Little Shilpa is the Mumbai-based millinery label that has vibrantly dominated the headwear scene since its launch at 2009’s Hedonism – the London Fashion Week platform which celebrates and supports emerging millinery talents. In the years that followed, Little Shilpa has established a base in London, become an anticipated fixture at Fashion Scout and adorned the head of Lady Gaga. This week, Fashion Plus Magazine were given the exclusive opportunity to interview creative director, Shilpa Chavan, in Shoreditch before she jetted back to Mumbai. With her big, wide, brown eyes and full smile, she sat in her showroom surrounded by her latest collection: ‘Disco Denimals’, which glistened in the light, as she breezily chatted away to us.
“They say be careful what you wish for!” she laughs when asked about her routine commute from one side of the world to the other on a regular basis. Production is in Mumbai, with PR and all business-related matters in London. “This is what I wanted though, I wanted to have a hectic life. I guess you need to really enjoy what you do and love your work. I’ve learned to enjoy this process.”
It’s an unconventional working life, but then not much about Shilpa is conventional. Having studied science in Mumbai, she turned her back on such a safe career, moved to London to further her studies at Central Saint Martins and secured an internship with haute couture king Philip Treacy. Her client-base now includes Lady Gaga, French musicians dOP and Matthew Jones among others. Her work is bold, exotic and often ornate. Quite the rebel you could say, although she definitely doesn’t agree. “I had to study, finishing science, because in India you have to finish your education and then you can do whatever you want. I always wanted to do fashion and my love for millinery just happened.”
Having worked as a stylist in India for a short time, Shilpa talks about picking things up on a whim and making headgear which turned into presents for her model friends. “They said: ‘This is really good, you should start your own brand’ and that’s how I started. I packed my bags and came to London.”
Wearing Headpieces can be Difficult
While she doesn’t feel rebellious, she envisions her clients as “gutsy.” As a milliner she agrees wearing a headpiece can be a tricky endeavour. “In my experience of seeing people with a headpiece, it’s not very easy to do, it’s a process. So I think people start with smaller pieces, then it slowly evolves to people wanting to wear funky pieces and understanding how to.”
As I peruse the wing-like pleated pieces around her, animal imagery is evident, yet indulgent, alongside strong technicolor hues on fabric. Inspired, of course, by the 80’s disco era, Shilpa talks us through her design process for SS15. “It came about because I was supposed to go to Burning Man Festival and you would wear denim every day there. It’s also inspired by being a diva, but you’re a club kid, you’re Tweeting, you’re still a trailblazer.” Aspirations soon take over as she turns to the accompanying denim dresses. “Sometimes in some collections I feel like maybe I do want to do ready-to-wear, so here I collaborated with a denim company, Arvind Mills in India.” The denimwear is DIY-inspired with tunnels and cords going through the sides so the wearer can pull and tug to manipulate the shape, length and width of the garment. This carefree and relaxed spirit will no doubt be the aesthetic of the future festival-hoppers whose summer is the envy of all.
London is often heralded as an inspiration for many designers, yet for Shilpa, Mumbai is her design and production base. Famed for its pandemonium she talks us through how her work brings this disarray to life. “When you’re walking on the streets in Mumbai, you see so much chaos. But there’s something really beautiful about the way it works well together, which is what I do with my pieces. Even if it’s a headband there’ll be chaos, I’ll do lots of colours and work with various raw materials, but it still needs to be cohesive like the streets of Mumbai. So I think that is what I connect with.”
They say ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ and Shilpa resonates with this more than most with a reputation for collecting objects that she finds discarded in the street. Her collection two seasons ago, ‘Grey Matters’, featured abandoned saris that were close to 50 years old. “The silk was disintegrating so I started cutting into them and I created necklaces out of them. It’s not like I collect things with a plan, they just find their way into the collections.” So is she a bit of a hoarder? “You should see my house, I’m going nuts! I’ve said: ‘We are not getting anything more, lets first use what we have’”, she laughs.
