The Mumbai workshop is the secret workshop of French haute couture

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Bombay (AFP) – Sitting in a lotus position, four men weave shimmering beads through gold thread onto organza foil, carefully constructing a wedding dress that will soon wow crowds at Paris Fashion Week.

For once, the French couturier behind the creation, Julien Fournie, is determined to put these craftsmen in the spotlight: his new collection, presented on Tuesday in Paris, is entirely made with fabrics from Mumbai.

According to him, a kind of “design imperialism” means that French fashion houses often downplay the fact that their fabrics are made outside France.

“Houses that don’t admit it may be afraid of losing their clientele,” Fournie told AFP.

But that’s absurd, he continues.

Creations by Shanagar has made fabrics for the biggest fashion houses and the movie
Creations by Shanagar has made fabrics for the biggest fashion houses and the movie “Moulin Rouge!” © Punish PARANJPE / AFP

“India is number one in the world for embroidery. It’s ancestral. They have been dressing the Maharajas in gold-embroidered outfits since the 16th century.”

Fournie works with a company called Creations By Shanagar (meaning “to adorn” in Sanskrit), housed in a nondescript beige building near Mumbai International Airport.

Dozens of men in gray polo shirts are seated cross-legged on cushions, their heads bent over large fabric sheaths. There is silence except for the clatter of needles and beads, the whirl of ceiling fans, and the occasional plane overhead.

“A lot of fantasy”

For decades, they have played an essential but unrecognized role in the fashion industries of Europe, Japan and the United States.

“I like working with Julien because he’s another master craftsman who knows his subject very well,” said director Chetan Desai, 55.

“He has a lot of fantasy. He comes up with his own concepts and I have to translate those ideas into embroidery.

Chetan Desai expanded his father's business internationally
Chetan Desai expanded his father’s business internationally © Punish PARANJPE / AFP

“It was a very difficult experience and at the same time it was very fruitful,” he added.

Back in France, Fournie returns the compliments.

“What they know how to do better than anyone is embroider with gradient gold thread, run it through transparent beads to create color gradients. It’s unheard of,” he says.

It gives silk an aged and elegant look for wedding dresses that “shine but not too much”.

“High fashion customers don’t want to look like a Christmas tree,” he added.

“I worked with great French embroiderers and each time it’s complicated. Everyone wants to put their own ideas and you never get exactly what you want.”

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Desai’s father established Creations By Shanagar in the 1960s as a workshop for hand-woven and embroidered sarees.

In the 1990s, Desai looked further afield in France, teaming up with French-Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaia on dresses that ultimately honored Naomi Campbell.

He doesn’t disclose current customers in his books, but his past list gives some idea of ​​high demand. Among them, Jean Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto and Donna Karan.

Even Hollywood came knocking on the door, with Shanagar helping to design Nicole Kidman’s costumes for the 2001 hit “Moulin Rouge!”.

The workshop attracts workers from all over India, like Biswajit Patra, 31, who has worked here since he was 16.

The haute couture creations featured in Julien Fournié's latest fashion show at Paris Fashion Week
The haute couture creations featured in Julien Fournié’s latest fashion show at Paris Fashion Week © BERTRAND GUAY / AFP

“I learned the trade in my village near Kolkata because my father was doing the same job and my brother and sister are also doing this job,” he said.

Among their unique ideas is a way to wrap pieces of tulle to make embroidered flowers.

“They have a range of techniques that we don’t have here,” said Jean-Paul Cauvin, director of the house of Fournie in France.

One of the most delicate jobs is the preparation of the fabric once it arrives from India and heads to the workshop where it will be assembled into dresses.

It is Fournie himself who irons the fabric.

“Sixty percent of haute couture is ironing,” he smiles.

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