An artist, a photographer, a lover of museums, bookstores and artworks, Shriya Samavai works with traditional South Asian wardrobe staples – one that weaves cultural importance and sings nostalgic notes. Revising the creativity of upcycling fashion, their project can make you feel inspired and take a step into saving our beloved planet.
A long stretch of cloth yet ever so elegant and beautiful with each different drape speaks of a moving tale. Saree speaks of a unique connection that every individual builds – be it with one’s mother and or a stranger that one just met on a journey. It’s fascinating how a fabric speaks so much about culture, customs, heritage importance that the country’s history is the replica of this clothing style. Well, the proud factor shall always remain that saris are being reconceptualised, revisioned and yes, still so important and graceful like before!
An artist of Tamil heritage, based in the US, Shriya Samavai Manian shares, “The sari is such an iconic garment in itself. Different regions have different methods of styling and draping or weaving of the fabric. There is so much history in saris; people in South Asia have been wearing them for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They are also passed down from generation to generation, so there is a lot of sentimental value in them.” Shriya started ‘Samavai’ where they take vintage saris and transform them into western garments – a platform that is keeping the South-Asian culture alive, exploring the ways about how heritage and history can be passed down through the idea of clothing. All the clothing is made up of vintage saris worn by members of Shriya’s family based in Tamil Nadu, India.
Shriya has always been motivated by designers who are prioritizing upcycling — the concept of taking unwanted or used materials and creating something new out of them. They said, “The fashion industry generates so much waste, and I wanted to figure out how I could create clothing without generating a huge carbon footprint. My mother, like many South Asian women, has a large collection of saris or podavai in Tamil, that date back to the 1970s. Many of them have aged from being worn and loved over time — be it small stains, holes, rips — so she’s retired many saris from the past few decades. Instead of them sitting around, I asked if I could take one sari and have a couple of button-down shirts made out of them. I’m grateful that she willingly gave me a sari to experiment with, and the idea grew from there.” Well, mother’s saris are always special, however, be the condition. It’s always laden with precious memories and undeciphered meanings.
Moving to New York, Shriya discovered an amazing community of artists, creators and thinkers. It’s always an overwhelming experience to collaborate with friends, start a beautiful project through which one could work with one’s community, make art, and elevate one another. They added, “Now, I have branched out behind my mother’s closet and I source saris and fabrics from various family members in the United States and Tamil Nadu.”
Emotions & Saving Environment:
Although ‘Samavai’ is at an initial stage, the brand’s colour palettes and patterns string vibrant and fun feelings – freedom for a lot of experimentation and exploration. Shriya has always been inspired by the Indian culture and the area that their family is from – spending time with their grandparents, and other members signify a core part of what the project is about. They share, “I am very fortunate that I get to visit India every couple of years. There is always something that catches my eye – moonrise at the beach, an autorickshaw decorated with flowers, or a family of five tightly hanging on to a motorbike. My first silhouette which I have available for sale is a short-sleeve buttoned-down shirt, called ‘Vedavalli’ which is my maternal grandmother’s name. It is inspired by the shirts my grandfather would wear over his vashtis. I noticed that this silhouette is really popular amongst young folks in New York. I wear them myself and I thought it would be an easy way for someone to incorporate the sari fabric and patterns into their western wardrobes.” The project’s main aspect remains family and culture hence, the individual fabrics are named after their various family members.
Well, the benefits of upcycling are of mammoth size. Our wardrobes and those of our ancestors’ are a treasure hunt for trends and fashion. Instead of just rejecting old pieces or discarded fabrics, ‘revamp and recreate’ needs to be the mantra now, given the ample amount of quarantine time we have had and the route to approach a ‘holistic’ clothing sense. They also add, “I want people in the West to be able to take part in my culture. Supporting my community in the US and in India is really important to me. Through various platforms, we can lift each other up. I collaborate with QTPOC in the US, and I use my proceeds to support low-income families in Tamil Nadu. This sort of solidarity is necessary to help liberate everyone.”
Inside Closed Doors:
Besides being the curator of Samavai, Shriya has been making art for many years now. A photographer and lover of destinations, cities and travel episodes, the current time has been an ode to for all the beautiful and helpful moments for them. “Writing a gratitude list when I’m feeling anxious help. Having routines, calling friends, drinking tea, lighting candles, listening to music, watching movies – a lot of things help me stay calm,” they said. “A lot has changed, and I’m still in the process of adapting to everything. My past two collections I had cut and sewn in Tamil Nadu, but given that I won’t be able to travel there for a while, I am thinking about where in the US I might be able to do some production. I also do a lot of in-person photoshoots to photograph the garments on friends, so I need to do some brainstorming but I’m sure I’ll think of something!”
Upcycled clothing serves as art pieces, cultural commentary and a sense of connection and projects like Samavai readily describe it. This batch of emerging labels has been quick to blur the lines between creative arts and being responsible to the environment. Bringing a blend of ‘old memories with newness’ and weaving tales of culture, Shriya concludes, “Experiment! Do your research about the era that you’re inspired by. Talk to people who lived through those moments, ask them for their stories, and put your modern take on it.”
Images by Samavai
Photographer: Shriya Samavai Manian
Models: Fariha Roisin and Abubakar Khan
Florists: Hawa Arsala and Sonia Prabhu
Glass sculptures: Prinita Thevarajah of Kapu Glass
Stylist: Cherry Kim
Studio: Papi Juice