You have been working in Madras with your embroidery atelier Vastrakala for the last thirty years with a lot of success, both globally and in India. What brought you to the field of embroidery in the first place, and what made you choose India?
I happened to be born into a family that has been in embroidery – on my father’s side – since 1860. My father was French; my mother is from Germany.
I didn’t initially want to become an embroiderer because I had seen too much embroidery as a child; in fact, I wanted to be an auctioneer. During my time working at the auction house of Drouot in Paris, however, I rediscovered huge embroideries for interiors. Slowly the idea grew to revive embroidery for interiors, which had been a high expression of luxury and culture from the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century.
I had travelled to India before. I really felt at home there, and I felt incredible emotion being in a place where I could have a full sense of myself. India was talking to me in each and every aspect.
My partner Patrick Savouret and I decided to return to start an embroidery business. During a trip that lasted nearly three months, we visited many embroidery workshops all around India. We asked each of them to reproduce the same two samples: one from the seventeenth century and one from the twentieth. Our aim was to find the best local partner for a collaboration. We did not want to become embroidery dealers but rather manufacturers – just as members of my family had always been. It was very important to us to have a say in the employment conditions, salaries and working conditions of the artisans. Because our plan from the beginning was to make the artisans the heart of the project. We were also very keen on saying openly to everyone that our embroidery was produced in India. We always wrote “Vastrakala Paris – Madras” on our labels. This was to acknowledge the role of the Indian artisans – their share of the work – and the real importance they had in all the process. We did not want to pretend that it was just made “somewhere” without being very clear about that. It would have been unthinkable to us to sign only “Paris” on the label when it reached Paris. So those two points were very important for us.
After traveling all over India, we finally landed in Madras, today Chennai, where we had located an extremely good unit. We started working together and gave them some work to do. But we realized very soon that, with them, we could not implement our ideas about employment conditions and conditions of manufacturing, about aesthetics, techniques and quality. These potential partners were not so open to our ideas. So we started our own workshop in 1993.
"Our plan was to keep the artisans at the heart of the project. "
Crafts are rooted in the traditional skills of making. They are rooted and local. At the same time, an inherent part of is handcraft is that is must evolve with time. In other words, cultural exchange has always been an important part of handcrafts. What advice would you give a Western fashion designer interested in working with crafts in India?
First, no one should imagine that whatever work they produce will necessarily help the artisans in the long run. It’s not a one-time carpet or a one-time coat that will save the storied tradition of craft. You may end up creating something that is beautiful, interesting and moving, but it still may not be sustainable in the long run. It may be an extraordinary experience for you or for the craftspeople involved. But don’t think that craftspeople are going to change their way of looking at life – because they know for a fact that you will come and go. And after you are gone, will anything change? Don’t give advice, and don’t give fake hopes, either to yourself or to the artisans.
Don't project your Western vision of how the work should happen. Study without judgement at first the way artisans work. You must develop a deep respect for how people do things differently. Don’t start by immediately introducing a notion of efficiency into the equation. You cannot come in and say: “I want this done within seven hours, because in Europe we’d have it done in seven hours.” You should first allow yourself to change your notion of time, certainly until you’ve understood the way your interlocutors/artisans would have developed the work if you had not been there. And observe how they organize their time. Begin by having them make one piece their way. Only after that can you start with a second piece explaining on the basis of the first piece – which you have allowed to exist – how you would have done it if the decisions had been yours to make. That way, step by step, you build a real exchange with the artisans.
It is very important to explain your idea of quality in any available language – drawings, images, videos. Let me give you one example: straightness. Most of the artisans don’t have anything that is straight around them: the walls around them are not straight; the road is not straight; the electricity wire is not straight. Nothing is straight. Everything is little bit improvised. It is your task to help them find a way to visualize it – to explain what you mean by the concept of “straightness”. So you explain how you define quality and why quality is valued in modern India and by an international public. You must do this with great patience and sensitivity to avoid giving the impression that you feel in any way superior.
