Seated on the floor with cloth stretched on wooden frames before them, the craftsmen, dressed in white, are bent over in deep concentration. The180 embroiderers and a support staff of more than 20 work together in 5 large workrooms and the first floor of an auditorium. Supriya Kharat, the manager, also dressed in white, greets me and takes me around the atelier, as part of a tour arranged by Taj Coromandel for its guests, in association with Apparao Galleries. “We have two units–interiors and fashion. The designs are created, samples are sent to the clients and once they have been approved, production begins right here in Chennai. Everything has to be very precise and the pinning stage is very important. A mistake of 1mm can mess the whole thing up,” Supriya informs me. Welcome to Vastrakala Exports Pvt. Ltd, in Alwarpet, Chennai, the spacious workshop of Jean-Francois Lesage. “The white uniform that the workers wear is a neutral background and the creativity that takes place can happen with different hues and colours. The white is a blank palette and provides the least distraction,” explains Malavika Shivakumar, one of the four partners.
He's French, but has been living in India for the last 20 years. From tattoo shoes for Christian Louboutin, a luxury suite as part of the ‘Bespoke Experiences’ at The Park Hyderabad and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, which is a part of the Louvre; King Louis XIV’s bed chamber in Vaux le Vicomte Castle to the Opera of Monte Carlo and much more—Jean's repertoire is difficult to match up to. No matter what part of the world you are in, if you are thinking luxury embroidered home furnishings, think Vastrakala. But for Jean, luxury is “the deep belief that something has been made for me, thinking of me and adapted to my views; step by step from the conceptual stage to the last step of it’s realization”.
“Whether it is based on a brief from a client or an in-house sampling, Mr. Lesage first makes a drawing board of the design. This, is then, drawn out by our draftsmen-artists to scale and once approved, it is printed on a tracing paper, which is perforated by the embroiderers with a fine needle. Then a resin-based powder, dissolved using spirit is passed over the paper, which is placed on the reverse of the fabric on which the embroidery is meant to appear. Once this dries, the fabric is stretched onto a frame and the embroiderers begin to outline the design; the frame is turned over and the work begins,” Malavika explains the procedure. The final outcome–drapes, curtains, under curtains, blinds, valances, chairs and armchairs, footstools and stools, sofas, cushions, throws, bed covers, head rests, bed canopies, pillows and even walls– is then sent to adorn the homes of clients all over the world.
There is no material that his workers cannot embroider on—hand-woven silk velvets from Lyon drill fabric from Pondicherry, Fortuny and Atmosphere, jacquards and damasks, Khadi and linen. They not only use traditional materials like zari, badla, softwire, metallic sequins beads, glass beads, faceted tubes, all kinds of trims: gold, silver and silk…but also Swarovski crystals, all kinds of plastic forms and shapes and leather-wrapped forms…anything and everything that can be pierced with a needle and fixed on a backing.
Lesage was born to a family of embroiderers, who had begun embroidering in 1860. To him, embroidery is “a tradition, a heritage, a continuity, a community, a clan, a family, a feeling, an emotion, a vision, a colour, a hue, a silhouette, a pattern, a palette, a language.” Does he find embroidery to be different in France and India? “Embroidery, in terms of patterns or designs, is not something that has stayed uninfluenced and fixed in one location over centuries,” he says. “Over the years, different countries have, for periods of time, reached their highest design moments (the Florentine period in Italy, the Elizabethan era in England, the Baroque & Rococco periods in France etc); in India, there have been many high moments; there is a tendency to respect this rich tradition and heritage even in patterns whereas in France, there is a constant search for innovation and change.”
From transforming coffee patches on his white shirt ten minutes before a TV interview into two cute embroidered hands within three minutes to an exquisite chinoiserie room entirely upholstered with embroidered walls, curtains, under curtains, ceiling and sofas, which took more than 70,000 man hours of work, Lesage and his workers have been there and done that!