While she may not feel like much of a rebel, Shilpa’s inspiration each season is strikingly different from the usual Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer staples. “I don’t follow trends because I wouldn’t be true to myself if I did that.” This season we see an amalgamation of disco, denim, club kids, past, present and future while previously Mumbai markets, chaotic traffic, secret Sundays and flashes of colour have been given as creative inspiration. Further testament to her desire for a “hectic life”, this thought process sounds exhausting! “I don’t think it’s a conscious decision, every collection is inspired by what is happening around me at that point in time.”
The Power of Music
With musical heavyweights amongst her fan base, Shilpa talks about her relationship with music. “I have a very close connection with music, even when I do my presentations, music is a very important part of it, because I feel it’s a very important part of that journey and what I‘m trying to say. My presentation for me is my canvas, I want to share my world and my story with you. In those 10 minutes, I need you to understand my world.”
Yet Little Shilpa is such a global brand, with both strong native undertones and modern influences, isn’t it therefore possible for people to perhaps not understand “her world”, based on the location in which they view her work? “Yes I think that’s true. When I did Vespa Bloom, a completely black collection, I showed it in London and Paris. People said “This doesn’t look like it’s from India”. The collection before that had been Sari-inspired and I didn’t want to come back to London and Paris and be that girl from India with Indian stuff. I didn’t want to be tagged as somebody who just does Indian-inspired stuff. Which is why I went the complete other way with black.”
Having previously been described as an artist rather than a designer, I ask Shilpa about the process of ensuring that her work is understood and that people engage with ‘her world.’ “When I started out it was never about “I want to make money out of my fashion”, it was always about sharing my world. It’s only now that I realise the importance of retail when people come to me and say “I want to be part of your world”. I’ve started doing retail-friendly pieces now, because if I’m sharing my world then I need to get people to be part of my world by letting them buy something in this world.”
Fashion is a Business
It is well known that the fashion industry is a two-way street when it comes to surviving. Designers need to design, but they also need to sell. As a creative lady, Shilpa is clearly undaunted by taking a risk or two, but in conversation with her, it’s apparent she is also very savvy with a clear business acumen. Describing this performance as a learning process she says it’s very easy to give up if a collection doesn’t work commercially, but she disapproves of this option and insists on making retail work. “I previously got feedback on a larger collection and people said “we do like them, but maybe if they had been smaller and easier to use it could have worked”. I understood that I’m making the collection for me but if I want to turn it in to a business then it has to depend on the feedback that I get. I can’t be the designer who is so sure of myself and so egoistic that I can say “If you don’t like my brand then you don’t understand it.” Fashion is a business, if you want to survive you need to do retail – which I have just about done.”
With the know-how and experience of merging these two, what advice can she give to those trying to juggle both elements? “A lot of people are really creative and they don’t understand the business of fashion so maybe sometimes you need to join up with a friend who is better at business. It really helps to have somebody looking at it from a different perspective. Otherwise you are just going one-way.”
As someone who went against the grain in the early part of her career – “there’s no market for millinery in India” – what advice can she give to emerging designers who are battling their own self-doubts? “Never be scared of making mistakes. It is the best way to learn and that is a very important thing. It’s always a learning process for me, always. There have been times when I’ve wanted to stop and I’ve said ‘that’s the last time I’m doing headpieces.’ I think for a student or someone who has just stepped into the market, you should definitely work with a designer who shares the same aesthetic as you because you learn how the business works.”
‘A Little Bit DIY’
As we bring our chat to a conclusion, I ask Shilpa who she hopes to see next in her designs. Rather than fawn over any of the gargantuan names that are set to appear over awards season in the coming months, she says she is happy with the diversity of age groups that her work seems to beckon. “There are kids who wear my floral pieces and perspex headbands, and there are college students who wear the funkier pieces.” And who has been her most impressive client? “I have a 65-year old woman who ordered five headpieces for Burning Man Festival this year”, she says ever modestly.
Little Shilpa is now in its fifth year, having racked up so many achievements already. As she is set to embark on her journey home, Shilpa looks to the future with hope, excitement and a cheeky glint in her eye as she returns back to her desire of working on a ready-to-wear collection. “I want to do artistic fashion which is why this collection was a little bit DIY. I want everything I make to create some kind of emotion. There is always emotion running through your head when you wear a headpiece, big or small. And I want to do that with my clothes as well. I want everything I do to be interactive and for it to awaken some kind of emotion.”