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#MakersAndShakers: In Conversation With Nafisa Rachel William & Divya Cowasji

Makers & shakers

Nafisa Rachel William is all of 30, a St. Stephens graduate in English Literature and a journalist-turned-designer. She showcased a fabulous collection called 'Alif' at The SoPritti Exhibit last year in Dubai alongside the likes of global heavyweights including Tarun Tahiliani, Rhea Pillai and Queenie Dhody. Already she has a whopping 14k followers on Instagram, and about 75000 loyalists who swear by her clothes and shop off her Facebook site.

Divya Cowasji is a national award winning film director (of Qissa-E-Parsi fame), a photographer and a documentary filmmaker.

Put the two together and you have three stunning collections shot against the backdrops of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and their latest adventure, which took them to Jammu. Not Leh or Ladakh, or the valleys, not Srinagar or Vaishnodevi.... which is where people usually go and what they know when they think of Kashmir. Nafisa's latest collection, and perhaps the most stunningly shot one yet, is at once tongue-in-cheek, tipping it's hat to the Yashraj legacy, while at once celebrating everyday heroines.

It's stunning chiffons and delicate organza all modelled by the designer herself, set in perfect spring pastels against drifting snow, stark valleys and the many meandering highways which took the duo, along with a crew of three others, over the course of five days, across Mansar, Sunisar, Akhnoor, Nagrota, Patnitop and Nathatop!

The collection called "State of Mine" is elegant, ethereal and likely to put her in the spotlight, more so than ever before. It celebrates Nafisa's roots, but also her journey - how far she has come, only to find her way home again. And her saris will talk to you, as will Divya's stunning photography, as you travel with the duo across mountains, lakes and dreamy locales.

It's also a miracle they didn't freeze into a block of ice up there! Which is why, before it's too late, we decided we’d get the lowdown on the clothes, the road trip and the Bollywood inspired shoot, all held up firmly by the obvious camaraderie and closeness that is on display for the world to see as the duo laughingly tell me their stories over steaming mugs of chai.

MEET NAFISA

“I am Nafisa Rachel William and I come from Jammu & Kashmir. We are a family of four and three dogs who we call Bullet, Bruno and Bouncer. I come from one of the oldest families of Jammu – my Grandfather was in fact one of the first missionaries to come to here from Sialkot in Pakistan and we’ve lived here since the time. I was rather young when I went to a boarding school and an easy sense of Independence found me pretty soon – to always be able to do my own thing and to always be confident about it... you know? Becoming a designer wasn’t a conscious decision. It was brewing in my sub-conscience maybe? I would watch my grandmother stitch for hours, making our frocks and dresses from scratch. I would watch my mother in her cotton sarees and pencil heels everyday (she runs a school in Jammu). In 2011, finally, I decided to start designing Sarees. Sarees are absolutely, my eternal love! I designed four to begin with and my sister, Delight Sarah William shot me while I modelled them. I put them up on Facebook and just like that, we sold out! I am talking about the year 2011 here when blogging, retailing online and all that was just picking up in India, so to be able to call it a huge hit was no mean feat! And that was that; I haven’t looked back ever since. Today I sell across India, I sell internationally; last year I exhibited in Dubai but I make sure I keep my designs simple and wearable; my style is never over the top, it’s subtle. I like maintaining an old world feel even in my clothes.”

1. Why Fashion? You started out as a journalist - how and when did the transition happen?

 

“We just happened to each other. Being a journalist was an enriching experience but when the battle is with the inner calling, you move on. Today I sell my clothes online. Through social media, my website etc. My clients connect with me via Facebook, emails, instagram, word of mouth – it’s so hugely satisfying.”

2. Tell me a little about your relationship with Divya and this shoot in Jammu. This is your third shoot together? What's your take on collaborative projects like these in general? How did it come about and what inspired it?

“Divya and I have known each other for over a decade now. We studied literature at St. Stephens’ together. She's one of my closest friends and without a doubt is one of the best in the industry. We both understand each other really well when it comes to work too. Working with her doesn’t seem like work, its easy and very organic. All we need is a camera, some music and we’re on. Divya gets me. Plus, she’ll always tell me if I’m pouting too much! Our first collaboration was in 2014 when I was just about moving back to Delhi. We were both new to the concept of a “Fashion Shoot”. It was in the fall of 2014. People loved it. Last year, we shot in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh and it made headlines. The collection was called “Beauty In The Breakdown”. And this year we shot in the ‘snow'. The collection was called “State Of Mine” and the response has been overwhelming. The concept was new and very challenging but we had a blast shooting. We changed 16 sarees in and around the snow - something that’s mostly been seen in Bollywood only, insofar I think?

I enjoy collaborations because I think it helps both the parties to grow. I’ve worked with Mohit Kapil, an extremely talented Delhi based photographer. And also worked with Akhil Ivon Singh, who I have been wanting to work with for a while. Special mention to my sister here: without her Label Nafisa Rachel William would never have been possible. Each experience is different but it’s the outcome that always makes it satisfying.”

3. What is the range of products you now do?

“I have a great team of tailors and karigars. I started out with Sarees but the demand has grown so crazily, that I now also started making Indian wear (Kurtas, Shararas, Lehengas, Blouses) and Indo western.”

4. What do you love the most about what you do?

“I get to be myself. There is no pretence; just the sheer joy of being able to do what I love. I am obsessed with it. In a good way! Also, happy clients make me content.”

5. If you weren’t doing this, what else do you think you might have end up doing/being?

 

“A teacher. I’ve always had an image of me walking into a classroom in a sari, pleated hair with a rose. I’m glad I chose to be a sari maker instead. Or an athlete – I was majorly into sports in school, I used to running track, for instance.”

