Behind the seams: meet Naina Shah

A woman wearing a black dress and gold jewellery in front of a white background.

Beyond the mega-brands and big-name designers it takes an army to keep the fashion world spinning. Meet Naina Shah, whose family embroidery business has worked with designers from Alexander McQueen to Heidi Slimane

By Shannon Mahanty   Monday 9 September, 2019

Established in 1991, Naina Shah's family embroidery business is run from New York and Mumbai, working with designers from Alexander McQueen to Hedi Slimane

‘My mother is from Delhi and moved to New York in 1978. When my parents separated in 1991, she started custom hand embroidery and beading business Aditiany, so I grew up around the industry. We were based in New York, but the manufacturing and the production has always been in Mumbai. As a teenager she’d take me along with her on work trips to Europe to meet clients as her assistant. We’d do European tours from London to Paris to Milan to Rome showing samples to prospective clients. It was an amazing learning experience. I had no inkling I’d eventually work in the business and take over; she was doing it single-handedly at that point. Back then, the industry was smaller and to offer this service to designers was much more of a novelty. To create one piece there’s so many different moving parts. The work we do is a massive part of that process as embroidery tends to be what stands out the most [on a garment]; it adds that human element, too.

‘My mother used to work a lot with Alexander McQueen; those meetings were really interesting even though I was so young. She worked with Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, too, so I was able to attend their shows in New York. Growing up around that world was exciting. It was fascinating meeting the designers; everyone has their own aesthetic and such a different way of working, which I learnt early on. What they were looking for was always so different, as was the way they’d select things. We’re not retailing anything of our own which means we’re constantly working for multiple fashion houses. Working with French companies is completely different to working with Italian companies; you learn to cater for everyone and understand cultural differences.
hands embroidering fabric
woman in golden dress walking down runway
priyanka chopra in bejewelled headress
‘Our main atelier in Mumbai is the heart of the company, where everything is done from swatches to sampling, design to production. We have a team of around 100 artisans, as well as artists, designers and merchandisers. Our archive of more than 20,000 swatches is housed in New York. Some samples are more than 20 years old, while others were developed last week; we’re constantly experimenting with new techniques and sourcing materials. We research in libraries and bookstores and take inspiration from nature and architecture found all over the world.

‘We bring those ideas to India where the process starts with making swatches. We have our own collection of swatches that we develop throughout the year. We present this to the client, or sometimes they ask us to work with a design and we come up with our own ideas. When we’re both happy, the swatches get chosen by the creative director or the design team and we’ll create a sample. We make the embroidered panels and usually send them back to where the final garment is being made. It’s a lengthy process, whether it’s a dress or a blazer, handbags or shoes; the possibilities are endless.

‘Everything at Aditiany is done by hand, keeping ancient craft techniques alive. There’s two main stitching techniques: ari, which is done with a long crochet needle above the surface of the fabric, and zardozi, where you pass the needle all the way to the bottom and bring it back up again. The techniques are difficult to learn and can’t be replicated by machine; the look is completely different. It’s important to preserve these skills otherwise they would get lost, which is sadly the case with a lot of ancient crafts. What we do is the opposite of fast fashion; sustainability is a major factor, we avoid PVC material and we’re always looking for new ways to recycle fabrics.

‘Hand embroidery has been an integral part of Indian culture for thousands of years. Gold bullion threads have been very prevalent in ancient Indian artefacts and it’s still a big part of contemporary clothing today. India has really become a hub for the international design houses in the past two or three decades. That’s great because it has helped the craft persist, but there’s also been a decline because embroidery isn’t acknowledged by the Indian government as an artisan profession. That’s something we’re working on with an organisation called UTTANH; the aim is to uplift the artisan and make sure they get the proper recognition they deserve. Embroidery is a special skill, passed down from generation to generation; we want those workers to feel proud so that people will want to do it in the future.

‘Every piece we make is so important. For the Ralph Lauren 50th anniversary show we did a lot of beautiful, regal looks using crystals and velvet heavy embroidery. I loved working with artist Christian Marclay on Hedi Slimane’s first collection for Celine. We used French sequins and mixed them with Indian beads and other local materials, it’s always exciting to finally see the pieces on the runway. Many of them are then translated to VIP pieces like the sequined silver gown Lady Gaga wore to the 2019 Grammys. Last year, we collaborated with Ralph Lauren for Priyanka Chopra’s Met Gala look. It was cutwork anglaise embroidery on the hood of the garment, encrusted with beads and Swarovski crystals. It took 450 hours, with many hands working on it – from the artist who draws the outline, to the people who transfer the artwork onto the fabric, to the artisans who embroider it. When we were able to reveal the final piece and showcase Priyanka wearing it to our atelier here, it resonated with them so much because they know and idolise her. Moments like that make us proud of what we do.’

Images from top: Naina Shah (Johnson Lui); Aditany hand embroidery (courtesy Aditany); Gucci Cruise collection 2019 (Getty); Priyanka Chopra at the Met Ball (Getty)
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