Nikhila Anchala isn’t your average doctor. Between clinicals, research, and applying for residency, she finds solace in creativity, specifically the fashion industry. After deciding to move to New York, Anchala opted to take a break from the exhausting path of medicine by immersing herself into the world of fashion. After spending numerous hours learning about embroidery, fabric, and design, she started bringing her ideas to life with her very own brand, Nikhila.
In an exclusive Fast Five with Brown Girl, this creative gives us a deeper look into the making of her brand, and an inside tour of her world of fashion.
1. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in fashion designing?
Early last year, when I didn’t match for residency. I decided to go to India and basically told my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in fashion. Thankfully, they were supportive. When I got to India, I met with tailors and embroidery designers. I’ve always been so interested in fashion design so being in India and learning about the process was a dream come true.
2. What is your favorite part of being a designer?
I love drawing and sketching. My favorite part of this process is taking something that I’ve been thinking about in my mind and then physically seeing it come to life. Seeing the final project is the most fulfilling part.
3. What inspires you when creating your designs?
My mom’s side of the family. She’s South Indian so they are inspired by different types of silk, rich colors, and vibrant jewelry. My mom loves fashion, so she’s a whole different inspiration on her own.
4. How does your culture/background reflect the pieces you create?
A lot of ethnic touches are in my creations. I don’t believe in trends. Almost everything I design and how I style clothing is based on South Indian culture, but with modern touches.
Making conscious decisions can, and should, go hand in hand with wearing fashionable pieces of clothing. Fortunately, South Asian fashion is making huge strides in the sustainable fashion department, and ace fashion designer Anita Dongre is at the forefront of this change; she’s so dedicated to making environmentally friendly choices in her collections.
Brown Girl Magazine has previously had the honor of featuring her Grassroots Collection; today, we sat down with Dongre to chat about her new vegan luxury line.
Her love for animals is parallel to her love for fashion and she does not sacrifice one or the other. From handcrafted purses to belts, the new collection is made of recycled materials and leaves a smaller carbon footprint.
What inspired you to “go vegan” both personally and product-wise?
I have always loved animals. When I was 13 my best friend talked me into being vegetarian and there was no looking back – Sangita and I continued to work together and since then we have both also turned vegan. When I started my business, I wanted the brand to be an extension of my personal philosophies so being a vegan brand was a forgone conclusion. My personal philosophy is to live a mindful life with kindness. This philosophy extends to respecting all life [so] we have chosen not to use leather for our line of accessories. For years I have wanted to create a vegan line of accessories that was high on quality, fashion, and kindness, and technology has only recently caught up with that desire.
Women have always expressed themselves through what they wear. In today’s time, carrying a bag that reflects their core personality is the default, and yet until recently, there hasn’t been a leather replacement that is cruelty-free and kind to the environment. With material sciences finally having the answer it was imperative to design an accessory line that women, like myself who care both about fashion and a world of kindness, could carry with pride.
What material is used in this new line? Why did you choose it?
With MIRUM® we found a partner who creates this beautiful, plastic-free material that mimics the touch, feel, and age of leather without cruelty. The line also features bags made out of recycled glass beads. We’re careful about delivering high quality [products] and both these materials deliver to that benchmark while being plastic-free.
How many pieces does this new line have and what is the importance of the animal symbols of each?
This collection is inspired by nature, my eternal muse. The Swan mini grab bag draws from a swan’s graceful silhouettes; the birds of a feather cross body bag borrow bird motifs that you see across my collections; the haathi belt uses my favorite — the Indian elephant, [which] is a symbol of strength and humility — every piece in this line of accessories is an elegant statement in conscious luxury living. The Anita Dongre brand has stood for elegance, timeless classics, and sustainability. We have always stood for handcrafted luxury while being mindful of the purpose it serves. These same principles extend into this collection of conscious, plastic-free, vegan accessories. While the shapes of these bags are distinctive, they are also functional – a design approach that extends across all Anita Dongre products.
