In the 19th century when the Parsis started to become more influential and richer once they established a sizeable trade in China, they settled in Bombay, and they wanted their clothing to reflect their newly acquired status. The women adopted the gara or garo (which means sari in Gujarati) as their dress. So, the city certainly inspires me as a designer in more ways than one.

What made you pick Liberty cinema to showcase the new collection?

We wanted to create a cinematic narrative with our latest campaign as Elizabeth Taylor was playing muse for the season. The Liberty cinema was the ideal backdrop as it's Art Deco, vintage and iconic. Its warm colour scheme was perfect to photograph the collection against.

How come Elizabeth Taylor sublimated your mood board as she's known for her jewellery?

The Hollywood icon has been a great influence in my life and work. She's known for her beauty, glamour, and innate style and those are the qualities we've tried to infuse into this collection.

How do you practice silent marketing in times of aggressive PR?

We mostly let our product speak for itself as our network of patrons continues to grow through word of mouth. In my opinion, someone seeing a bride dressed in an Ashdeen lehnga at her wedding is 10 times more impactful than any campaign one may put forth to market the brand. We've also always believed in the power of real women being our biggest ambassadors.

With sari being the main insignia of Parsi ‘gara’, have you ever explored fusion cocktail saris or the pre-draped ones?

The sari, in its original form, is an incredibly versatile garment. Parsi garas are usually passed down the generations and treasured as heirlooms. This inherently sustainable quality of the craft is something I believe in very strongly. There is no question therefore of creating cocktail/pre-draped saris as that would restrict the drape.

Also, have you experimented with Parsi ‘gara’ for men?

We customise men's jackets and bandis with Parsi gara embroidery usually for weddings to match or complement the bride's lehnga.

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