The Indian Embroidery Atelier Whose Inheritance Is Intricacy

In a region revered for its meticulous needlework, a collaboration between Chennai craftspeople and the scion of a Parisian couture house has opened a portal to the world’s grandest runways.

Article by Meenakshi.J

Artisans at work at the Vastrakala Atelier.

Clad in white and cross-legged on the floor, an artisan hunches over a cloth stretched over a large timber frame. Beside him, another works on a piece of nappa leather bound for the Italian factory of the French accessories designer Christian Louboutin. There, it will be tailored into a pair of shoes finished with Louboutin’s signature red-lacquered soles.

But these artisans don’t just produce for Christian Louboutin; their work can be found everywhere from the architect and decorator Robert Couturier’s collections to the kings’ private chambers at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris, and the Monte Carlo Opera. Located on the outskirts of Chennai in southern India, Vastrakala (Sanskrit for “art of textiles”) is an embroidery atelier founded by a Frenchman, Jean-François Lesage, who is the son of the legendary late French couture embroiderer François Lesage, whose House of Lesage was acquired by Chanel two decades ago.

“In 1992, my associate Patrick Savouret and I decided to create a true and transparent collaboration valorising both French and Indian expertise when it comes to embroidery,” says Lesage. “With one foot in Paris and the other in Chennai, India, this collaboration gave rise to Lesage Intérieurs and Vastrakala.” Vastrakala’s Indian artisans are accessed by the global interior design, architecture and fashion industries through the Paris office of Lesage Intérieurs, which Lesage also heads up; in 2014, Chanel bought 70 per cent of the company.

The duo of “craftpreneurs”, Lesage and Savouret, found the perfect partners in Chennai: Malavika Shivakumar and Sandeep Rao. The quartet tapped a community of experienced embroiderers from neighbouring villages who are descended from embroiderers of the internationally coveted “Real Madras Handkerchief” — colonial-era British merchants’ name for eight-metre-long bolts of handloom fabric featuring what is now known as Madras checks — and whose families thrived for generations at the culturally rich Deccan courts.

The Gandhi Embroidery
Jean François Lesage.

Vastrakala has slowly but steadily won a range of clients including luxury fashion houses across Europe and many celebrated names in design. Two years ago, it collaborated with the French interior designer Pierre Yovanovitch, a master at blending traditional craft with a refined and modern vision, on his furniture collection. Lesage helped Yovanovitch reimagine his popular Monsieur and Madame Oops chairs, which were first launched in 2017, with whimsical embroidery and names paying tribute to icons of French cinema. “We had to recreate on the Oops chairs mysterious and nearly abstract faces,” says Lesage. “The faces were composed of mosses, lichens and microscopic ferns as it happens in nature, on rocks and knotty trunks of old trees, using needle and thread.”

As the artistic director of Lesage Intérieurs, Lesage was also chosen to restore damaged 18th-century Chinese embroideries that belonged to the French poet and playwright Victor Hugo, who had carefully selected them for his retreat Hauteville House on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. “Those fabulous embroideries depicted the epic story of a Chinese prince and it was a fascinating adventure to reinvent the disappeared and forgotten gestures, designs, silk work and stitches,” says Lesage. “It took more than 6,200 hours for a team of 33 master embroiderers to fully immerse themselves into this journey to the past, for close to three months.”

As part of the 150th birthday celebrations for the political ethicist and lawyer Mahatma Gandhi from late 2018, a client requested an embroidery which expressed iconic elements representing Gandhi and his legacy. The result is a series of panels each measuring some two metres high and more than a metre wide featuring hand-embroidered reproductions of Gandhi’s handwritten letters to friends and associates, a feat that took almost 4,000 hours of labour.

“The most moving thing was to carefully trace on the fabric each and every line composed by the palm of the hand that gently changed the world,” says Shivakumar, “because manual embroidery work is now revered here as a sacred and sensorial human expression.” The works were displayed as part of the exhibition “Santati” at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, which paid tribute to Gandhi and Indian heritage and culture.

The complete embroidery celebrating Gandhi.

Decades before recognition of supply chains became an expectation in the fashion and textiles worlds, Jean-François Lesage paid homage to India’s rich craft traditions and communities by proudly promoting Vastrakala’s Indian DNA, giving its artisans due credit.

The decision to base the company in Chennai was unexpectedly rewarded as the Covid-19 pandemic upended global supply chains and workforce availability: Vastrakala’s artisans live in local villages so didn’t need to leave to return to their families.

“Even in normal times our craftsmen, like us, come to work during the day and go home to their families every evening”, says Shivakumar. “Our work was briefly interrupted during the big lockdown, but we could quickly reopen and keep our commitments to our clients with very little delay.”

Vastrakala now employs 237 people, of whom 207 are master craftspersons specialising in bespoke high-end home furnishings and embroidery. It is one of the few such ateliers in India to be accorded the SA8000 certification for best practice in the workplace. “While still keeping the tradition alive, Vastrakala appears as a modern crafts setup,” says Shivakumar. “We employ a large workforce of women in a profession which was traditionally reserved for men in India.

“Our new LEED-certified and SA8000-compliant facility has further given reassurance to the artisans that we have put down our roots in their soil,” adds Shivakumar, “and that together, we will grow this house.”