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Delhi's Thriving Design Scene


With designers pushing the boundaries of tradition in the Indian capital, the city's creative scene is beginning to bloom. RACHNA SACHASINH talks to local design maven Kuldeep Kaur about the innovators behind the studios, boutiques and brands. Photographs by DEBJIT BANERJEE.

Published on Sep 26, 2018

 

"WHEN WE FIRST OPENED, I thought, Who will come?" Kuldeep Kaur recalls, laughing. "Delhi is a conventional city. People would rather go to the mall." For decades, Delhi has been chastised for its buttoned-down style. Compared to Mumbai, with its colorful film industry, and Kolkata, a hub of modern literary culture— cities where creativity has always been naturally experimental—Delhi's bureaucratic way of life has led to a more formulaic style, focusing almost exclusively on couture bridal-wear and export garments. Things are pivoting, however, towards the local and the personal, and Kaur, a designer and the owner of Serendipity Delhi (serendipitydelhi.com), a travel-inspired homewares and design shop, is this new era's biggest cheerleader. "There is an interesting alchemy between Indian-ness and individuality," Kaur says. In Delhi, where past and present, traditional and modern are seemingly at odds and in collusion with each other, designers are questioning what it means to be Indian and an individual.

Designer Kuldeep Kaur.
Designer Kuldeep Kaur.

Kaur is exploring these issues at Serendipity Delhi with her curated collection of furniture, textiles and vintage treasures from India and beyond. She also points to fashion designers like Sanjay Garg at Raw Mango and Suket Dhir of his eponymous menswear label as pioneers in these internal-external deliberations. Garg focuses on the iconic saree, stripping it down to its simplest component and mining village know-how to revive old-fashioned weaves. Dhir, meanwhile, straddles time and genre, managing to marry a Savile Row-sensibility with quirky vintage and athletic references. "Garg is an example of the resurgence of minimalism, yet has a strong commitment to Indian craft," Kaur says. "Dhir's silhouettes are looser, restructured and a bit rebellious. More designers are chiming in, the questions are broader, the pitch is different and the conversation livelier."

A saree vendor at Shahpur Jat.
A saree vendor at Shahpur Jat.

Creating intellectual and physical space to experience good design is as important as the products. "Design is most visible when it's not overworked," Kaur says. Delhi is a city notorious for its claustrophobic markets and over-dressing, so this type of thinking is a giant leap. Kaur's own outpost has made the jump: hidden at the end of a dusty country lane in Jonapur, a modest village on the outskirts of Delhi, Serendipity Delhi sits within a rustic whitewashed haveli, a classic Indian home built around a central courtyard, where Kaur curates living spaces that blend India's diverse craft heritage with a contemporary aesthetic. Mod club chairs are upholstered in block-printed cotton; midcentury sofas are paired with Art Deco tables and Mughal miniatures; Suzani embroidery, Moroccan pillows, handloomed duvets and kaftans drape vintage Burmese teak beds. In spite of her genre- and era-bending aesthetics, Kaur's space is surprisingly uncluttered and tranquil. In a city perennially dodging a bad rap for stuffy markets, stifling heat and acrid pollution, Kaur delivers a rare commodity: a breath of fresh air.

Serendipity Delhi's bespoke Suzani pillows, inspired by Kaur's travels to Central Asia.
Serendipity Delhi's bespoke Suzani pillows, inspired by Kaur's travels to Central Asia.

Similarly, Nicobar, a year-old fashion and lifestyle brand that already has stores across the country, bases its design studio in a former farmhouse. Here, the production team dreams up collections sitting outdoors in nature-filled courtyards. While their seaside-themed 306-square-meter flagship store just opened in Chanayapuri, Nicobar premiered in Delhi back in 2016, opening a store in Meharchand Market, a vintage shopping district where old-school tailors and chai wallahs rub shoulders with a burgeoning hipster scene. Among the din and drama of the market, the petit glass-fronted store is filled with their modern clothing range that uses soft mulmul cotton and buttery Chanderi silks in classic Indian shapes and breezy island silhouettes.

A block west of Meharchand Market is Delhi's swish Lodhi Colony, whose Lutyens-era bungalows provided the canvas for the city's first contemporary public art installation. In 2017, the arts organization ST+art commissioned a series of conceptual and edgy murals that scale three-story buildings and span entire city blocks, an event that pushed the city's bastion of old money into the new world in just a matter of weeks.

A mural at Lodhi Colony.
A mural at Lodhi Colony.

At Serendipity Delhi, Kaur is hoping to engage a similar movement, and is committed to providing a forum for emerging voices with her annual art, music and design festival, Color Me Autumn, which showcases the city's newest creators. "In India, fashion can be classist and elitist. Designers have adhered to very narrow definitions and limited opportunities to express themselves," she says. "Western designers are used to expressing their individuality. For Delhi, this is entirely new. It's an exciting time to create and shop in the city."

 


 

+ At their studio in leafy Lajpat Nagar, En Inde (eninde.com) encourages you to "find your steel" with their striking range of stainless steel jewelry. "Not wearing gold is almost sacrilege in India, yet this collection has caught on," Kaur says. "The pieces are inspired by a rustic, tribal aesthetic, and make use of atypical materials like steel and jute. They convey power, strength and individuality."

En Inde's jewelry often uses tribal elements.
En Inde's jewelry often uses tribal elements.

+ "Nicobar (nicobar.com) clearly has vision, one that mines urban India's hipster beachloving alter ego. Pared down silhouettes, surprising design details and excellent quality appeal to a broad audience. A foot planted in India and another stepping overseas, Nicobar hands-down captures the country's growing frontier spirit."

+ "The clothes by Simran Chaudhry of Artisau (fb.com/wearartisau) are ambient and rooted in minimalism. Elegant and simple cuts, a beautiful color palette, natural fabrics and sustainable practices are their hallmark."

+ Doodlage (doodlage.in) makes a case for sustainable fashion. "Kriti Tula's label focuses exclusively on recycled and repurposed garments. The message is serious: we need to cut waste in fashion. Yet, at the same time, Tula's collection of breezy frocks and jackets is playful and whimsical."

+ "Nappa Dori (nappadori.com) have been around for a while, but their new space in Chhatarpur's warehouse district is a must-visit. A leather workbench gives you a look at the classic tools and techniques of one of India's oldest crafts. The line's entire collection of bespoke leather bags and journals sit alongside a handful of indie labels. The café's Mediterranean brunch menu, coffee drinks and laid-back vibe are a great addition to the area."

Nappa Dori's leather workshop. Courtesy of Nappa Dori.
Nappa Dori's leather workshop. Courtesy of Nappa Dori.

+ Although the style of Anaam (facebook.com/anaamofficial) is inspired from traditional garb—for example, the drape of simple dhotis worn by rickshaw wallahs are a feature—their studio in Shahpur Jat market is edgy. "Anaam means 'no name,' which suggests a rejection of labels and boundaries," Kaur says. "Sumiran Kabir Sharma's clothes are deconstructed, androgynous and a bit punk."

+ A one-stop shop for jewelry lovers in Shahpur Jat, "Nimai (shopnimai.com) is an amazing platform for innovative jewelry designers using non-traditional mediums and embellishments."

 

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 Waiting outside Meharchand Market.
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