Seated in lotus position, four men weave glittering beads through gold thread onto a sheet of organza, carefully constructing a wedding dress that will soon wow the crowds at Paris Fashion Week.
For the first time, the French designer behind the designs, Julien Fourny, is determined to put these masters in the spotlight: his new collection, shown in Paris on Tuesday, is made entirely of fabrics from Mumbai.
He says a kind of “designer imperialism” means French fashion houses often downplay the fact that their fabrics are made outside of France.
“Houses that don’t recognize it are probably afraid of losing their clientele,” Fourney told AFP.
But that is absurd, he continued.
“India is number one in the world in embroidery. It is ancient. They dress up maharajas in 16th-century gold-embroidered outfits.”
Furni works with a company called Creations By Shanagar (meaning “to decorate” in Sanskrit), which is housed in a nondescript beige building near Mumbai’s international airport.
Dozens of men in gray polo shirts sit cross-legged on cushions, heads bent over large fabric cases. There is silence except for the clicking of needles and beads, the whirring of ceiling fans, and the occasional airplane overhead.
For decades, they have played an essential but unsung role in the fashion industries of Europe, Japan and the United States.
“I like working with Julien because he’s another master who knows his subject very well,” director Chetan Desai, 55, said.
“He has a lot of imagination. He comes up with his own concepts and I have to turn those ideas into embroidery.
“It was a very challenging experience and at the same time very fruitful,” he added.
Back in France, Fourney sends the compliments back.
“What they know how to do better than anyone is to embroider with degraded gold thread, passing it through clear beads to create color gradients. This is unprecedented,” he said.
Gives silk an aged, elegant look for wedding dresses that “shine but not too much.”
“High fashion clients don’t want to look like a Christmas tree,” he added.
“I’ve worked with great French embroideries and it’s complicated every time. Everyone wants to put in their own ideas and you never get exactly what you want.”
Desai’s father established Creations By Shanagar in the 1960s as a workshop for handmade and embroidered sarees.
In the 1990s, Desai looked further afield to France, partnering with French-Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaia for dresses that ended up adorning the likes of Naomi Campbell.
He does not disclose current clients in his books, but his previous list gives an idea of the high demand. Among them are Jean Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto and Donna Karan.
Even Hollywood came knocking, with Shanagar helping to design Nicole Kidman’s costumes for the 2001 hit Moulin Rouge!.
The atelier attracts workers from all over India, such as Biswajit Patra, 31, who has worked here since he was 16.
“I learned the trade in my village near Kolkata because my father did the same job and my brother and sister also did the job,” he said.
Among their unique ideas is a way to roll pieces of tulle to make embroidered flowers.
“They have a set of techniques that we don’t have here,” said Jean-Paul Coven, director of Fournie’s house in France.
One of the most delicate tasks is preparing the fabric after it arrives from India and heads to the workshop where it will be assembled into the dresses.
It is Fourney himself who irons the fabric.
“Sixty percent of haute couture is ironing,” he said with a smile.