With a strong affinity for handicrafts – from African beadwork, hand applique to hand-dying, Tigra Tigra is not just a regular brand. Los Angeles-based designer Bailey Hunter teamed up with local textile artisans in India to develop and produce distinctive designs. Each textile is unique and irregular, showing the beauty of imperfection, that makes us conscious of the rhythm of nature, the beauty of the human hand and the value of a one-of-a-kind piece.
Merging East with West, and past with future – ancient handicrafts with forward-thinking experimental design into so-called ‘handicraft futurism.’ We talk to Hunter about the importance of changing fashion’s narrative, Tigra Tigra's slow and inclusive process and the beauty of finding a connection between cultures.
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To start, where does your love for traditional textile crafting techniques come from? And how did this fascination grow into starting Tigra Tigra?
I've always been interested in visual storytelling, I studied art and design at Parsons in New York but I think my real interest in traditional textiles came from my first office job which was for a handloom cashmere company that worked between Bikaner and Srinagar (India). I just became really fascinated by the level of skill, quality and uniqueness of handicraft practices – this is where I wanted to focus my energy as an artist and designer.
As an American designer, you collaborate with local artisans and women empowerment cooperatives in India, Namibia and South Africa. A very personal process where you reach for slower, more collaborative ways of working with a deeper purpose, and against overconsumption. Everything is sourced locally and made by hand. Afterwards, the textiles are transformed into garments in your studio in Los Angeles. What made you decide to collaborate with these specific communities?
Throughout the course of the brand, we’ve worked on projects in various parts of the world, but for the past few years, we’ve focused all of our production on three artisan businesses in Gujarat (India).
I am very interested in using design in a way that uniqueness, societal benefit and purpose and I’ve always been very drawn to Indian handicraft for this reason. I met many talented artists there years ago who combined modern innovations with ancient practices.
With Tigra Tigra, you reinterpret ancient cultural textile-crafting techniques into new, different ways, merging East with West, and past with future, which you describe as handicraft futurism. How do you balance this juxtaposition between ancient handicrafts and forward-thinking experimental design?
What so many brands and artists in India are doing is essentially the same thing as us, we just have a specifically Western audience who is less familiar with these handicrafts. If you go to Gujarat or Rajasthan, everyone knows what mashroo and khadi are – they are part of Indian history.
Many years ago, when I first met the master dyer I continue to work with, he was teaching a dyeing seminar in New York and we had a coffee there and he asked me if I could help design some home goods for a Western market because almost all of his business was for the domestic Indian market and he wanted to expand. Things sort of evolved from there into full collections.
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Because of the hand-crafting aspect of the work – from African beadwork, hand applique to hand-dying, the textiles are unique and irregular, and show the beauty of imperfection, making us more conscious of the rhythm of nature and the beauty of the human hand. What is the value according to you, of a one-of-a-kind piece?
In India, there is a term called jugaad which I always found very interesting – it can have a positive or negative application of course, but overall it means finding clever, innovative solutions using available resources. For example, mashroo and other traditional hand-loom fabrics represent a rich and highly skilled textile history in India, but it also is a practice that can be passed through generations and which can be learned and made at a low cost to the artist, it doesn’t require any electricity. Handicrafts can be very democratic in that way, it can be a good way for rural populations to make income and be self-sustained and is also very beautiful and all those things.
Do you actively keep on researching history in search of ancient textile techniques? How do you keep on educating and challenging yourself?
I’m just a designer and I learn about all the textiles through my team there and collaborators. Our production manager, Milan, is always sending me new things and techniques and the Khatri dyers are always developing new handicraft technologies in dye.
Your aesthetics are very much shaped from growing up in Miami, where there’s so much of a constructed reality with neon signs and kitschy things. Tigra Tigra feels like a fusion between ancient cultural traditions and modern Western culture. This to me, is a very honest conversation, as our world is so fluid, and we get influenced by many things that constantly challenge how we interpret the world around us. Coming from different cultures, how do you create an open, equal atmosphere for creative exchange, cultural flux and interaction between yourself and the local artisans you work with? How do you inspire each other? Do they have the freedom to express their own inspirations and creative voices?
I don’t really see it as a merger of cultures. I think of it mostly in terms of that I am a designer and I am interested in design that is humanitarian but also really beautiful. Instead of designing things that are made in a factory somewhere, we choose to design collections made in this way. It’s just a fully collaborative process between individuals.
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What is the value of textiles as an artistic medium to tell stories according to you?
I’ve always been interested in storytelling through textile. Textile history has been systemically underrepresented in art history – from the fact that historically, the weaver, the dyer, the embroiderer, have been more marginalised than the painter or the sculptor – but also we treat clothing in particular as so disposable. I think it’s really important to change this narrative.
In your designs, you often use the Indian textile technique of ‘mashroo,’ which translates to ‘permitted.’ As it is forbidden to wear silk on the skin in Islamic law, mashroo is invented to wear silk without breaking religious customs; by making the inside from cotton. How do you keep yourself conscious of honouring and respecting these cultural and religious customs, when incorporating these techniques into your designs?
I had researched mashroo for years and thought the history was so interesting and the fabric was one of the most unique I’ve seen. The origins of the fabric are rooted in Islam and the Ottoman Empire, but Hindu merchants in India adapted the textile into tie-dyes and jacquards somewhere around the 16th century and it became a well-known textile among wealthy people and royalty. Today, it’s a dying textile in India, and is only being produced in a few places on giant hand-operated pit looms – we order a lot of it for our collections and home collections.
Lastly, after the pandemic, when we will be able to travel again, what countries are on your wish list to visit?
To return to Ahmedabad and to also go swimming in Bentota.
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