In the 17th century, when India was ruled by Mughal sultans, artisan communities sprung up in the northern city of Lucknow to create beautiful things for the royal family. They spun gold thread and used it to embroider gowns, robes, and jackets. They adorned cushions and blankets with embroidered flowers and peacocks.
Three hundred years later, some of this craftsmanship still lives on, passed on from father to son, but it’s dying out. Afshan Durrani has seen it happen. She’s spent nearly two decades working closely with these artisans, and has just launched a new startup called Complete Unknown that employs them to create chic, modern handbags embroidered with scorpions, tigers, and wasps. Over the years, she’s watched the sons in these families leave this work behind for more stable, lucrative careers in bigger cities. (She says women aren’t often taught the craft, since the apprenticeship takes many years, and daughters are expected to become homemakers after they get married.)
“It takes years to learn how to embroider by hand at this level,” Durrani says. “I think it’s a shame that the next generation is leaving the craft behind, because eventually, there won’t be anyone left who knows how to do this work.”
Since 2002, Durrani has owned a New York-based textile company called Lost City Products that employs between 50 and 125 Lucknow artisans at any given time to create custom fabrics for interior designers, who use them when designing the homes of their clients in America. Creating these fabrics is time- and labor-intensive. It can take two dozen workers a month to make a bolt of embroidered silk, followed by another week of washing and trimming the material. Some of the most expensive fabrics in her collections can cost $1,000 a yard.
Durrani–who grew up in Kashmir, India, before coming to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology–launched her company with the specific goal of helping to support these artisans and, in doing so, preserve their craft, that has been perfected over centuries.
Although Durrani commissions many traditional motifs and patterns for her clients, she also has a passion for creating her own contemporary designs. One collection, which she calls “forensics,” involves patterns that evoke drops of blood, strands of hair, and fingerprints. “It’s this total mash-up of this ancient craft with modern art,” Durrani says. “I love this idea of helping to bring this art into the modern world by creating designs that resonate with today’s consumers.”
In many ways, her newest venture, Complete Unknown, springs from this unusual mix of modern design with ancient craftsmanship. Unlike Lost City, which works with designers, Complete Unknown is a direct-to-consumer brand that sells products on a website. The brand’s introductory line consists of handbags embroidered with deadly creatures: angry-looking wasps, scorpions, tigers, and wolves. Some bags are lined with studs, making them look even more threatening. “I love this idea of finding beauty in these dangerous creatures, ” she says. “But in traditional Indian society, you would never want these animals on your bag. They’re considered inauspicious.”
Durrani’s whole line is totally rock-and-roll, which is exactly what she is going for. After all, she named her brand after a Bob Dylan lyric from the song, Like A Rolling Stone. And the bags seem to capture the current zeitgeist, which is focused on animalia: Gucci’s recent collections have featured snakes, scorpions, and bees, while Birdies’ recent collaboration with Ken Fulk features leopards and peacocks. “My own taste is inspired by streetwear, punk, and goth culture,” she says.
It’s complex work designing and producing these bags. Durrani draws out each of the patterns, then teaches them to the artisans, who use their traditional techniques to sew them onto the bags. And she’s also played with tradition in other ways. For instance, some designs feature reverse embroidery. It results in exposed threads, which allows you to see how the craftsman went about sewing the pattern. The bags are at a luxury price point, with clutches starting at $325, and cross-body bags going for between $575 and $750, depending on the complexity of the design.
While Durrani deliberately leads with the punk aesthetic of her bags in her marketing, she’s also focused on building a brand that is as sustainable as possible. This is why she’s chosen to avoid using leather–which often uses highly polluting chemicals in the tanning process and also produces a lot of carbon dioxide in the farming process. Instead, she imports high-quality polyurethane (PU) from Italy into India, which is free of any polluting solvents. Any glues used are water based. “It took me two years to introduce the PU to the workshop in Lucknow,” she says. “It took time to teach them how to use it, and to create the same results you would get with leather.”
Currently, Durrani employs 25 artisans to make the Complete Unknown bags, but she hopes to employ more as the business grows. And perhaps more importantly, her goal is to help breathe new life into an ancient art, and make it seem hip to today’s consumers. “Preserving Indian embroidery doesn’t necessarily mean being stuck in the past,” she says. “It can mean giving it a new life in the modern world.”