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n a world where everything is instant, art conservator Sandhya Jain is mesmerized by the labor intensive, time-honored crafts of India. While working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Jain treated numerous South Asian paintings and manuscripts. But the highlight of her tenure came when she found herself looking through a microscope at a piece of real zari thread used to create some of the most luxurious fabrics in India.

“It’s cotton thread that has metal ribbon—usually pure gold—wrapped around it. Then they embroider with it. Lord only knows what kind of needle is used. Can you imagine? It was all done by hand,” she explains. “There’s so much labor and talent involved.”

“I encountered all these craftsmen whose amazing talents are dying. The global economy is preventing them from making a living.”

Jain’s experience at the museum prompted her to seek a Fulbright Scholarship to study the crafts of India in person. “I went there with the idea that I’d learn about the conservation of South Asian materials,” she says. Jain spent nine months traveling in India, studying traditional handicrafts and learning how to differentiate between handmade and machine-made materials. She fell in love with the work of artisans who weave their own textiles, make paper, hand-cut gems and, of course, create zari thread. “I encountered all these craftsmen whose amazing talents are dying,” she explains. “The global economy is preventing them from making a living.”

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Local craftsmen.

But Jain is doing everything she can to ensure that doesn’t happen. While she was researching indigenous textiles for her Fulbright duties, Jain was simultaneously executing her own wedding trousseau (her nuptials are fast approaching in May). “I spent nearly six months designing each outfit for my trousseau, my fiance, our bridal party, and for our mothers, fathers, and siblings. I also designed my wedding jewelry, invitations and table decorations,” she recalls. The result of her labor? More than 40 wedding outfits, 30 costume and chandni jewelry sets, three precious jewelry sets, 400 wedding invitations, table decorations, party favors and more.

A revival of arts

Successfully completing such a huge undertaking inspired Jain to create Xari Couture, her clothing, accessories and home fashion company aimed at combining vintage borders and motifs with pure, new fabrics to create modern variations of traditional designs. The Xari Couture web site explains, “Xari’s mission is to support the local craftsperson and give them a reason to pass on these techniques to the next generation … We have traveled all over India to recreate the luxury of yesterday’s elite. Once you have selected your ensemble, Xari Couture works tirelessly to provide the best in quality. We carefully select and source exclusive specialized fabrics from all over India. The fabric is embellished with beading, embroidery and other unique decorations by hand. Finally, we construct the garments and accessories according to your measurements.”

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Blouse detail.

Jain’s support of local craftspeople is apparent in her designs. She meets with clients to discuss what they’re looking for—whether it’s a T-shirt, formal dress or kurti—and transforms that vision into a design that incorporates elements old and new. Then, she works with a partner in Delhi who executes her designs. If she has to, Jain will return to India to make sure things are done right. “These things take time,” she explains. “Even if it means me going to Jaipur and rummaging around for the perfect vintage fabric, I will do it. These people and crafts and traditions need to be honored. My company is not meant to churn things out quickly. We will take broken jewelry or ripped up saris and re-imagine them for you. It’s couture, it’s not ready-to-wear.”

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Polki diamond set.
All things considered

Thanks to that meticulous attention to detail, Xari has taken off in a big way. Though she’s based in New York, Jain attracts customers from as far as California. The costume designer for Mira Nair’s upcoming film version of The Namesake has expressed interest in her designs. And Jain is not aiming her wares at South Asians alone. “I want it to be more everyman. Certainly, lenghas and saris will be worn primarily by South Asians. But in the not-to-distant future, you’ll see Americans wearing saris over jeans,” she predicts.

Of course, Jain’s passion for art, conservation, design, technique and material science dictates that she not limit Xari Couture to clothing alone. She also plans to create accessories such as jewelry, handbags, shoes, shawls and home fashions. Her jewelry line is divided into three categories: precious, chandni (silver) and costume. And, like most women, Jain is particularly enthralled by diamonds. But her precious jewelry sets aren’t what most would find in the West. She chooses polki, or uncut diamonds, as her focus. “Originally, the maharajas of India appreciated diamonds for their integration with each other and not necessarily individually,” she explains. “In India and part of Europe, stones were appreciated for what they could do together. It’s not the single diamond that’s beautiful, it’s the gestalt—the whole look together.” Jain conveys that beauty through her exquisite polki jewelry sets that combine traditional Mughal style with her own unique flair.

Shoes, home accessories, bags and more are still being developed, and new items are added to the Xari site each day. It’s a wonder Jain is able to keep up with her own ideas. “I’m a shopaholic. What’s interesting to me right now are the clothing, personal accessories and jewelry … Shoes are a little more problematic. I’m really interested in finding a shoemaker who can make heeled joothis.”

Like most women, Jain is particularly enthralled by diamonds. But her precious jewelry sets aren’t what most would find in the West.

But most important to Jain is bringing some attention back to the ancient and under-appreciated arts and crafts of India. “I want people here in the west to appreciate them. With appreciation comes acquisition, and with acquisition comes profile.” And she shudders at thinking what will happen if she doesn’t do her part. “These crafts will disappear in our lifetime. That’s sad. I want to convey the passion that I have for Indian culture and Indian material culture. No one will appreciate it unless we appreciate it ourselves.”n

Ismat Sarah Mangla loves polki diamonds and would wear her own polki set around the house all day if she could.
Published on April 4, 2005.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine and courtesy of Sandhya Jain.

More Information

XariCouture.com

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