At seventeen, I was lucky to have a mentor who first suggested I go to India. Taking note of my early interest in fashion, she connected me with her relatives who ran their family business: a sewing and embroidery workshop in Mumbai. With a growing interest in global cultures and artisanal workmanship, I was over the moon to spend a summer in India.
Arriving at their old-Bombay home, I was greeted by the scent of earth during the summer monsoons, and welcomed into their beautiful rosewood refuge away from the insanity of this hectic city. That summer was a wonderful exploration of the garment industry, seeing how the process worked first hand from pattern-making to stitching and embroidery. I would venture out to the market to source carved buttons, metal threads, and silk ribbon trims, excited by the infinity of creative possibilities. The top floor of their workshop was a fine embroidery studio, handling wedding gowns for clients across Europe. I remember lingering at the work tables watching floral lattice laces being pricked thousands of times with the rhythm of the needle making tiny silk stitches and enmeshing pearl beads into the flowing gowns and floating veils. I was mesmerized and I was hooked.
When I wasn’t learning about the garment industry, I had the chance to travel around the region, explore the city, and even run around to all the hottest rooftop spots of 2007 with a short-lived summer fling (but that’s another story). Since this initial trip, I go back to India to visit our artisan workshops and see friends. Mumbai is constantly changing, but I always tell friends to stop at a few favorite haunts when in misty and magical Mumbai.
Bungalow 8 – This is one of my favorite places in Mumbai, a concept store secretly tucked beneath the steps of the Wankhede Cricket Stadium. They have a namesake collection of khadi cotton caftans and they sell my favorite shawls from an artisan called Kashmir Loom that makes the best hand-dyed cashmere shawls in rich colors. Unexpected industrial glamour reigns.
Ahilaya – Ahilaya is tucked away on a side street near the Taj Hotel downtown, and the facade looks like a little tropical bungalow. Inside is a plethora of gauzy bohemian tops embroidered allover with chikankari, a traditional reverse-applique embroidery style from Lucknow. One of my favorite pieces I own is a white silk caftan they customized for me with head-to-toe embroidery in tonal white on white.
Manish Arora – In a word: synesthesia. I first visited Manish Arora’s boutique when I was seventeen, and I totally fell in love. He is an exuberant designer who employs pop art, Hindu iconography, and a liberal use of Swarovski crystals to fabulous effect. He shows his collection in Paris, but remains rooted in a kaleidoscopic use of different Indian artisanal methods. If you like hot pink, he will not let you down.
Thieves Market or Chor Bazaar – The Thieves Market gets its name from the supposedly stolen goods sold there. While I can’t verify this rumor, there are a host of upright but ruthless bargainer vendors selling all kinds of vintage ephemera from antiques to old movie posters. My favorite finds are white marble spice grinders and etched brass water bowls.
Ensemble – Ensemble is a discreet, lush multi-designer boutique for Indian formalwear. While the shop is tiny as a jewel box, the salespeople always seem to have the perfect thing tucked away. They put a new spin on traditional Indian dressing, with sequined saris and minimal lehengas.
Elephanta Island Markets – On the way to the famous Elephanta Caves, there is a row of vendors selling tourist items but with much better quality than those in town, in this peaceful and beautiful UNESCO heritage site.
Anokhi – Anokhi is my go-to store for gifts. They create block-printed textiles from hand-carved wooden stamps on the softest cottons. You can find simple clothes to wear around India, breezy cotton shawls, and trinkets. I always stock up on their amber and lavender glass earrings as gifts. It is also worth visiting their printing villa and museum in Rajasthan, where they hand-block print outside and dry billowing swathes of fabric in the sun.
Tarun Tahiliani – Tarun Tahiliani is one of the biggest designers in India, with a devoted following in Bollywood. His work is very focused on the Mughal era and he creates impossibly intricate custom gowns, saris, and lehengas. A master among Indian designers, he has a gracious stone villa as his store, right on the water by the Gateway of India. A visit is best followed by a stroll on Marine Drive and tea at the Sea Lounge on the top floor of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. From this perch you can peacefully rest amongst the madness, overlooking the sinuous sea wall and the soft rolling of the Indian Ocean.