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Swati Kapoor Fuses Indian Couture with Western Attitude

Alumnus Swati Kapoor is a graduate of the Academy's School of Graphic Design, so it might seem a bit odd that she has found success not in that arena but instead as a fashion entrepreneur.

Transitions such as these aren't as surprising as one might think, though. One of the best things about a great art education is that it provides a set of aesthetic skills that can be used for any endeavor. So when Swati decided to make a dramatic change in her career, it was as simple as putting her dream into action.

Swati always loved the fashions and garments of India, and her love of ornate Indian textiles has spanned nearly her entire life. While she thrived as a creative director for a dot com, she dreamed of creating a line of couture that fused the styles and textiles of India with the fashions of contemporary western haute couture.

Work by Swati Kapoor

These days, Swati is the proprietor of an exciting and growing studio called SWATI, operating out of Milpitas, California. She was kind enough to speak about her journey, her time at the Academy, her bustling business, and the state of Indian fashion:

Can you speak a bit about your personal history?

Yes, I was born in India and am the younger of two siblings. From an early age, I was exposed to different cultures and lifestyles. In India, I grew up in different places: Rampur (UP), Jaipur, Delhi, and Jammu & Kashmir. My father's job also took us to East Africa (Tanzania) and the Middle-East (Oman), where my family lived for several years before migrating to California in 1998. I have traveled extensively, and have visited five continents.

I studied at Bede's College in Simla and then at the Art College in Chandigarh, where I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I arrived in the United States in 1993, and enrolled in the Academy of Art University (then "College")'s graphic design MFA program. I am now settled in California's "Silicon Valley" with my husband Shekhar Kapoor and my three-month-old baby boy, Shaan.

Have you always been interested in fashion? When did you decide to pursue this career?

Garments, elegant to elaborate to exotic, have always been one of my passions, from my childhood days of dressing up my dolls to my boarding school days — I often hosted dress-up parties. I was very inspired by my grandmother. She specialized in handmade and embroidered garments and woolens. She also exposed me to colorful cultures in India and elsewhere. She helped me develop an inclination towards the artistic aspect of fabrics, colors, and embroidery, and generally helped shape my interest in clothes.

Work by Swati Kapoor

While I live in the United States, I still like wearing Indian clothes and enjoy their elegance. Indians living outside of India have limited access to Indian clothing, and it was there that I felt I could make my contribution.

How did you begin your couture design studio?

After working as a creative director for a dot com company for a few years, I decided that I wanted to be my own boss and start something on my own. I wanted to make a difference and not have to work to realize someone else's dream. My couture interests seemed to offer a good business opportunity.

My plunge into the business was triggered by a few different things. A friend of mine who is a designer was touring the United States, doing trunk shows. He visited me and left his collection for me to sell. When he returned, I handed him a handsome amount in sales. He encouraged me to take up fashion as a full time job, to start on my own. I wanted to share my love of Indian clothing with others, so I followed my calling.

Around that time, the Bollywood movie Devdas was released. I was swept away by the costumes. I wondered about the impact of such exotic garments on the desires and tastes of the fashion-conscious customer. I wondered if this art of Indian embroidery and textiles could be accessible in America. Was it at all possible for the fantastic costumes of the Indian screen to adapt and operate in the west?

Work by Swati Kapoor

At that time, Indian clothes in the United States were limited in styles and were primarily worn in Indian gatherings only. I wanted to make clothes that fused India with western ideas, clothes that could be worn cross-culturally and break the barrier between the Indian and the western wardrobe. So I decided to give it a shot!

I hosted my first exhibition with the support of my family soon after, and it was a huge success. I slowly built up a team in India and developed my label, called SWATI. I outsource to design houses and work with some of the finest talents to create the SWATI collection, including the Bollywood designer Reza Shariffi as the main couturier. The last three years have been a journey of small and steady steps, and so far my clientele number over three hundred people.

