From left: City pillow; Suki Cheema
Suki Cheema speaks with a soft English accent. He collects vintage china, takes annual trips to India and owns more art books than is generally healthy. If these are his joys, then his work—translating these elements into unique textiles that are classic and exotic, artistic and marketable—can be nothing less than a passion. Cheema’s technical training comes from Central St. Martins, where he studied in the late ’90s, but it’s his daily inspirations that bestow his prints with their signature exuberance, attracting Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren to his work and landing him the position of Print Manager for Diane von Furstenberg, a brand renowned for its flattering patterns. But every creative needs a personal artistic outlet, which Cheema found in his new—as of F/W10—line of home décor. Mere days prior to New York Fashion Week, the designer was kind enough to take 30 minutes away from the DVF silkscreening studio to tell us about this burgeoning venture.
Emma Barker: So your home collection was inspired by your trip to India?
Suki Cheema: Basically what I did was take almost three months off from DVF to just go and travel around India and really experience the country. It didn’t start as ‘I’m going to go and do this collection.’ I went out and did a lot of sketches and took lots of photos and then, luckily, I met someone at one of the factories who introduced me to another person at the factory. Normally when you’re starting out it’s very difficult to go to a factory in China or India; people won’t work with you because you’re not a brand. So to find someone who would work with me with no minimums, that was great.
Emma: Minimums of production?
Suki: Yeah. So it all sort of fell into place perfectly. I was able to say, ‘Oh, let’s develop this…let’s develop that.’ And that’s how the Rajasthan collection came about, [which] debuted at the New York Gift Fair in early 2010. Instead of putting a picture of a bird on a pillow, it was very print driven; it just popped with color. In October we’ll be putting out some fun aprons with lots of color and buttons that you can adjust and cute little tote bags and pot holders. They’ll come in the Mumbai print. Mumbai [is] a very modern city, but it’s still old and it’s still traditional India. It’s so many pieces in one. So that’s how the Mumbai print is: jaggedy shapes that come together as one. The Rajasthan print came from the clothing of the women and the colors. You would see a whole family on a scooter…It’s all dusty and rainy, but they’re all glammed up in these beautiful vibrant colors. It’s a complete other world—it was amazing.
Emma: Why did you decide to take that inspiration and make a home collection, rather than a clothing line or something else?
Suki: I’m a textile designer. I basically studied weaves, knits and prints, so I have no idea how to make clothes; I always have just made the fabrics. That’s what I do at DVF, just fabrics and then the designers make the clothing out of them. I didn’t want to do womenswear or menswear. I do like menswear. There’s always a part of me that wants to do ties and jackets, but I’m not quite sure if men are ready to wear my prints—even in a manly way. You see other designers doing floral shirts in a cool way, but then I’m like, “Well, I don’t know how to design a shirt, for one…” With home[wares] it was me playing with my fabric. It was just easy for me as a textile designer to do home. We are going to start doing accessories next season. Beautifully digitally printed silk scarves and fabric totes with leather handles with my prints blown oversize. So you can go out with a plain dress and have this beautiful, colorful printed tote with a nice leather strap. We may also go into hand-beaded evening clutches. And who knows…after that I might end up doing a clothing line. The world’s your oyster.
Emma: How much of your design is based on marketability versus art?
Suki: I tend to go in more of the art direction and if the consumer or the buyer likes it or doesn’t like it, so be it. You do have to take some things into consideration like concealed zippers or special closures. If the buyer wants a concealed zipper, I’ll put in a concealed zipper. But if they say, “Well, we don’t really like this print, can you change it to make it more marketable?” I’ll usually say, ‘No, this is how I created the design and I want it to be like this.’
Emma: And they’re usually ok with that?
Suki: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll do it if they want to change a color trend. When you’re working with a Bergdorf [Goodman] or a Barneys, then you’ll kind of tweak it for them—every business has to survive, you know. All of my pieces are hand-stitched and hand-embellished. It’s almost like you’re buying a piece of art. You’re buying this beautiful pillow, but as soon as you take it home and put it on your couch or your chair, it becomes a piece of art, just like the photograph hanging above the couch. And I do want to do something different every season. In fashion, they change the entire collection every season. [The] home market doesn’t really work that way. You’ll see the same stuff at the trade shows year after year because people are buying it. I don’t want mine to be that way. I want people to come to our booth and see some of the Rajasthan collection, which they can still buy, but this season we did Peru. So you’d have the choice of buying Rajasthan or the new collection. Then next fall, the collection is going to be based on Europe—a lot of architecture and shapes, like London or Berlin. Maybe we’ll keep one print from every collection or something, but the majority will be new every season, which also means we develop so much more and we have so much more inventory. It’s a lot of work, but it’s more rewarding and more challenging.
