Olivia Dar’s long career has led her to settle in India for over two decades. She began her obsession with Indian embroidery when she was working in the world of couture. She left the high fashion world to create her own brand, explore her own aesthetic as a designer, and elevate traditional Indian craft by adapting and translating local techniques into contemporary design. Le Mill spoke to her about sustainability, process and the rich heritage of Indian embroidery.
From the conception of an idea, to the creation of the final product: what does your process look like?
It starts with an idea, for example let’s say I pick tropical birds as a theme. Then I’ll do some research, look up what kind of birds I want to design, I’ll look up a region, say Miami and come up with designs. My brand is centered around travel, so my pieces revolve around a story. Then we’ll do some sketches for bags, earrings and everything. When it comes to embroidery, the choice of material, colours, beads and threads is crucial to my process. For our jewellery we hardly use any fabric, we use sequins and threads, there’s hardly any other material. Then I take it to my embroiders, make last few changes, and it's ready to be shipped.
Where are your embroiders from and which techniques do they use most?
My store, my office and studio are all based in Delhi, so we create everything in-house. All my embroiders come from Jharkhand, UP, Bihar and Bengal and they’ve all learned from an uncle or a father. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they’re quite talented. I sometimes get ideas from them when it comes to technique but for the taste and the colours, it’s just me.
The embroiderers come from a “shaadi” background, so they would work on lehengas and wedding outfits. There are so many techniques. All my embroiders have a wide range of techniques they know and they’re all pretty good at it. So unless you go to say Lucknow, with the chikankari, for example which is very specific, most embroiderers have a vast array of techniques they can do. I try and take these techniques and modernize them.
What were the challenges of running an independent business and what made you want to start your own brand?
I just wanted to show something a little different, something quirky that didn’t exist before. I was trying combine the couture element with Indian technique and my own personal touch. I really love it, it’s my own taste. How do you deliver on time, maintain the quality of a product and keep people coming back for more, these are the challenges we face every day, all the time.
You’re a small, sustainable brand, which has been following these practices before it became trendy to do so. What drove you to prioritize a holistic business practice?
Before it became a “fashionable” term and people started talking about it, they forgot to mention that the truth is when you’re a small business, you have to be very careful with where your money goes, you have to be very careful not to waste anything. We’re not a big, fast fashion brand so we’re not about wasting resources, putting up a lot of stock and putting it on sale. We’re a small brand, we make sure everyone is taken care of in our studio, we make sure women are comfortable. You almost don’t have a choice when you’re a brand like mine to be anything but sustainable. Everyone’s trying to get on the sustainable board but especially when you do your own production, you’re overlooking the whole process, so if you have a piece of leather that you haven’t used for example, you’ll upcycle it and use it as the back of a earring or reuse a beautiful piece of vintage embroidery for something new and fresh. It’s less philosophical, and more out of necessity.
That makes sense, if you aren’t strategic, and most of all, if your employees aren't happy when working for a smaller business, they wouldn't stick. Since you’ve seen both sides of the fashion world do you think big companies can and will realistically become less careless of exploitative and wasteful practices or do you think that’s unrealistic to expect?
I think if you’re a big, for-profit business you won’t care. In India, for example, it’s all about the number of orders. But when you have your own studio, you see the people you work with every day, you’re in touch with whose making your products but when you’re a big brand, it’s a completely different way of doing a business.
With a smaller brand, conscientiousness is as much about survival and necessity if not more so, than about morality.
What do you think consumers need to look for to know they’re investing in an authentically grassroot business? What sets you apart?
Our clients come to us to find unique, quirky pieces. We don’t follow trends and never have. That’s what makes us different. When you buy from us you are supporting a small business, an independent designer and talented artisans. Each piece is made one by one by our time. We emphasize sustainability and an ethical approach to our business practices and participating artisans.