How to promote sustainability in India versus let’s say New York City:
India’s lived culture is based on the practice of sustainability. From clothes that would be passed down to siblings and then cousins to eating seasonal fruits and vegetables, our practices until recently have always defaulted to conscious consumption. It’s exciting to see the rest of the world adapt to that way of living and [it’s] a good reminder for us Indians to go back to the way we were raised.
Anita Dongre allows her consumers to choose ethically-sourced pieces while letting them embrace sustainability as a part of luxury fashion. Soon enough, such cruelty-free products will be synonymous with India’s (and the world’s) top fashion couture brands. This is definitely not a step, but a huge leap forward.
Photos in the featured image are courtesy of Anita Dongre.
South Asian fashion is nearly always associated with color, glitz, and ornate designs. From embellished bridal wear, weighing as much as the bride herself, to brightly colored sarees, Indian craft and hand embroidery is hard to miss — except when it’s showing up in non-Indian clothing.
South Asian artisans, also known as ‘karigars,’ are the unnamed force behind a designer’s vision. They often reside in rural parts of the Subcontinent and have gathered skill, creativity, and knowledge over generations. During my travels this year, for the launch of my fashion brand Chaa Latte, I witnessed artisans train from as young as seven years old, mastering embroidery techniques by the time they’re in their teens. Crouched over a table in a dimly-lit room, these artisans work tirelessly to adorn yards of fabric with beautiful beads and sequins, or weave glistening gold yarn into silk and cotton with sometimes nothing more than their memory to guide the motif. Some of them have little to no education and have never stepped outside of their village. Yet, hand them thread and a needle and they are among the best embroiderers in the world.
Is Indian hand embroidery as prolific as French lace? I would argue yes, and maybe even more, but without the fame. Established brands and their collections have stood on the craft of these rural artisans for decades but have rarely given credit. Only few Western designers, such as Dries Van Noten and Isabel Marant, proudly celebrate their relationship with Indian craftspeople. Perhaps because of this nearly silent partnership, a label that says “Made in India” or “Made in Bangladesh” does not equate to beautiful, luxurious work — rather, the complete opposite. Fast fashion may be one output, but the true strength of South Asia lies in centuries of incredibly intricate, slow, and artisanal processes.
In a Times of India article, David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore — a well-regarded Indian label — eloquently says that we must recognize the fact that India is one of the very few countries left that can still produce small lot, labor intensive, highly-skilled craft and textiles.
He adds, “And that is the true luxury in a world of growing mass consumerism and an antidote to the very real threats of environmental pollution, global warming and a growing understanding that we need to buy less, pay more for fashion that is more timeless, classic and responsible.”
South Asia’s fashion identity is at a crossroads, and it’s up to designers, especially the younger generation, to build brands that showcase the luxury and painstaking craft of South Asian embroidery, weaving, and the various other hand techniques mastered over centuries. I launched my fashion brand, Chaa Latte, late last year because I believe the true beauty of South Asian fashion is in the subtle, intricate craft and this simply isn’t accessible to North Americans in a way that fits their lifestyle seamlessly. I was set on designing modern pieces for people of all backgrounds, who have a love for art in the form of fashion and have an eye for unique detail.
My first collection encompasses some of my favorite techniques and textiles from India and Bangladesh, including mirror work and silk handloom sarees. The detailing is balanced with simple silhouettes and a neutral color palette. I am now working on my second collection, which will be released in Spring/Summer of 2023.
Like me, many young designers are tapping into their unique heritage to draw inspiration and bring attention to the Western world. I had the pleasure of speaking to two fellow South Asian designers who are making a mark on the US fashion industry, while highlighting their love for South Asian craft. When asked about the role of traditional textiles and techniques in their work, Niharika of Tega Collective responds:
With each collection our designs are co-created with a specific indigenous community highlighting their traditional colors, patterns and natural symbols. Every region in the world has incredible biodiversity so we focus on championing native fibers in South Asia like Khadi (indigenous cotton) and Eri (peace) silk originating from Assam, India.