Emma: So Europe is next?
Suki: Yeah, [the pieces] are very place driven. They are going to be kind of based upon regions and continents and countries. Sometime in the future I might even do periods, like the ’40s or the ’30s or the ’60s.
Emma: I was going to ask what you’ll do when you run out of places.
Suki: Well, we can go back and do London in the ’40s, India in the 1900s… I might explore deeper into a country’s history. That would be my next direction.
Emma: Have you traveled a lot?
Suki: Yeah, I’ve traveled quite a lot. I’ve been to a lot of places in Asia: Thailand, India, Malaysia, Singapore…pretty much all over Europe, and I spent time in Australia and New Zealand. I’m from England—I was born there, but I’ve been living in New York for ten years. And I’ve been to Brazil. I love to travel; it really opens your eyes. Now I go to India a lot for work because our factories are there. I also really want to go to Russia. There’s so much you can do with their prints and designs. And I love old—like 18th century—furniture and architecture.
Emma: Do you collect antiques?
Suki: I collect a lot of books. I’m not a hoarder, but a…collector. I like to collect beautiful things. Girls go through phases of buying belts or shoes, and I go through phases of buying books. I’d go to the Strand bookstore and on Amazon, and I’d be buying like three or four [books] a week and pretty soon I was like, ‘I have to stop—my credit card’s going to get maxed out.’ Books are my life; I love them.
Emma: Is it the cover art or the designs that you like?
Suki: The designs, and the inspiration. It’s everything. From photography to fashion books, architecture books, painting books… The books just inspire me too much. I can sit there and spend a whole afternoon just flipping through a book. Textures and squiggles and lines… It’s absolutely amazing. I’ll hunt on Amazon for these rare photography books. You end up paying $200 to $300 for them, but there are only like two or three left anywhere. When I start a new collection—like when I did Peru—I bought five or six books on Peruvian needlework and threadwork and their cave drawings; everything that then identified my collection. I [also] have a lot of fabrics. In India it’s so easy to buy beautiful throws and pillows. I go to the flea markets and I’m just overwhelmed with beautiful colors.
Emma: I’m sure they’re also much less expensive there.
Suki: Oh yes. I think they were maybe $15 or $20 for a throw, whereas here people will pay eight times that. They have block-printed cotton sheets that people use in India and I just thought, ‘Wow, these are so beautiful.’ So I’ve got all these textiles at home that I’ll never part with. I’m hoping one day I’ll have a big house and I can have them all out. I’ve always got a throw on a couch or a chair. I don’t have my own collection out in my house; I just have all the things I’ve collected around the world.
Emma: Do you know where the prints you see in the Indian marketplaces originated? Are they designed currently or passed down generationally?
Suki: People design them. Some are probably passed down, but most of them come from these little villages where women design them. Then the merchants go there and buy from those women and sell it in the marketplace. My long-term goal is to find some of these local women and work with them rather than work with a factory, so you’re providing something for these women as well as their village. You can give [a woman] a pattern and she can hired other women in the village, and you’re creating a little industry there. I’ve found two charities in India that work with widows and I’m going to visit them when I go in October to see if I can do some work through them. Something like 10% of that collection’s profits can go back to their village, so it’s a long-term thing.
Emma: Why can’t you produce your prints in America?
Suki: That technique is not done here. I could produce the fabric here, but it would cost a lot of money to ship it to India for the threadwork. The centuries-old needlework, they don’t have that here.
Emma: I wonder why no one here has learned that technique?
Suki: It’s so precise. You see these men in the factories doing this amazingly intricate beading all by hand and you’re blown away. It was popular in the West in the Victorian period when people embroidered their dresses, but it never really caught on as a trade. It’s like when you see that beautiful old stonework on buildings; people don’t make things like that in the Western world anymore. Even in parts of India it’s dying. It’s getting more Westernized and people are getting corporate jobs [rather] than trade jobs. Next season we’re going to use some block-printing techniques and may branch out to wallpaper as well.
Emma: A well wallpapered room can be so beautiful.
Suki: Yeah, I think wallpaper was out, but now it’s coming back. I think it’s time for the decadence of wallpaper or fabric walls again—or getting there.
Black Marble throw