Designer Spotlight: Swati Argade
Swati Argade is an ethical Indian-American clothing designer and entrepreneur who recently opened a boutique in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood. With a passion for ethical fashion, particularly fair-trade, hand-made fabrics and the story behind the garments, we caught up with Swati to hear more:
1. Can you describe your path [from UNC/Berkeley to boutique in Brooklyn] – and how that evolution/journey came to pass?
I was born in the Detroit suburbs to Indian parents and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina when I was 11 and a half. When I left North Carolina for New York at 23, I remember thinking, I’ve spent exactly half my life in Michigan, and the other in North Carolina. My Mom had an Indian classical dance school. My earliest memories as a child are dancing in our basement practice studio and on the stages of Hindu community centers to celebrate an Indian holiday like Diwali or Holi. During several summers in our adolescence, my parents sent my twin sister and I to Chennai, India (formerly Madras) for rigorous dance training. Through high school, college and our twenties, my sister and I traveled around the country performing our story-dances in universities, theaters and museums.
My love for costume came through dance. My earliest designs were for the stage. My love for textiles came from my mother. I discovered the wonder and depth of Indian textiles as a child, packing and unpacking my mother’s sari trunk of handloom treasures. She would tell us the story of her saris while she dressed up for a party. It was also a very effective way to learn subcontinental geography. Calcutta, Orissa, Kanchipuram, Benares, Dhaka, Pochampally, Coimbatore – I linked the names of these places with the weight of the silk, the contrasting color combinations, and the visual motifs designating its origin. Her hundreds of saris – each one unique without an exact replica in existence – provided me a primer for handloom history, and instilled in me an early appreciation for the countless ancient weaving traditions native to India. By the time I finished college (I majored in Art History and Business as an undergrad at Carolina), I’d collected hundreds of meters of fabric from all over India keenly aware that these ancient art forms required support and sustenance if they were to survive.
A few years after college, I earned a Masters in South Asian Studies from UC-Berkeley where I wrote my thesis on performance in mid-century Bollywood cinema. The summer after receiving my MA, I escaped to India to work on a documentary, and to escape a man-boy I’d fallen for, who had stomped on my heart too many times during the course of my MA.
In 2002, while researching and traveling through South Indian temple towns, I met many artisans struggling to keep their handloom traditions alive. Sidenote: Royal families built temples as offerings to the Gods, and supported silk and cotton weavers with their insatiable need for fine fabric for themselves and to robe the deities. It’s easy to see how temple towns share a history of magnificent architecture with handloom innovation.
After meeting some weavers in Andhra Pradesh – experts in yarn dyed cotton khadi – struggling to find reliable markets to keep them abreast, I was hooked. A few weeks before this trip, I had met some cutters and sewers at the fashion college in my Dad’s hometown. I took the khadi back to them and made some pieces for myself. When I returned to NY, strangers on the street stopped me to ask where I’d bought my clothes. When this happened countless time over the summer when I returned to New York, I knew I was on to something.
2. What does eco-fashion mean to you?
I like the term ethical fashion, because it encompasses both the environmental and social aspects of sustainable fashion. For example, some pieces in my collections are made from fair-trade handloom silks and cottons. . They might not be made of organic or recycled fibers, but the artisans who made them are treated respectfully and the money they earn is going back into the community to keep their traditions alive. Eco-fashion often doesn’t address the human component of sustainability, while ethical fashion does.
3. How would you describe your line?
I gravitate towards feminine and classic lines. There will always be a few A-line and shift dresses in my collection. I aim to make timeless, well-made, multi-season clothes. Part of the eco-initiative is consuming less, so the longer we can wear a garment, the fewer garments we purchase. I am constantly inspired by real women with real bodies who are doing great things. Having a shop is such an intimate experience. I really get a sense of what women want and need. Those conversations provide me with great design lessons, and help me step out of a navel-gazing mentality from which many designers suffer, myself included. I often want to make fashion for fashion’s sake, but my customers ground me. With every sketch I ask, who will wear this? Will it serve her lifestyle? Will it make her life easier? Will she feel beautiful in it? These are the questions that guide me at this stage in my career. I’ve always approached design spiritually, as séva – service in Sanskrit – because at the end of the day we are serving the clients who wear our clothes. All of our fabrics are either fair-trade, recycled or organic, and cut and sewn in NYC at this time. We are very proud of this fact, it’s so crazy to go to the Garment Center every week and then to see another business shutter its doors. I think it’s really important to bring as much manufacturing back to the USA as possible.