Opinion

An Evening In Paris: How A Small-Town Girl Took The Fashion World By Storm

Vaishali Shadangule was an outsider in the fashion world. She made it her home.

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An Evening In Paris: How A Small-Town Girl Took The Fashion World By Storm
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Designer Vaishali Shadangule’s portfolio includes a collection shot underseas—a series of stunning photographs that showcases colourful fabrics and intricate designs amid corals, fishes and shrimps. But there is a backstory to this unique venture. In 2019, during a trip to the Maldives, the 43-year-old mother of one decided to go scuba diving. The dive, in her own words, opened up a “miraculous, magical world” world to her. And she was back sometime later for the underwater photo-shoot for her couture collection titled ‘Shwas’, the Sanskrit word for breath. “I don’t even know swimming,” she says.   

But then, Vaishali has never been afraid of venturing into the unknown. Or facing her deepest fears. Like when she left her home in Vidisha, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, with just a dream and a few thousand rupees. That was in 1996. She was just 19. Earlier in 2021, she became the first Indian woman to showcase her collection at the Paris Fashion Week, considered the Holy Grail of global fashion events. This is her story. The story of a small-town girl braving the odds to find her place under the spotlight. The story of a remarkable journey from Vidisha to the fashion capital of the world.

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“I left Vidisha because I realised it was not the kind of life I wanted. I wanted to do more in my life and explore the world,” Vaishali tells Outlook. The second child of a court employee and a homemaker, Vaishali had a natural knack for des­igns and she would let her thoughts take shape as sketches on her notebook. She was though not sure whether she wanted to be a fashion des­igner. But, by then, the young a student of computer science was growing restless—her hometown felt too small for her dreams.  

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“My father was also an artist but it was a per­iod of survival.  We couldn’t just depend on art. So, he joined the local court and that is what he was doing for a living. In 1996, I decided it was time to move on, she says. Vaishali first moved to Bhopal where she did odd jobs for almost three years. Her desire to learn designing formally grew but she didn’t have the money to enrol for a course. So, she did the next best thing—photocopied the curriculum of an institute and started teaching herself with study materials she found at hand. A couple of years later she moved to Vadodara in Gujarat where she found a job as an illustrator. She also started designing, though on a small scale. In 1999, when she had some money in her savings account, she took the most important step in her life—arriving in Mumbai to give wings to her dream of achieving “something” in life, as she puts it.  

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Vaishali in one of her own designs showcased in Paris

Photograph by Vishal Koul

But Mumbai is a Janus-faced city. Welcoming all, but also unforgiving. A metropolis as brutal as it can get for the newcomer. And all Vaishali could do was wait. She found a job as a designer at an export house and also worked part-time as a gym trainer. It was in the gym that she showed some of her designs to her clients. “One of my clients at the gym was a banker who later helped me procure a loan to start my own business…There was a grocery shop, one Chinese restaurant and my small boutique in the middle. It was just 100 square feet,” she recalls.  

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In between, she also enrolled for a course in Delhi, which entailed frequent travelling. But she found support from her husband who looked after their daughter when she was in Delhi. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, she was in Bombay managing her boutique and the rest of the week, she was in Delhi attending her classes. But the course gave her the formal skills and confidence needed to find her way to glory.   

It also marked the beginning of her eponymous brand, Vaishali S, which she launched in 2001, and is now well known across fashion circles in the country and beyond.   

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But getting started was only half of the battle won. For, the world of fashion has always been the playing ground of the high and mighty, the English-speaking celebrity crowd living the good life. For Vaishali, a small-town girl, who spoke “broken English”, finding her mooring among the hip and happening crowd was tough.

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models in her creations.

“There are designers who tried to push me out of the industry and threatened me that they will finish my career. Probably because I am an outsider here,” she says. Though she refuses to name names, she also remembers her work being plagiarised by others.  “I don’t understand why designers plagiarise. They not only copy my work, but also randomly copy from the net,” she says. There have been times when she confronted well-known designers who had copied her art, only to be told, “Who are you? I don’t even know you.”   

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Vaishali says that she even had to face the humiliation of not being allowed to participate in shows by the “snooty” fashion people. “It was a big slap on their face when, without any support from the fashion industry, I could display my collection at the Paris fashion week,” she adds.   

What toughened her in the industry were the very demanding customers who would even abuse her for small mistakes. “I learnt the art of fashion on the job. I made mistakes. There were clients who used to come and shout at me because I used to make mistakes. But I am not one bit ashamed of saying this,” she reveals. Probably, it was the mistakes that she made in the beginning of her career that helped her master the craft.  

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The sari has been the centrepiece of Vaishali’s creations over the years, her love for the yards of fabric going back to time when her mother would use her used dresses to create different household items. “When the saris were new, she used to wear them when she went out. When they got older, they became house wear. And again, the same saris were converted into tablecloth or curtains. Unconsciously, I still follow that,” Vaishali says.  

Her humble upbringing also is the reason why Vaishali has never stopped looking at art with the innocence of a child. Like her fascination for the beauty of nature. And the earthy beauty of traditional fabrics and designs from across the country.  “Nature inspires me because it has created everything for us. What we are doing is just recreating. Nature is the biggest inspiration for me and it is endless,” she says.  The tree bark texture of her collection shows her fascination for nature. “Every year, the tree creates one more layer, that’s how we see the beautiful texture of the tree bark. I felt that I can create the way a tree creates each and every layer in the bark,” she adds.  

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For the Paris show, she created dresses which were a “combination of design, aesthetic, textile, weaves, basically the overall craft of India”. But the biggest challenge was putting together a collection in the middle of the pandemic. And she gives all the credit to her team who encouraged her to take the step and participate in the Paris Fashion Week. “Honestly, I didn’t have the courage to go through it. The process of selection was very tough and they have criteria for craftsmanship, innovation and sustainability. Multiple interviews happened. I never thought I would make it. But finally, I was selected.”   

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It doesn’t matter that Vaishali still can’t swim. She has found wings to fly.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Her Designs On Nature’s Canvas")

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