Work by Swati Kapoor

Can you discuss the breadth of pieces that you sell?

I sell shawls and scarves, tops, pants, skirts, and traditional Indian garments such as lehangas, churidaar kurtas, and saris. I also sell wedding gowns, evening gowns, and Indo-Western ensembles in semiformal and eveningwear. I sell custom-designed costume jewelry to match the ensembles.

My clothing is exclusively designed for the fashion-conscious consumer. My pieces are one-of-a-kind, and blend the best of the Indian runway, Bollywood fashions, traditional Indian embroidery, and luxurious textiles with the lifestyles of the people of the San Francisco Bay Area.

I specialize in formal wear and custom wedding gowns. Each garment is made with the individual customer in mind. We strive to make fashions that are current and directed to the desired price point, while also maintaining the highest creativity in design. Each person is unique and so each garment should be unique. I strive to create "the fashion that fits you." The fit, the sparkle, and the exclusivity helps make a woman feel celestial! They not only look good, but the garments feel good as well.

One of the best aspects of my garments is that they are multi-functional. The ensemble can be broken up and worn in a number of different ways for different occasions: Indian or other, social or professional, or for special events.

Work by Swati Kapoor

How well do you think the Academy prepared you for your career?

I received a Masters degree in graphic design from the Academy in 1996. I also taught at the Academy as a graduate instructor and thesis advisor for two years. The best part of the Master's degree program was the thesis and directed study. The freedom to create your own unique project and see it from the beginning to end, and make it successful, was a very valuable learning experience. When a student receives this kind of experience, any subsequent project is bound to be successful.

One class that I can never forget was called "Influences of Psychology on Art." That class helped me discover where I was coming from as an artist, and made me discover my unique style and follow it. Another course I enjoyed was Art History. Knowing and learning about certain artists helped me believe in myself, that my artistic impulses were not wrong. Learning about the art of the past can only strengthen your convictions about your own art.

What is your opinion on the influence of Indians on fashion?

India has amazing talent and has recently seen wonderful developments. The wealth of textiles, hand embroidery, and workmanship is par excellence, and offers a lot of versatility, which cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Talent is emerging not just in the technology sector, which everyone knows about, but also in broader markets such as fashion, textiles, etc.

I source and represent some of the finest talents from India, of all ages and from all over the country. They live in large cities and in small towns. I aim to adapt the flavor of what India has developed to the needs of western lifestyles, and there is no reason why this won't catch the pulse of millions.

Work by Swati Kapoor

Do you feel that Indian-inspired fashion is trendy these days?

As fashion trends are concerned, India is definitely an emerging flavor; however, it also it appears to be a long lasting one. Awareness of India and Indians in the United States has recently grown by leaps and bounds. At the same time, the growing interest in the Indian lifestyle and economic sector has helped to bridge the geographical and social differences that have historically existed.

The Bollywood industry has grown to represent the face of India, an India that is open, new, and bold. Bollywood influences not just the Indians living abroad but non-Indians as well. People all over the world are becoming increasingly aware of the "Bollywood brand." The Indian fashion (inspired by Bollywood) following in US may be small in absolute terms today, but growing at a significant pace.

Work by Swati Kapoor

Overall, I do believe that world fashion has come to dictate Indian influence. There is a new generation of Indian Americans who have helped popularize Indian culture, including art, design, and more. As they grow, the popularity of anything associated with India, including fashion, is growing.

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming designer who is looking to start a studio?

Follow your passion. There is something you can do that no one else can. But always remember to take one step at a time. Focus and perseverance will take you to your goal.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to continue to build up my customer base, targeting not just Indians but also the fashion-conscious mainstream population. Eventually I plan to open a very exclusive bridal salon, specializing in cross-cultural couture. With SWATI, I intend to create a significant brand identity — the most popular Indian-influenced couture brand in the United States. I don't just want to make money; I want to make a difference.

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