To paraphrase Alan Moore, beauty as a principle refers to an essential quality of artistic work and handcraft. Beauty in this context goes beyond its aesthetic value. It connects us to age-old skills of crafts, to the planet and to each other. How do you feel about a statement like this in the context of your work?
It does relate to the way of developing a collaboration between designers and artisans. When a designer wants to develop a common vision of beauty, it cannot be treated like a strict precept imposed by a designer. You find examples from everyday life that mean something to all of us. For example, a yoga posture is beautiful when it’s well achieved; a dance performance is beautiful; or a wedding that has been well organized can be beautiful. Examples like these are quite good for explaining to artisans what you mean by beauty and quality manufacturing. Because all of us – as humans – share the same feelings regarding these qualities of expression. Use their lexicon of quality and beauty. Try to see what beauty means in their world. The beauty of friendship means something to them. Beautiful poetry or a beautiful song means something very deep to them. You can draw the comparison between something of high quality and a well-prepared meal. That means something to every human being. In this way, you can develop a common idea of beauty, and all who are involved in collaboration can share it.
How would you describe the collaborative processes between you as a designer and the artisans/embroiderers in the creation of your projects? Is the fact that your embroiderers are employed full-time with salaries important for the way you work together?
From my point of view, when we talk of a collaboration with artisans, we have different areas of expertise. To some extent, their knowledge is more important than mine, in the sense that they know what is possible and what isn’t. And they are the ones who can set the boundaries of the project.
Their input is fundamental because they are the ones who know. I can dream high, yes, and persuade them to dream with me, if they agree. But they are the ones who are defining the steps, the methodology, the technical needs – who can determine if something is possible or not. It’s very nice to think that we could invent a floating embroidery – but it’s not possible, because embroidery needs a canvas. What we are doing is a piece of high-level craft, where the artisans have generations of knowledge on their side. This helps create something that can exist in reality. I can imagine whatever I want, but they are the ones who have the knowledge to execute my vision.
When it comes to the economics of craft, there is a sort of exotic fantasy from European people and from wealthy Indians that craft professions are a sort of sanctuary for happy people who pursue their craft because they love their art. The fantasy is that, because they inherited this culture from their ancestors, they will continue to fight for it. This is absolutely wrong. What is important – anywhere in the world, for any human being – is not only to survive but also to be able to make a living and imagine a long-term future.
When we started Vastrakala, most of our embroiderers were absolutely convinced that they belonged to the past. They were even afraid of admitting their profession and felt deeply guilty about doing something that in their minds belonged to the past, something that was no longer relevant. Handwork in general already seemed obsolete. Technology, mechanization and hyper-specialized abstract knowledge are what seem to matter today and in the future. There was no pride in being a good artisan except within the small circle of their families or villages. So many artisans continuing their tradition are deeply worried that they are unable to offer a future to their kids.
Society does not pay them the respect – or the prices – that their work deserves! This is what we have tried to bring to them, and I think it has worked. Some of our best embroiderers are paid a salary of 80,000 to 100,000 Indian rupees. The average salary is around 30,000 to 45,000 rupees a month. This is the equivalent of what a high-level bank employee will earn at a small bank. So by paying well and ensuring steady work, month after month, we have slowly given skilled artisans a feeling of belonging to a larger and a richer group: our company, Vastrakala. They know that we own our building and the land, which is synonymous with stability. They know that we have never failed to pay them, and some of them have been with us for the last 28 years. And they have had steady assistance, even when they had big problems in their family or with their health. At those times Vastrakala became a sort of shield behind which they could all stand, feeling protected and with the prospect of a stable future. More recently, some of them are able to imagine that their children could in fact become embroiderers. They have seen their salary increasing steadily over a period of 27 years, and that stability and regularity has given them confidence in the future of their profession.
