Keeping the legacy alive

Amrita Prasad
Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Kabir Singh and Aishwarya Kumar of Delhi-based lifestyle store, The Shop, tell us about their brand promoting Indian handicrafts, their unique eco-friendly workshop, and how they have been empowering artisans over the decades

The Shop, one of India’s oldest labels, isn’t just a lifestyle brand that empowers Indian handicrafts and handlooms, but its workshop has a great eco system that has become a major tourist attraction for art lovers in Delhi. Started in 1969, The Shop was founded by Preminder and Kamal Singh, with an aim to focus on supplying clothing and crafts sourced from remote Indian villages to urban India and foreign retailers. 

Four decades later, The Shop, which has outlets in Mumbai, Noida, Bengaluru, Coonoor and Kolkata and is planning to have stores overseas, is headed by their son Kabir Singh and his wife Aishwarya Kumar, who is also the creative head. The Shop stocks everything, from home linen to clothing with Indian designs and motifs in a contemporary way. So you will find attractive napkins with patch work, table mats and runners, printed/ striped voile stoles, appliqué-worked kimonos, printed jackets, sarees, kurtas, kids clothing and much more.   

The brand works with master craftsmen and their families and those in remote tribal villages, and helps them find a market for their craft. Now, it has opened the doors of its workshop to those who want to experience its 49-year-old legacy and understand its philosophy of celebrating Indian roots, crafts and sustainability.  

Here’s chatting up Kabir and Aishwarya. 

- What was the concept and vision behind starting The Shop?
Kabir: Our inspiration is handcrafted textile and décor products — an awakening of traditional art, an observance of individuality and the realisation of living in a sacred space. Our passion is reviving crafts communities by integrating contemporary design with the expert workmanship of traditional craft. 

- Tell us about The Shop’s eco-friendly workshop.
Aishwarya: Our workshop is designed with organic materials, open spaces and natural light to create a living environment that inspires artists and designers. The building is made using indigenous materials. The external walls are built with fly ash brick, a residue from power plants. The interior walls are built with mud bricks from the mud dug out to build the basement of the workshop and then sun baked on our own roof. The walls are white-washed with lime, chalk and cow dung. All our workstations are made using mud mixed with cow dung. The use of cow dung is a traditional Indian method of environment friendly architecture and keeps the building cool even during the harsh Indian summer months. It also keeps away insects. Atriums in the building create a well-lit and airy working space. We have a green garden around the factory and indulge ourselves with lots of plants in our work space to protect ourselves from excess pollution and to stay closer to nature. As planetary health has emerged as an increasing matter of concern, sustainability and social responsibility have become core values for us. We use ecologically sustainable production techniques like solar heating, rainwater harvesting, and treating all effluents produced by our production processes. We have a natural gas boiler and use the sun to dry the fabrics.

- How has the brand sustained its philosophy for the last four decades?
Kabir: The whole inspiration for the founding members was to revive Indian crafts and bring it to a global market. They were the pioneers in taking kalamkari (machlipatnam), balotra and bagru to Europe back in the ’70s. Our artisans and our team have brought us to where we are today. We assembled experienced karigars (artisans) from all over the country in our workshop and started handblock printing textiles in 1970. We have now added silk screen printing, hand tie and dye, hand embroidery, hand quilting, artisan machine embroidery, chain stitch embroidery and a new unit making stationery products recycling our scrap fabrics.

- How have you been empowering karigars?
Aishwarya: We have worked at providing design inputs for traditional craft that make it more sustainable, durable and utilitarian today. Our focus on making useful and not just decorative products has a large aspect to our design. We have provided access to global markets for our kalamkari and ajrakh artisans specifically, where it is not only an appreciation of the art but also the utilitarian aspect of the traditional artform in a modern setting.  

- What kind of an experience can one get at the workshop?
Kabir: The space and ambience of the workshop is a lesson in sustainability and an appreciation for the handmade and traditional. There is a need for slow fashion today and going back to environmentally-friendly methods. Very labour intensive for today’s world, we appreciate the intense effort that goes into making each piece. We recycle even our rejection garments by putting double the effort into making them unique pieces rather than selling them in a surplus market for a quick buy. 

- Your workshop started with block printing textiles. How has it managed to survive the test of time and become fashionable?
Aishwarya: We have to thank the global — specially the European market for being so interested in our traditional block prints which brought a resurgence. Our print archives date back to the ’70s. So they cover a large expanse across several traditions in terms of design aesthetic. We have been inspired by French chintz, batik, Mughal prints, vintage English florals etc.  In India too, there is a niche market that appreciates the handmade and dexterity of our indigenous artisan. 

- How do you make handicraft more contemporary?
Kabir: Traditionally, handicraft has always been environmentally-friendly and sustainable. The skill set required is unique and impressive. The only thing we had to do is ensure the quality and we have focussed our design inputs on simple lines, and usefulness of the product, so it is updated and has relevance today.

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