 

6. What do you do to get your creative juices flowing? What do you do when you hit a creative block?

“I pray.”

7. What’s on your bookshelf / ipod/ midnight snacking shelf.

“Apart from Magazines? Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah, D H Lawrence, Charlotte Bronte, Tolstoy. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on most days. Anything that I can find in the fridge.”

8. Favourite vacation spots / what you do to unwind?

“I just got back from Benaras. It was a life changing experience. I go back home to unwind. After all home is where the heart is.”

9. A creation of yours that you are most proud.

“They’re all my babies. I can’t choose one.”

10. Five words to define your brand of creativity.

“‘This one is a keeper.’ Haha.”

 

“Sabyasachi, Sanjay Garg, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Dior.”

12. What do you see in the future? Where would you like your brand to go... besides places?

“I am a hardcore believer of the present. What I’d like to see in the future is the Saree as a garment being worn by more women in India and also abroad.”

MEET DIVYA

“I grew up in my ancestral hometown of Mhow, where I’m perpetually seeking refuge in between work and travels. Two years ago I wanted an escape from polluted city life so I moved back home for the first time since the age of twelve, and now I live here with my folks, grandparents and my Great Dane Mowgli. As for what I enjoy doing in my free time, that depends largely on where I am. Cliched as it may sound, I try to live as much in the moment as possible, so when I’m in Mhow, free time entails playing or cuddling with my pup, chilling with the Gramps, reading, going for drives, and basically slowing everything down a notch. When I lived in New York, all my free time was spent walking and exploring every nook and wondrous cranny of the city. Bombay and Delhi it’s spending time with friends and a whole lot of eating and vegging out.”

1. Why Photography & Film? Was this the dream from the beginning?

I didn’t really plan on making documentary films after my Masters, it’s something that just happened. I was somewhat of a technophobe up until then. I didn’t plan on shooting my own films either, it’s something that just happened. This access to the world of visual storytelling did something to me though – it gave me a language to creatively communicate in where earlier the pen and the paint brush always felt lacking. The desire to focus on still imagery and antiquated forms of photographic expression came to me later, but it hit me like a rock. I finally found what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, and it is a feeling like no other.”

2. Tell me a little about your relationship with Nafisa and this shoot in Jammu. This is your third shoot together. What's your take on collaborative projects like these in general? How did it come about and what inspired it?

“Nafisa and I’ve known each other over a decade now - from when she was a doe eyed fellow resident of the women’s hostel in St. Stephens to the wild child I know and love today. Our first shoot together was when she was just starting out in Delhi, in 2014, and I wasn’t even calling myself a photographer yet - You can see the growth (hopefully!) in both our work since then. We have a blast shooting together and I think it shows in the images. This last shoot was my first time ever in the snow, and it was all sorts of exciting. I do not deal well with the cold, so was literally wearing everything Nafisa and I collectively owned - I was so padded that I could barely lift my arms to shoot. And Naff, in next to nothing ankle deep in snow in her beautiful creations - we were quite the well balanced team!

I’m all for collaborative projects. Shilpi Gulati and I have had a beautiful collaboration in our filmmaking spanning many years. My other favourite person to team up with is my brother Jall. He helped out a huge deal on Qissa and recently I produced his thesis short film at NYU. He’s in New York studying and I miss having him here because he’s my perfect partner in crime. We once shot a wedding together and called ourselves ‘Bhai Bahen Photos’ - It was such fun.”

3. Talk to me about Qissa-E-Parsi. You and Shilpi won the national award for the film!

It still feels a bit surreal that Qissa-e Parsi won a National Award back in 2015. I don’t think Shilpi or I could’ve anticipated how well the film would do or the scale of people it would reach when we were making it. It was just a small passion project with a whole lot of heart.

4. What do you love the most about what you do?

That it hardly ever feels like work. And that it excites the hell out of me.

5. If you weren’t doing this, what else do you think you might have end up doing/being?

Something to do with food and travel.

6. What do you do to get your creative juices flowing?

I see work I want to make at the brink of sleep, when I am all by myself in the dark and am able to reflect honestly on life around and within me. So far there are so many ideas and creative possibilities that the execution of them has a long way to go in playing catch up - so the problem of a creative block hasn’t arisen so far.

7. What’s on your bookshelf / ipod/ midnight snacking shelf.

Bookshelf: Slowness - Milan Kundera, Just Kids - Patti Smith, An Equal Music - Vikram Seth, Beautiful Losers - Leonard Cohen. iPod: All of my dads music I grew up listening to, always something shady to dance to in the loo, Jeff Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Jeff Buckley. Midnight snacking shelf: Nothing like leftovers, Uncle chips and good ole’ Amul cheese.

8. Favourite vacation spots / what you do to unwind?

A warm ocean and plenty of sunshine, and I’m pretty much set to go.

9. What is the one thing you indulge in often or after a crazy day at work? What has been your most expensive work related indulgence?

Good food. I think it’s safe to say I spend most of my disposable income on food or traveling to get to the food. But if I’ve worked myself up into a real state - nothing calms me down like the right music, turned way up high. My most expensive work related indulgence is that I’m building myself a darkroom!

10. A photographer and/or film-maker who you are inspired by.

Robert Mapplethorpe

(Get in touch with Nafisa via Facebook here, or instagram here. Find Divya Cowasji on instagram as @divyacowasji or get in touch with here at www.divyacowasji.com to commission work or their prints.)

 

Written byRanjeeta Muduli

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