New York, April 2017.
My world is about to change.
I’m in this city for the first time in my life, and the air is tingling. My exhibition in the Czech Centre is about to open, and while I definitely don’t have time to wander through Central Park or spend the hours I want to in the Met and MOMA, the excitement of being in New York is coursing through my blood. Does everyone who arrives in New York for the first time feel the same way? That something momentous is about to happen?
Before and during the exhibition, I meet many people who have helped me pull this together, or have come to see what a young Czech-Australian fashion designer can say about refugees and fashion. Of the many encounters and conversations I have, there is one that stands out.
It is the conversation I have with Czech-American artist Petra (Gupta) Valentova who has come to view my exhibition. She is extraordinary, and within minutes, we both know that we are experiencing a meeting of the minds, that there is a shared aesthetic.
Petra’s philosophy and ethics align with mine. She is fascinated with traditional artisan crafts that are being abandoned and forgotten in the onslaught of high volume and digital production, and wants to preserve and promote the arts and crafts that respect culture and time. She wants equality and egalitarianism, and a planet that is revered and protected, not ravaged and plundered in a race for material wealth. She uses her art to challenge and provoke as well as bring aesthetic pleasure and curiosity.
We quickly agree to collaborate. And before the exhibition is over, we are planning to go together to Jaipur, India. Petra has already worked there with artisan craftspeople who design and produce stunning hand-dyed fabrics using ancient woodblocks and natural dyes. She shows me photos, and I am moved by the images of the artisans and their work. The woodblocks are quirky and intricate, the colours of the fabrics are beyond vibrant, the designs enticing and calling out to be made into garments. I am excited. Petra is excited. We will create clothes made from these fabrics…and our ethics will underpin the work. There will be no exploitation of workers, no middleman. We will collaborate with each other and with these artisans to produce slow fashion that benefits the artisans and preserves their techniques. My face is sore from smiling so much.
Petra tells me that she has completing a doctorate exploring these concepts we have discussed. The title of her thesis is Slow Fashion, ethical design and contemporary tendencies in traditional Indian block printing. I am in awe, but equally feel confirmed that my instincts were right. Here is an artist who knows what she is doing – and why.
Melbourne, June 2017.
I am learning Hindi! It is exhilarating. I am completing an intensive course because I do not have a year to become proficient in a traveller’s version of the language that lets me do little more than greet people, find toilets, and order food. I want to converse intelligently with the artisans I will be working with. I am surprised to find that learning Hindi is not as difficult as it was for me to learn English. Sometimes people argue that culture and languages are proof that we are different…but for me, they highlight the beauty and inventiveness of all humanity and our common need to socialise and communicate and share. So each day I learn more, I understand more, I prepare myself for India.
Jaipur, August 2017.
I am here, in Jaipur with Petra, and our collaboration is underway. We are both learning ancient wood-blocking and fabric-making techniques. It is a long way from Melbourne and New York – and I am not talking about miles. There are no neon lights, but there is art in the making. There are no air-conditioned cafés open 24/7, but there is warmth spreading between humans of different cultures. There are no mod-cons, but there is fun and hard work and an incredible sense of accomplishment. I am watching these extraordinary artisans at work and I am feeling, absorbing, the warp and weft of the fabrics and understanding how they could be cut and shaped to showcase the artisans’ skills and celebrate the human body. My brain is playing with ideas, and my hands are starting to sketch possible designs. One evening, I realise I want to give back more than I am being given, so I begin designing looks for the village that they will own, that will become their own design and production line. And Petra and I are keen to do whatever we can to promote the wonderful women who live in the village of Bagru here in Rajahstan.
Petra and I explore and share and evolve our ideas. We have known each another only for minutes if you consider our whole lives, and I muse on how we met, and how both of us enthusiastically dived into the unknown together. Our conversations are intense and light, frenetic and calm. We discuss possibilities that individually we might never have envisaged, and it seems the only thing I cannot imagine is a stronger collaboration.
I am in India, I am improving my Hindi, I am working with an extraordinary artist, I am discovering how little and how much I know of people, life, our planet. I am a long way from my home…but I am home.