Travel to India with us to find the inspiration and meticulous (hand) making behind Free People’s new label.
Born of an appreciation for fine textiles and the artisans who create them, FP New Romantics introduces a limited edition range of designs featuring the original work of some of the most skilled craftspeople in India. Each capsule explores a new craft in modern yet timeless silhouettes, each piece made of very small runs of handcrafted fabrics, made by loving hands. Each piece is truly one of a kind.
Says NR X Artisan, design director Gianna, “providing a platform for craftspeople on our blog and being able to introduce their work to our FP community is huge. I feel our customer has a romantic heart and appreciation (for their work).” Three years ago, Gianna and her team of designers met Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri and his sons, Sufiyan and Junaid, at their workshop in the Kutch region of India. This limited edition collection was inspired by and made in collaboration with the Khatri family who have been practicing the craft of traditional Ajrakh block printing for 10 generations. The Ajrakh collection consists of exquisite hand-loomed, hand-blocked printed designs in organic dyes, which the Khatri’s harvest and make themselves. Each Ajrakh pattern is made by hand and printed with pride in Bhuj, India.
Keep scrolling to get a peek into their designs and an enlightening interview with Gianna. Fans of fashion, fashion design, slow fashion and traditional art: you’re going to love this.
Get the look: Artisan Indira Dress. A traditional Ajarkh sari pattern re-imagined as a perfect day to night dress. Made of fine handwoven cotton silk. Print is hand applied and created with hand carved wood blocks, printed with natural pigments by Ajarkh artisans.
What is your role at Free People?
I am one of a handful of design directors at Free People. My role is non- traditional in that I design and work remotely, from Los Angeles. Our New Romantics capsules are deeply influenced by our frequent trips to India where we seek and find endless inspiration from textiles and antique embellishments. We are attracted to slow fashion techniques that feel unique and special. We don’t have touchstones with our merchants – there are no sketch reviews or fabrics reviews — rather, we set our own trend, color story and develop all of our fabrics and silhouettes off the grid. I love presenting this way rather than via abstract concepts – I love when the clothes can speak for themselves.
How long have you been working with artisans overseas?
I have a long-winded answer to a simple question, but…the backstory is that we devote a lot of time researching and building relationships with artisans we admire before the working relationship starts. It’s been a collective three years since we met Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri and his sons, Sufiyan and Junaid, at their workshop. We were there only to shop and find inspiration but once we saw their amazing work – the gorgeous natural pigments and dyes – we were soon determined to collaborate with them on a line from their library of hand carved blocks, printed patterns and designs. What most people don’t know is that it took a year to learn the timing required to make the collection a reality, from start to finish. There are cultural holidays, seasonal rains, etc. that present challenges that need to be considered.
Get the look: Artisan Riya Shirt Dress. Handwoven cotton silk blend, hand applied block-print in traditional Ajrakh design. Print pigments are natural & applied with hand carved wood blocks by artisans.
What does the partnership with artisans look like, generally speaking?
For this collab, New Romantics X Artisan, the Ajarakh printers provided the beautiful textiles, with which reimagined as contemporary silhouettes that have timeless appeal for our FP girl.
The cloth is really the soul of the line – we look at each print, study the fabric, see how it drapes and let the fabrics tell us what it wants to be. Some fabrics are more obvious. One particular sari featured the most amazing design and, when I held the border to me, I felt it had to be a dress. Our Kamala suit is probably one of the more traditional Ajrakh patterns – typical for men’s turbans or tunics — and it really spoke to us as a more tailored piece in the collection…tailored but boho at the same time.
How often do you and your team travel to India?
We spend 2 weeks in India every 3 1/2 to 4 months.
What does a typical day look like for your team while in India?
A typical day involves many rounds of chai tea, traffic jams and big meals at the office. No day is predictable, though. Sometimes you dedicate an entire day to the fabric market and find amazing stuff. The very next trip may yield nothing remarkable. The same thing goes for those shops and trim stores we visit, so we research and explore new regions and dig a little deeper each trip. But, it was through frustration that we found Kutch and Hyderabad, Bombay and, more recently, Luck. I’m so thankful that the NR team loves Indian food as much as I do and can keep up with the demanding schedule. Sometimes travel can be uncomfortable and dirty, but it’s always an experience.
