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Cell Culture
Text by Sona Bahadur and Photographs by Amit Dey
Published: Volume 17, Issue 5, May, 2009

They’re creating an entire ecosystem around a philosophy that allows for a free osmosis between design, fashion, architecture, art, even music. From plastic-cup and paper-clip chandeliers to deconstructed, androgynous clothing displayed by models walking backwards, designers Smita Singh Rathore and Himanshu Shani are shaking up aesthetic norms with concepts that are playfully radical. Sona Bahadur meets the CellDSGN team and gets a glimpse into the future of clothing

The term ‘cell,’ the smallest living biological structure, was chosen by Robert Hooke in 1665 when he compared the cork cells he saw through his microscope to the small rooms monks lived in.

Being inside the narrow seven-level canary yellow CellDSGN studio simulates the experience of being in an actual cell. A nucleus of creativity. That’s how Smita Singh Rathore and Himanshu Shani envisioned their design consultancy company when they started it in 2003. The idea was to go back to the primal thought from which all creativity flows. “The name CellDSGN comes from the cell, the very first idea,” explains Smita, the designer-philosopher. It’s the cell of information and creativity around which everything grows,” adds the dapper, lean-built Himanshu.

A plastic-cup and paper-clip chandelier, a large carved wood mirror, a centrepiece made of black leather roses – the top floor of the CellDSGN studio is a mix and match of eclectic influences that reflect what the designers are about: unbridled creativity. The epitome of edgy chic, Smita sports dramatically layered hair and an unstructured cream lurex cotton dress from 11.11, their cutting-edge fashion label that launched at Delhi Fashion Week last year. I’m tempted to forget the recession and order the dress pronto.

The young designers—Smita’s 31, Himanshu’s 29—met in Milan as post-grad students of design at Domus Academy and started the company in Italy working as design consultants, taking projects from design houses, doing lines of clothes and accessories, graphic design for tees, and home furnishings, including a line of leather carpets for Italian brand Pachamama for which they continue to design. They moved to India two years ago, starting their fashion label and picking up a host of other design projects including showrooms, interiors and designing for Levi’s Red Tab.

Smita’s flair for fashion perfectly complements Himanshu’s astute understanding of design and its functionality. “Today design is fusing with different disciplines including fashion and architecture making it more wearable or functional. Even food is design. We subscribe to this philosophy,” says Himanshu.

Collaborating with architects, artists and graphic designers in order to be able to cover more aspects of design is integral to the modus operandi of CellDSGN. Himanshu and Smita work closely with an architecture company run by their friend Kalpesh whom they met at Milan. “They bring a completely different edge to the product as architects and their vision flows into everything we design.”

The duo is firm that their ‘vision’, which emphasises complete freedom of expression and being in the now, flows from the top to the bottom of the company. This includes ‘unteaching’ all their embroidery guys to let go of the typical stuff they’ve learnt and react to the present while creating. “We’re all about experimenting with whatever you’re feeling at the moment”, says Himanshu. Smita describes it as l’air du temps.

TLR, the trendy café in Hauz Khas, run by Smita’s husband Gautam Aurora, formerly a chartered accountant in London, is designed by CellDSGN and closely associated with it. “Gautam decided to start TLR when he couldn’t find a decent café at Hauz Khas village. The place has become really dynamic, attracting a lot of musicians and artistes, which is expanding our family of people,” smiles Smita. She loves the music of Emperor Minge, a band that plays frequently at TLR. “Keyboardist Stefan’s music almost borders on offensive, which is very interesting because someone is trying to shake the norm, which is what we try to do as well. For things to change, someone has to first say, ‘I’m going to do this my own way even if it’s not perfect.’ ”

Even their fashion shows stand out with their dynamism and out-of-the-box approach, going beyond the standard ramp format. Marked by strong elements of androgyny, the debut Spring-Summer 09 womenswear collection of 11.11 created quite a stir with models walking backwards to showcase garments that looked beautiful from behind. This year, a live musical collaboration with Emperor Minge highlighted the subversive Edwardian-punk feel of the menswear collection, with a cabaret burlesque dancer starting the show. Smita sees these touches as a natural extension of the 11.11 philosophy. “I see a show as a spectacle, an opportunity to show people what the brand and collection are about. If it goes with the concept, we like to bring as many diverse influences and people together.”

