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From Being Penniless at 17 to Becoming the 1st Indian Woman at Paris Couture Week

Designer Vaishali Shadangule is the first woman from India to showcase her designs at the Paris Haute Couture Week 2021. Here is her life story.

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Even a week after showcasing her weaves at the Haute Couture week in Paris, Vaishali Shadangule is buzzing with excitement at the success of the show. She’s exhausted but there’s a glow on her face that only comes after accomplishing something.

Vaishali is the first Indian woman designer to partake in the Paris Fashion Week, which was held from 5 July to 8 July 2021.

Vaishali
Haute Couture collections from the house of Vaishali S

While she is now hobnobbing with other big designers and models, her life two decades ago was very different. “I left home with just the clothes on my back when I was all of 17. I had nothing with me other than my dreams,” says the 43-year-old. In the same breath, she adds that she would perhaps not take the same decision today. “As a mother to a teenager, I sometimes wonder how I would react if my daughter were to do something as adventurous as I did,” she says.

Vaishali describes herself as a girl from a small town in the hinterland of India.

Vaishali S
Vaishali, when she was all of 4.

“I grew up in Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh and what that small town gave me were valuable lessons that I use in my designing work even today. There is so much talk about circular economy and sustainability today, and these were all part and parcel of growing up.” Clothes that her elder sister wore would find their way to her and once they were worn out, they would be repurposed as curtains or even table cloths.

“No cloth was wasted – no matter how old or used it was,” she says.

Lady weaving
Indian weaves – an integral part of Vaishali’s collections.

While she may not have understood these lessons when she was younger, today she is thankful that she experienced them. “I lived in a bubble and had no idea about the bigger cities and towns. I also grew up in a household with no television and that further restricted my exposure to the outside world,” she says.

Vaishali was always a curious child and it was this curiosity that kept her away from being married off at 18, like other girls in her community. “I would participate in every small and big event at school. I enjoyed art, music and dance in equal measure,” she says.

“As a girl from a small town I knew nothing – I had no idea of how to conduct myself, hold a conversation or even live by myself.”

Vaishali and the models.
Just after the show, in Paris.

Yet, at 17, I decided to go away from what I knew as home, and live by myself,” Vaishali shares. She moved to Bhopal without ever thinking of fashion or designing. All she knew was that she needed to get out of Vidisha and explore the world.

From the Bhopal railway station, Vaishali went to a hostel, where after several rounds of pleading she was accommodated. “One of my first jobs was as an office assistant in a builders office. That paid me Rs 500 a month and with that I would get by,” she says. While working there, Vaishali would often offer advice to colleagues on how they could style themselves better and what clothing would suit their frame. “I noticed that people took my advice well and often came back to thank me. The interest in fashion, designing and styling started with those words of encouragement,” she says.

She goes on, “Even though I was interested in designing, I knew that it wasn’t something that would pay me. I wanted to learn and because I did not have the financial wherewithal to enroll in a course, I photocopied the curriculum and started studying at home by myself.”

Vaishali then began designing on a very small scale and moved to Vadodara, Gujarat, where she took up a job as an illustrator. With the money she saved there, she gave herself her first big break and moved to Mumbai in 1998.

Working at Export Houses to Being a Nutritional Coach

The one thing that Vaishali never shied away from was any kind of work. “I picked up whatever job that came my way. I was working in an export house as a designer in Mumbai to begin with. Alongside, I also took up a job at a gym where I would dole out advice on nutrition and diet,” she says. The struggle was real but the desire to do something always took over and made Vaishali work very hard. “When I look back today, it almost feels like I have lived three or four different lives. It all seems to surreal to me.”

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In 2001, with the money she saved and a bank loan of about Rs 50,000, Vaishali opened her first boutique in Malad in Mumbai. “It was in a residential area and was a tiny space that I could afford but all that was secondary for me. It was a place I could call my own and I was designing blouses made of chanderi material and loving every moment of it,” she says. Vaishali continued along this path and within a span of 10 years had opened up two more boutiques in Mumbai and was financially secure enough to finally afford to study fashion at an institute of good repute and standing.

At this juncture, while Vaishali had the financial means to study, she had a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter to consider while taking up the fashion course. “I didn’t want this opportunity to pass me by again and so I decided to take my toddler along to Delhi, where I had enrolled for the course. Nothing was easy but at the same time, everything just happened,” she says.

Once she graduated from Delhi’s Pearl Academy, Vaishali went to Milan to the Domus academy where she did her post graduation in fashion. She did all this while juggling her full-time role as a designer, being a homemaker and a mother to a toddler. “I had so much support from friends and family and therefore none of it seemed like a pain point,” she says.

Of Fashion Shows and Unconventional Looks

Vaishali S
New York Fashion Week, 2019

In 2011, Vaishali got the opportunity to present at the Lakmé Fashion Week and that could well be considered another turning point in this designer’s life. “Being a part of the show gave me a bird’s eye view of how the industry functions. I had always considered my looks to be rather unconventional and not suited for the fashion industry. This thought process was broken only when I presented at the New York fashion week in 2015,” she says.

Up until 2011, Vaishali’s ties with her parents also had remained fractured and the reconnection helped Vaishali grow as a person. “The year I started showcasing my work, handwoven fabric was not ‘in’ vogue. For me, it was all about going back to my roots. My mother’s words about haath se bana hua kapda (handwoven cloth) being the best, have always resonated and stayed with me,” she says.

The one fabric that she holds very close to her heart is chanderi. “While it is the material that I started working with, it is also what I saw my mother always draping as a sari. It is a material that reminds me of her, my childhood and all those wonderful memories I have of Vidisha,” she says.

Just as we conclude our conversation, she says, “Dream – as much as you can and then work to chase those dreams. Nothing can hold you back from achieving those dreams. Just be conscious of the power that you have within you. Once you are aware, go get what you want.”

Showcasing Indian weaves at various global platforms is getting Vaishali one step closer to realising her dreams. “I’m just getting started,” she says with a smile.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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