What is one of the biggest rewards in working with local artisans?
Simply put, it is humbling to learn from such talented, generous people and, in return, they are genuinely happy that we are excited by and appreciate the beauty in their work. There is mutual respect and a kinship forged that bring a greater sense of meaning to the work we do. Providing a platform for craftspeople on our blog and being able to introduce their work to our FP community is huge.
We are extremely proud of this collection — it allows us to connect our customers with craftspeople and artisan’s fabrics that one might only find in the deserts of Bhuj! I visited Bhuj with my designer Danielle almost 3 years ago, not knowing what would come of the experience. When we arrived we were greeted by Junaid, who walked us through the Ajarkh process and allowed us to watch the artisans dye print and dye cloth, something for which we are still so happy and grateful. The next time I saw Junaid was in Santa Fe, New Mexico — in so many years that passed he still remembered me and I, for one, was bestowed the honor of learning their methods firsthand. The Ajarakh artisans are a living history — their family has been printing for 14 generations.
The process is challenging and extremely difficult to time, but so very rewarding to gather, curate and put every component into work to secure an on-time delivery. To be able to create a near perfect story for our buying team gives us a sense of accomplishment — to feel that we did right by the artisans and our vendors and be proud of the end result.
Get the look: Artisan Kamala Blazer, Artisan Kamala Pant. Power babe two-piece suit, made from fine handwoven cotton silk yarns, printed in original Ajrakh design. Print is hand applied and created with hand carved wood blocks, printed with natural pigments by Ajarkh artisans.
Silk hand printed polka dot lining.
…And biggest challenge?
Ajrakh production does not involve machinery at all – it is entirely done by hand, providing steady employment for local craftspeople. With that, the biggest challenge we face is timing and the lack of control — on things like weather and the pH of the local water on any given day. Sometimes pigments change slightly based on the mineral content of the water during a particular time of year. The colors are still beautiful, but we cannot hold the artisans responsible to strict color-matching like you would a factory or a mill. For the craftsperson, a workday is interwoven with family life and family duty, and we want to respect that. Ajrakh is a 12+ step process of printing: printing, dying, drying in the sun, and it repeats like that for each color in a print…with 12 steps, sometimes that means 12 days for one panel. The designs are hand carved on wood blocks — one design might require 8 blocks. The printing pigments are homegrown and harvested – everything is hand applied and hand washed — it’s a very complicated process. The printing tables are only so long and there are only so many available, and there are only so many craftspeople – 20 to 40 who can work on a given day — so the production timing can vary and even stop without notice. There are monsoons and weddings, holy days, sick days, family days…
Where do you personally find inspiration?
Travel, nature, my friends. Every trip we take to India overwhelms me with ideas and possibilities. It can easily become overstimulating and frenzied, but these trips make me feel most alive and energized to keep pushing. To balance this is important…to unplug and hug a tree, visit the beach and just breathe. I try to surround myself with people that share my love of connection.
What can you tell us about the current collection? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
I’ve alluded to it but just in case you missed it — the fabrics are unreal. They are all hand loomed, hand dyed, made of fine silk or cotton silk blend. The print pigments are all natural and the hand printed batik effect is like nothing our customer has ever seen before. The silhouettes are all FP classics – we have your timeless boho dresses covered, and a snappy suit, and a 70’s vibe bow blouse. The fabrics are season-less.
What other collaborations are on the horizon for New Romantics X Artisan?
Coming up is a Levis denim collaboration with our Vintage Loves buyer, Ali. We took vintage 501’s and 515’s Levis and re-imagined them with embroidery and patchwork in India. There are 8 amazing styles in the collection, all merchandised to sit with our Heirloom collections of artisan made hand loom cloth and natural dyed tops and dresses.
Get the look: Leela Buttondown. Timeless Dandy shirting with detachable neck scarf. Handwoven cotton silk blend, printed with an original Ajrakh pattern. Each block is hand carved from wood and dyed using all natural vegetables and herbs.
Thank you for sharing your insight and process, Gianna. We look forward to seeing more from the collaborations with the artisans in India! We’ll check back in soon. Photos by John Ciuppa.
+Is anyone else feeling overly inspired by the New Romantics X Artisan collaboration like I am?
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