The Tibetan community has lived in India for decades and Dharamsala is the seat of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Yet, the community continues to remain in the sidelines, rarely emerging in mainstream media apart from stories of protests and activism.
That’s what makes Tenor Sharlho so interesting — fashion designer, entrepreneur, crafts connoisseur, whose fledgling initiative in India is slowly but steadily grabbing attention.
Tenor is the founder of Sharlho, a sustainable label that interprets traditional Himalayan craftsmanship in contemporary designs and provides jobs to local artisans.
Tenor’s own story is a personal story of struggle and success, not unfamiliar to the Tibetan community living in India. Struggling with political tensions in Tibet, his parents sent him to India at the age of five. Away from his family, he grew up in a Tibetan boarding school in Dharamsala.
“I loved working with my hands and creating things rather than academics and so for my further studies I chose fashion design,” says Tenor. After getting my degree, I worked in the industry for a short period of time but felt discouraged at the way things worked in the industry and also missed the mountains I grew up in. So I packed my bags and moved back to Dharamsala where I set up my small company. I called it Sharlho after my family name.”
The quintessentially Himalayan label offers a mix of clothing — mostly jackets — and accessories for children and adults. The designs reflect various crafts traditions, and the base materials are sourced from around India as well as Bhutan and Tibet.
“Most of our materials are natural fibres sourced from villages around the Himalayas,” says Tenor. We provide employment for local people and create contemporary designs. I have always been attracted to ethnic patterns, and raw materials originating from Tibet and the Himalayas. I take a lot of inspiration from this when I design.
True to his affinity for the mountains, Tenor set up Sharlho at Ramnagar, a village close to Dharamsala.
Tenor’s initiative brings a new vitality to the area. “Ramnagar has a relaxed atmosphere making it a great environment for working and creating,” he says. The Sharlho team comprises a mix of full-timers and freelancers, and many of the employees have moved from bigger cities to settle here.
The Sharlho boutique is located in Mcleodganj, which has emerged as an immensely popular tourist destination in recent years. Tenor admits the location limits his access to a wide customer base, but his activities are strongly geared towards community development.
Sustainability is a priority for Tenor, who promotes zero-wastage by using leftover materials to make small accessories and stuffing for cushions.
In recent years, the fashion industry has begun acknowledging the need for sustainable practices and slow fashion. Sharlho embraces these values as its core principles.
“Today, big brands tend to focus on making big money in short periods of time without much consideration to how that affects the environment, workers as well as the consumer,” says Tenor. “Slow fashion focuses on creating timeless pieces allowing more focus on quality and ethics. It can bring about change by contributing to the local community, providing jobs and preserving ancient techniques.”
Running an independent, crafts-oriented label comes with its own challenges. Tenor highlights a major concern, “These days the young generation doesn’t want to pursue the traditional crafts that their elders have preserved and survived on and so many of these skills are lost. This makes it increasingly difficult, and expensive, to source authentic craftsmanship.”
Despite the challenges, Tenor wants to continue working with local, indigenous people, sourcing unique materials and crafts and expanding on that. “Hopefully, it will help preserve ancient skills and techniques as well as make my products unique and timeless, one-of-a-kind pieces,” he says
Sharlho is slowly making its way out of Mcleodganj market, and into the hearts and wardrobes around the country. For Tenor, his label is a homage to his multi-faceted identity. “Like me, many Tibetans living in our community were born in Tibet but raised in India, and identify with being both Tibetan and Indian. I like to think that my use of local materials with Tibetan patterns is a reflection of us Tibetans living in India.”