Economics are an important basis for all this. When we first met our artisans, they had no bank accounts. They were only paid in cash, on a day-to-day basis. Now, they all have bank accounts – and health insurance! These two things are the most important. They can get loans from a bank, so they don’t have to continue to borrow from illegal moneylenders. Being able to borrow money from a bank means they can start financing the future from their professional earnings rather than just by selling their possessions or their small plot of land. Our artisans finally understood that their embroidery skills could not only earn them a decent monthly salary but could help them finance their future and the future of their children. For me, that is key.
But they have also understood that these benefits come with conditions: attention to quality and regular working hours. Their lives are such that it is very difficult for them to organize daily life around so-called modern conditions – where you have to be at “the office” from 9am to 6pm. It’s a stress for many of them. If I could reinvent Vastrakala, I would create several smaller units and be more flexible about working hours.
How do you feel about that when it comes to the luxury of knowing all the different techniques and all the different skills and how to convey that to the next generation of embroiderers? At the moment, the trade is taught from fathers to sons and from mothers to daughters. Is that something that should be continued, or should there be certificates and vocational schools where embroiderers can learn their craft?
I think a mix of both would be best. It should continue to be done at least partly as it has been traditionally taught, even in Europe in the past and in the rest of the world – that is, through master artisans passing on their knowledge to apprentices. But if you’re of age  to learn a trade and want to become an artisan – even if you do not have a family connection to the profession – you should also have the opportunity to take organized courses. That’s what we are starting now at Vastrakala. During the workweek, the artisans are embroiderers, and on Saturdays they become teachers.
The pieces we use for teaching are not orders. We use study pieces to revisit all the techniques. The first project is a historical piece, to help students relate to the old techniques; if possible, they demonstrate all the historical techniques on one large piece. The second is a more contemporary piece, where the techniques are not only used to fill in, but as a drawing. Here they put the same traditional techniques to a very different use. That way they can imagine stitches not only within the borders of the tracing but also a more abstract expression. The third piece is a very creative piece, where we allow total freedom. Very few materials are imposed – not even the colours are dictated in advance. Whoever has their own ideas can trace their own designs; those who are less imaginative – or more cautious – can choose from twelve different possible drawings. Either way, they learn and are encouraged to express themselves. We want to do this program over the course of a year. Spending four months on each piece, embroidery students will progress from the most traditional approaches to more abstraction and textures to finally to personal expression.
We hope that this teaching initiative will attract people who are not from embroidery families but who are interested and motivated. We do not want to limit it strictly to the guilds of karigar families. This will help us enlarge the pool of embroiderers to outsiders and – very importantly – also to women. In many crafts only men were traditionally allowed to develop the craft. In our atelier Vastrakala, nearly 40 percent of the embroiderers are now women! When we started in 1993, it was 99 percent men. It is also important to teach women the skills to market their craft. The next step for us is to teach computer skills to women embroiderers – to teach them how to make their own tracings, how to send products internationally, and how to communicate about their work internationally. All this is necessary to give a woman embroiderer the full potential to use contemporary tools to interact with the rest of the world.
Where do you see the future of handcraft? Is the luxury sector the only place where a sustainable future is possible?
Yes – if luxury means making small quantities of handmade creations. These can sometimes also be helped by or with technology.
I do think that there will be fewer craftspeople in India in the future. But the ones who will thrive – let’s say, hopefully, 30 percent – will find a respected position in society. The artisans of the future will need to be knowledgeable about their craft and talented and, at the same time, be able to communicate about what they do and to express what they want to do. Ideally, they would become designers-cum-craftspeople, much as they are today in Europe. In Europe today, many craftspeople are positioned as independent small designers with a small but loyal clientele. Designers and clients choose each other, which creates a community of people who appreciate the singularity of what they have bought. The time required to manufacture something cannot become a stress on the artisan. We can’t ask someone to weave a carpet in seven hours! It’s not possible, and it should not be. It’s very important to give real value to time.
The value of their time and the time spent creating something should be respected, as it is something essential. This should be the world of craft. Young people are defending and protecting slow living, slow dining, slow cooking, and so on. In the same way, we should defend and protect slow craft: small quantity, high quality, and the greatest respect for knowledge and skill.