Karishma Swali and Monica Shah: Heirlooms are part of our daily dressing-up routine
As the Mumbai-based bridalwear label JADE turns 10, Lounge meets its co-founders on their aesthetics and personal style
The Mumbai flagship store of Jade by Monica Shah and Karishma Swali is a visually arresting space, from the window displays designed with 3D flowers and blush-hued ensembles to the interiors filled with antiques and artefacts. The label’s embroidered lehngas and gowns share space with traditional lamps from south India and antique doors from Gujarat, among other objets d’art, which gives an impression of the store being a museum.
For Shah and Swali, the store is a natural extension of their aesthetics, which culminated in the creation of Jade in 2008. The two sisters-in-law have a long association with Indian artisans, having worked at Chanakya, an embroidery exports firm owned by their family, in Mumbai. Starting with 15 artisans in a 200 sq. ft room, Shah and Swali’s labour of love has come a long way. Jade’s designs are big hits among brides and celebrities like Madhuri Dixit, Jacqueline Fernandez and Rasika Dugal, who wore a champagne lehenga and organza blouse set from the label to the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Along with bridalwear, Shah and Swali launched Amoh, a luxury prêt line, in 2016 and opened their first store in Hyderabad in 2017. This year marks a decade for Jade, and the co-founders started the celebrations in July with a champagne high tea on the premises of Chanakya.
Two days after the soirée, we meet Shah and Swali at their store. Dressed identically in monochromatic separates (they say the coordinated ensembles are just a result of their shared tastes), they settle down for a chat about their journey, and how the label has influenced their style and collection of textiles, accessories and artefacts. Edited excerpts:
How has working on Jade over these 10 years honed your style?
Shah: For me, working on Jade has helped me combine the best of many cultures beautifully in my own ensembles. Look at how I am dressed today, wearing a Western shirt with Indian jewellery. We look for ways to make traditional craftsmanship relevant for today—for instance, for Amoh’s new collection, we are giving Bandhani techniques a fun twist.
Swali: Our personal sensibilities have always leaned towards the understated. That’s what we wanted to do with the label, make it luxurious yet low-key. We start with traditional techniques, but infuse a global sensibility in the design.
Tell us about some of your favourite items in your wardrobe.
Swali: When I’m most comfortable in my own skin, I am either in black or white. The white shirt is a staple in our lives. I also like wearing Ikat jackets, made from vintage fabrics, with distressed jeans and a shirt. For evenings, I swap the little black dress for a jumpsuit—it’s a self-contained unit. Add a necklace and I’m ready.
Shah: You will mostly find me wearing black and white, or shades of grey and nude. I enjoy my reds and yellows, but only occasionally, and more often in traditional looks. Accessorizing is a big part of dressing up for me, be it heirloom jewels, vintage finds or great shoes.
You often wear your own designs. But which other labels are on your must-have list?
Swali: I really enjoy wearing Dior. It’s not easy to get your design to depict not just your aesthetics but also your beliefs. Maria Grazia Chiuri (creative director of Dior) does that—her designs are cool but her message is super strong. When it comes to accessories, Fendi is my all-time favourite.
Shah: Dior is my favourite label too, but I enjoy a lot of young Japanese labels run by designers like Chitose Abe (founder of the Tokyo-based brand Sacai). Her creations are simple and clean but also experimental.
You always wear great accessories. How do you build your collection?
Swali: My husband comes from a family of art collectors, including jewellery and artefacts. It was after marriage that I really began to enjoy vintage and heritage jewellery. I noticed how older craftsmanship focused on staying true to the material instead of just the bling factor. If I want to make a statement, I do it with jewellery.
Shah: We make a lot of accessories (at Chanakya) and I love wearing what we create. We are lucky to have many heirloom pieces from our families, but I also pick a lot of pieces on my travels. I love to go to tiny markets in Rajasthan and discover new accessories, like the necklace and ring I am wearing.
Which are some of your most treasured heirloom pieces?
Swali: I have a pink shikara (Banarasi) sari, given by my husband’s great-grandmother. It has been in the family for 150 years, traditionally meant to be worn during a wedding ceremony. We didn’t have the ceremony and I didn’t wear it then, but I enjoy wearing it now.
Shah: I have a phool haar gifted to me by my mother-in-law. It’s my most precious jewellery, along with a Lakshmi haar. Heirlooms are part of our daily dressing-up routine.
You collect extensively on your travels, both accessories and artefacts. How is travelling important?
Shah: Every trip is a discovery. Our store is filled with artefacts collected over the years, from a set of Tanjore paintings we picked from south India to a mirror we found in a Parisian market. We often travel for work, but even family vacations turn into an exploration.
Swali: We are fortunate to be in India, where so much of our art is still available. You may have to travel to the interiors, but you will find something beautiful. It’s the most exciting part of what we do. We have travelled extensively in Punjab, Assam, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. On a recent trip to Sikkim, we came across the route from India to Bhutan and told ourselves that’s where we would go next.
Is there any part of the world you would love to explore for its style?
Swali: I have been to the US many times. But there’s a huge, sudden leaning in Los Angeles towards experimental fashion and I’ve been meaning to check it out.
Shah: For me, there’s much of India left to explore. I love travelling around the country, and there’s always more to see