In a separate conversation with designer Sana Khan Patel, from Aara by Sana, she tells us how she was inspired to start her line:
When a family wedding took me back to my hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, after a long 18 years, I was blown away by the level of skill I saw in the gullys (streets) of Lahore. From fabric dyeing to intricate beading to the quality of tailoring, they did it all so effortlessly and with so much pride. I quickly realized that the artisans simply want to create art but unfortunately, in most cases they are overworked, underpaid and treated extremely poorly. I immediately knew that I wanted to work with and learn from these OG’s as much as I wanted to put them in a position of providing for their families.
It’s the hope that this recognition from up-and-coming brands, like Chaa Latte, will shed light into how much South Asia is truly lending to global luxury fashion and the rich history that makes these art forms unique to our countries.
While growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, with little to no outlet to connect with her desi culture, Simran Anand always strived to stay true to her Indian roots. Fashion, which is almost the easiest medium to incorporate his or her culture, is something she and her mom enjoyed exploring. “Beauty needs no ornaments,” her mom always says. Beauty is something that is innately within us, and we can only enhance it with desi jewelry or clothing, makeup, compliments or “ornaments.” That is one of her favorite quotes. It serves as a building block for her personal style and the nature of her brand.
As a fashion enthusiast, she often found herself scrolling through Etsy and Amazon to find the perfect desi accessories to match her Western outfits. While there were abundant options displaying intricate jhumkas to chand-balis, none quite matched the vibe she was on the hunt for.
And, what was that vibe?
“Versatile, indo-western, comfortable. I truly wanted pieces that reflect western minimalism and desi maximalism. I am on a mission to create the ‘desi girl aesthetic.'”
Where, oh where could she find those? Sure, the mini jhumkas are a cute addition to a Lucknowi kurta and jeans. But, what about putting a South Asian twist to the perfect white dress for your European vacation? Or, something minimal to pair with maximal Indian outfits?
That’s exactly when her ever-so-supportive fiancé encouraged her to make them! Desi jewelry that is made for both sides of our identities, South Asian and American, “because that’s who we are.” Easier said than done, of course. The quality had to be on par with the daily jewelry we are used to wearing. Since she wanted pieces that were wearable daily, creating jewelry that is nickel-free, tarnish-free, and hypoallergenic was the goal.
After countless hours of designing and kickstarting her brand, she received her first batch. Staying true to her mission of producing wearable desi jewelry, the original clasp on the jhumka was a bit too thick and that was something she was not “300%” proud of. Now, her pieces fit more like a “paper-like stud.” The material was one hurdle. The other ordeal was dealing with her imposter syndrome. Dealing with the fact that she started this venture, which to some, may seem like “just selling jhumkas” was something that she needed to overcome.
The universe has its way of having your back. “When I posted a video on TikTok, I literally woke up from a nap to see it go viral.” As the feedback came in, her confidence skyrocketed. “Every no is a yes you do not know about,” she promises. Sales started pouring in and Simran noticed that many felt the same need for such pieces as she did.
Months after her launch, Simran aims to build ‘BySimran’ stronger each day. Soon enough, she would like for it to be a household name and a lifestyle brand. We can definitely see her “Hailey Bieber Meets Desi Girl” jewelry brand on every girl’s aesthetic Pinterest boards.
If you are a mono-chrome girly like herself, get a white button-down basic shirt with some medium-washed high-waisted jeans, and pair them with some kitty heels and a matching purse. And, do not forget to finish the look with the micro-jhumka if going out for brunch or running some errands. If you’re getting ready for a dinner date, go for the baby jhumkas. Do not miss the Sapna anklets, which come in a pack of 2, the true desi way.