The deconstructed clothes are difficult to define. A touch of punk rebelliousness, a hint of Japanese avant-garde and a lot of different influences run parallel, creating a very international feel. “We try and cross the boundary of how a fashion garment should look and play with existing ideas,” says Himanshu. A case in point is the 11.11 sari, which takes the traditional norm of the sari and evolves it without destroying it. The skirt-like pre-draped neo-sari sans border with its exposed petticoat and cowl-like pleats tells a story of its own. “It’s our take on the sari. We’re just giving more freedom, making it more contemporary,” smiles Himanshu as he unveils a magnificent black silk creation.

The designers see the 11.11 woman as free-spirited, experimental and very cutting-edge, someone wanting to express her individuality through her clothes. The connection between the garments and the wearer is integral to the brand. Here I sense an interesting oxymoron. The clothes, which have an aged, almost used feel, look like they have been dug out from the past, yet they embody a novel approach to fashion. Smita and Himanshu believe that as people are evolving, they’re becoming more individualistic and like to wear things that are made just for them. “Our clothes are very intimate; a lot of them are simple from the outside but very detailed on the inside; only the person wearing them really knows what’s going on there, creating a sense of connection. This is a very futuristic idea of looking at clothing. We know this might be too soon for India because people like to show off what they wear. The whole bling thing is still big,” concedes Smita.

This year’s offering was a menswear line that broke the monotony of the sherwani dominated market. Guiding me through the concept book, Himanshu explains the larger story behind the name 11.11, a philosophy of repeating numbers.” The idea also comes from who we are: individual yet part of a collective, a larger vision of different people coming together. The numbers kept coming up in our lives again and again, signalling a way to our calling. Each time we’d pick up the phone or look at the clock, it would be 11.11.We took it as a sign.”

The label is currently available at key stores like Ensemble, Aza, Ogaan, White and Anonym. Gradually the designers want to create their own retail space where they can express themselves and their clothes more fully. “The philosophy of 11.11 has to come through while selling the clothes. Display is very important. “If you hang our clothes with labels with a very Indian look, they just die because they’re so washed and worn. Next to something really bright and pretty and perfect, people can be forgiven for saying, ‘what’s this rag hanging here!’ laughs Smita. Having done window displays and spaces for garments in Europe, they’ve already imagined a very cutting-edge space to house their creations.

Until that materialises, their yellow studio, inspired by a Venetian island with tiny multi-hued Pantone-chip like houses, remains the hub of all activity. Hunting for a space after they returned from Italy, the duo was overjoyed to discover a haven of peace overlooking a ‘hidden’ lake right in the heart of Hauz Khas village. “This place is like an escape. You don’t feel like you’re in Delhi, so you’re able to create,” Himanshu smiles.

The clothing, the café, the studio, the shows are all extensions of a radical creative philosophy that’s rapidly crossing over to other areas. Shoes, bags, even a kidswear line are all planned as part of making 11.11 into a complete fashion house that allows the mavericks to delve into as many different products as possible.

A universe grows inside the cell.

Living Room with a View

Gautam Aurora, the man behind TLR (The Living Room) and married to Smita Singh Rathore, tells the story of the trendy café that’s emerging as the hub of all cutting-edge cultural activity in the capital

The man
I’ve always had a passion for music and design. Working as a chartered accountant for EMI Music in London was great in terms of exposure but it wasn’t enough. Back in London, I was also gigging a fair bit, playing bass in a band called Reza James for the love of it! We wrote our own songs, and took them on the road – what better place than the pubs, bars and clubs in the musical capital of the world! Two years ago, I reached a point where I had to go and DO something.

The idea
The vision of TLR was to bring all my experiences together in an environment that’s relaxed and uninhibited. It’s like my living room but with a few more people to help me out (the kitchen staff are all stars!) The objective is to provide a creative platform for freedom of expression. If you have talent, we want to hear about it, be it art, philosophy, music, poetry – basically anything that gets people thinking beyond the obvious, helps them forget about the past and be in the moment. We have started doing a Free Jam night where musicians from different bands play with each other. There’s this aspect of creating something new, not really playing something you already know.

The food
Good food is a drug. As a keen traveller (been to Japan, Peru, the Philippines and Mexico among other places), I’ve eaten everything from half-fermented eggs, known as Balut in the Philippines, to raw horse and chicken in Japan, not to mention at Michelin-star restaurants. At TLR food is somewhere between authentic and comfort, but always tasty!

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