For this fashion portfolio, photographer Suzie Howell captures the Indian-American brand’s well-crafted versatility
Shwetambari Mody knows about duality. Raised in Mumbai, at home in New York; an artist and an enterpriser; a dreamer, yet a pragmatist. The designer launched her eponymous label, SHWETAMBARI, this past August. Fittingly, her first collection is getting noticed for its ability to belong anywhere. Lovingly patterned silk kaftans, tailored lounge pants, and flowing capes can be worn at home on the couch, or to work, or to dinner, or to a party.
Here, Mody speaks with Document about her burgeoning brand, which she describes as “a true collaboration among artists worldwide, from New York to India.” At SHWETAMBARI’s heart is good craftsmanship, good material, and a collective striving towards the creation of something unique.
Morgan Becker: Tell me about the concept behind your latest collection.
Shwetambari Mody: My creative process is very organic. Before I even start designing a collection, I bring out my canvas and paint. All of my prints originate from my resin paintings; when you pour resin onto a canvas, it creates its own path, beautifully and organically. It reminds me of the smoke that comes out of the grates in New York during the winter. It got me thinking, ‘How can I translate this to fashion, and create something that is uniquely my own?’
I decided to travel around India, and landed in the Rann of Kutch [salt flatlands] in Gujarat. There, the local women and men wear extremely colorful clothing to stand out against the barren topography. I got the opportunity to learn a lot more about the different embroidery techniques that are found in India. Each region has its own expertise, and this expertise has been passed down from generation to generation. [A merging of] my art, India, and New York is the inspiration behind my current collection.
Morgan: You collaborate with Indian garment-makers in the construction of your clothing—how intimate is that process, and why is it meaningful to you?
Shwetambari: I get to collaborate with some of the best garment-makers in the country. They are known for their ability to sew silk satin, which is one of the most challenging [materials] to construct.
I am somebody who believes you are only as good as your team and your partners. I can design and conceptualize the most beautiful collection on paper, but I need someone to execute it with love and care. This is what I get from the garment-makers; their know-how and ability make [my clothing] what it is.
Morgan: What’s most important: material, form, or function?
Shwetambari: One leads into the other. But as a fabric lover, I will say that material is the backbone of the industry. Like a chef, if your essential ingredients—which, in our case, are the fabrics and the raw materials—are the best you can get, then your job is a lot easier. This is precisely the reason why I work with the top silk manufacturer in India.
Only if the material is of top quality can it lead to form, which leads to function. Consider our cashmere scarf: It took us almost two years to source the yarn, and only once we were happy with the base quality did we print it and turn it into a shawl.
“I am somebody who believes you are only as good as your team and your partners. I can design and conceptualize the most beautiful collection on paper, but I need someone to execute it with love and care.”
Morgan: Tell me about a fond memory associated with clothing.
Shwetambari: It’s funny—for me, every memory is associated with what I wore. Clothing has always been a big part of my life and identity. That said, my fondest memory has to be going to Rohit Khosla‘s studio in Delhi every Diwali as a young girl, to get new clothes made for the occasion. My mother would take my sisters and me to his atelier, and we would spend the afternoon looking at his beautiful collection. [Khosla] has unfortunately passed since, but he was a pioneer in the Indian fashion industry. He was an exquisite man who would drape fabrics around us, and make us feel so special. Seeing the joy on our faces brought so much joy to him.
Morgan: What’s it like to have your own label?
Shwetambari: Working in the fashion industry has always been my dream. That is why I moved from Mumbai to New York City almost 20 years ago—to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. I’ve never looked back.
The fact that I have now launched my own collection is the cherry on top; a dream that I had as a child is now coming to fruition. The best part is, I get to work with some of the best artists in the world, and learn more about their craftsmanship—or karigaree—through my own lens.
Morgan: How is your identity reflected in your clothing?
Shwetambari: Since the entire collection stems from my painting, every piece reflects a part of my identity. It’s a culmination of my world exposure and my artistic sensibility. More than that, I dress for myself. I always have. And to me, that’s fashion. Therefore, the personality of the wearer is essential—I would love for my clothing to be a tool for the wearer to express themselves and their personal style.
Morgan: Many have noted the versatility of your work. Is there a specific image you had in mind of the perfect environment for your designs to flourish?
Shwetambari: Believe it or not, the entire collection was designed during the pandemic. I had initially planned to launch the brand with a line of accessories, in the fall of 2020. But then the pandemic hit, and I had to press the reset button. I was sitting at home in my sweats, as we all were, and my manufacturer’s factory in India was open. We decided to sample.
During that time, I realized that I would love to sit at home in loungewear made of gorgeous silk, and that I would love a collection that could take me through any situation looking chic and put together. The silk and cashmere lend themselves to mobility and comfort—that’s how the collection became versatile.
Morgan: Who are some of your greatest influences?
Shwetambari: It may be a cliché, but my most significant influence is my family. I get my sartorial side from my mother, and my entrepreneurial side from my father. My parents always believed in my sisters and me. Not only did they allow us to be dreamers, but they also gave us the tools to achieve those dreams. They exposed us to the world as children, during our summer holidays, and they encouraged me to pursue fashion and move to New York at the tender age of 17.
My other influences would have to be New York and India—two places without which I would have never been on this journey. This is why I like to call my collection a love letter, from New York to India.
Model Jess Cole at IMG. Hair Tommy Taylor at Stella Creative Artists. Make-up Anna Payne. Photo Assistant Emma Harries. Styling Assistant Wayne Thomas Rhoden. Casting Clémence Orozco Bello at Lock Studios.