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All Not Lost
Text by Sohiny Das
Published: Volume 16, Issue 9, September, 2008
New York-based textile designer Afshan Durrani speaks to Sohiny Das about disappearing couture traditions, myriad inspirations, subtle rebellion and her Lost City

Personality inevitably reflects in an artist’s creations. “I’m a misfit,” says Afshan Durrani, “and some say I am a subversive. I’ve always found it hard to follow rules and live up to people’s expectations of me.” Vivid visions of punk-goth-grunge that automatically spring into imagination receive a jolt upon the sight of the actual designs. Painterly florals, and subversive? A bunch of traditional flowers embroidered on cotton and silk is the cutting edge in avant-garde design! They might as well sing ‘Happy Birthday!’ Pretty indeed, but where is the rebellion?

Cutting past literal interpretations of statement-making aggression, a closer look reveals the rebel hidden in each miniature feature of Durrani’s intricately embroidered textile technique. In the age of mass and machine-manufactured items, the New York-based designer has strictly adhered to a pure couture format for her range of designer fabrics, under the label Lost City. “They go against the grain, and have an element of surprise and quirky perfection,” explains Durrani, and this time one understands better. “Lost City pays homage to beauty…and traditions that seem to be disappearing in our rush to commercialise and become something crass.”

To a nation brought up on an everyday main-course embroidery diet, exceptional quality craft might simply be an upgrade of ‘good’ — which is standard fare. But while we understand the subtle nuances of hand-texturing variations, the depth remains unusual even in many internationally established couture houses in the West. Therefore, Durrani’s adherence to authentic craft form, and attempts at the revival of near-extinct ancient embroidery techniques are certainly noteworthy. “But our company is forward-looking,” she clarifies.We want to salvage great things from the past but we are nostalgic for the future.” A contra-diction, perhaps, but experimentation co-exists with renovation. “I thrive on innovation and intelligent application of design in all its forms,” she says.

The Kashmir-born designer has been well acquainted with ethnic craft forms, and despite having a home in New York, she has set her manufacturing unit in Lucknow — a city that has been part of the inspiration behind her label’s name. “Lucknow is a great example of a lost city. It was once a crucible of elegance, art, culture and secularism,” she reminds us. “Now, its exquisite architecture is crumbling and its magic is obliterated by ugly buildings and a tragic boorishness.” She is indignantly vociferous about general disregard for heritage property, and is appalled by the sight of men defecating against the beautiful, ancient buildings. But she acknowledges that Lucknow still retains certain authentic Mughal craft forms, which, although under threat of extinction, still have a chance for salvation. Lucknow is not her sole source of material. Every year, Durrani also visits places like New Delhi and Rajasthan, and purchases her cottons from Surat and silks from Bangalore, which serve as base fabrics for her creations. She enjoys travelling to various international destinations for inspiration. “Japanese Sara- satic designs, Turkish Iznik pottery and Ottoman period art and architecture, Dutch botanical watercolours, Persian and Urdu poetry,” she lists, “Punk rock.” Ah, finally a bit of the good old conventional rebel essence this should have an interesting reflection in her products.

For the graduate from Fashion Institute of Technology, entrepreneurship has not always been smooth sailing. “It’s tough to start any business,” she notes, recalling the launch of Lost City fabrics in 2006. “Most of my challenges, however, have been around creating a high quality product, on time, on a consistent basis.” It was also not easy initially, as a “woman from America”, to instruct the all-male team of embroiderers, and ensure superior quality standards. But Durrani’s persistence, grit and patience have paid off over time, as the press, stores and patrons have appreciated her exquisite craft. She, however, does not hesitate to give credit where it is due – to her craftsmen. She sympathises with the pitiable plight of the “unsung heroes”, and stresses on the need to appreciate and respect their skill. “I don’t pretend to have a solution to any of this,” she admits, “but we are making an important connection. It’s quite thrilling to know that a Lost City piece embroidered by Pappi bhai is adorning the Ty Warner penthouse of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. It costs $30,000 a night to stay in that suite!”

Durrani is optimistic about the future of Indian design, which is linked with her own. Both have a long way to go. “India has such a staggering heritage of art to draw from, that I think we are nowhere near our rightful place in the global fashion or textile industry,” she observes. She also considers the possibility of India being a future market for her, as success in her country would mean a lot. Extension of her current line would also be followed by ranges for apparel and jewellery, and work is in progress. “Look out for that,” she tells us, “I promise it will be different.”

From here, the real challenge is to constantly find new sources that would fuel the inherent streak of subtle rebellion in Durrani, and to create new channels of expression. In her chosen path, this revivalist designer would surely identify with more such neglected ancient craft forms that demand immediate and sensitive attention, waiting for a chance at survival, before they are forever lost.