On the outskirts of Bangalore, the heat hurled me out of the streets of pastel houses into quieter roads and into a golden cavern filled with magical colours; all forms of materials, tools and golden threads. Leonna welcomed me to her workshop. Four young men were sitting in the different corners of the room, sewing, embroidering with focus and precision. I felt like I was ushered into a temple rather than a clothing design workshop. The atmosphere was that of holiness, hard work and the Goddesses were dancing to the melodies or the sewing machine.
“I started off as a freelancer and was doing everything by myself, I used to outsource the production but now my brand has grown and I hired these amazing men! I’ve been very picky with my workers. I’m so happy I found my team of hard workers whom I can trust. They actually come from the Muslim community in Calcutta, so they are particularly gifted in embroidery. They have learned the craft from their relatives, it is something that gets passed on through generations. My team are in a way experts because they have been doing embroidery since childhood to earn money for their families.”
Leonna just recently started her fashion label called Saldanha Label and this is when her adventure officially started. In September 2018, she opened her own shop in Bangalore: Saldanha Design Studio.
“No one in my family has ever been into fashion. I’m the first one in my family who took those steps. It’s very scary to throw yourself into something where your family cannot mentor you in. I did it all by myself and with so much support coming from my husband and my family. I am immensely proud of my achievements.”
The Creatress has actually completed a BA in Science before spontaneously choosing to follow her heart and applying for another BA in Fashion Design.
“At first people thought that I was running away from something. That I chose an easy way out when I switched from science to fashion, but this proves that people presume that fashion is easy and clearly they have no idea what it takes to study fashion. So much practical and physical work goes into it.”
Leonna’s leap into the unknown was nothing like an easy way out. For a while, the Creatress was overthinking her decision especially because of the extra financial support that was needed. Once she entered the world of fashion, she felt immediately at ease. Fashion has always been what she was destined to do. Leonna worked days and nights on her fashion collections, sleep deprived she would run around markets looking for the perfect textiles and fabrics. There was no time to waste and I am sure that any fashion student can empathise. “Studying fashion at the university was so hard but also so much fun. At one point you find yourself in the middle of another sleepless night and a sort of solidarity arises between all of us students working in our workshops.” In India, Arts & Design Studies only recently started becoming popular. Unfortunately, fashion design, just like any art form, has a long way to go in order to be taken seriously. We are all consumers of fashion in one way or another and rarely do we get a glimpse behind the scenes that shows us all the hard work that goes into our clothing.
“Fashion design was always at the back of my mind but I never fully considered it. I remember being really good at sketching when I was studying biology. I was always the one with the best drawings. My friends at times would ask me to draw them gowns and costumes when we were bored in class. I never felt like a designer or anything nor did I imagine that such a thing as “designer” exists as a full-time job.”
Her own label is now thriving beyond Leonna’s first expectations. Saldanha Label fashion addresses the modern Indian woman, the Creatress’ designs are all traditionally Indian with a pinch of Western aesthetics; exquisite, white wedding gowns, sarees, lehenga choli, blouses and skirts. Adorned with golden embroidery and blooming flowers, her designs are a fusion of both North and South Indian fashion. Leonna’s work is not only a reflection of her own idea of what Indian women ought to wear. Instead, the Creatress is particularly gifted at the art of observation. She first meets her clients and tries to understand what their style is and what kind of woman she is designing for. In a way, a big part of Leonna’s job is to realise her female clients’ deepest dreams.
“I like listening to my clients first before I make any assumptions about their requests. I always strive to enhance my clients’ preferences and I even try to go beyond their expectations. I think it’s very important to know who you are designing with and their personal style is very important. It says a lot about a woman. I like connecting to my clients as much as possible. After my meeting with them I do the sketching, get the fabrics, forward the material to my team and we let the magic happen.”
Saldanha Label‘s recent project is a bridal’s collection called “Modern Fairytale”. It seeks to empower the modern Indian woman who is elegant and in charge of her own destiny.
While travelling from North to South of India, I personally saw quite a change in what women were wearing in different parts of India. The colours in the North were overwhelming, radiant and perfectly well combined. In the South, women tend to dress less traditionally and prefer adopting Western fashion, especially in metropolitan cities. I was curious to hear what Leonna thinks of it.
“Nowadays, fashion is evolving so fast! You can get traditional gown and embroidery with Western silhouette. Everything is transforming into a collage-like apparel. It’s a big fusion that’s happening at the moment within the fashion industry. I do like the fusion but I personally enjoy designing traditionally Indian clothing like the saree blouse for example. This is something I will never give up, no matter how westernised India will become.”
The fusion of South and North Indian styles is also becoming more and more common, something rather unusual for older generations to witness. However this definitely makes space for more creativity and for new styles to emerge.
“Most of my traditional stuff gets ordered by Northern women. Here in Bangalore women have different preferences. They want their gowns to look grand and eye catching without particularly special details. Silk sarees are big here and yet only for special occasions do people order traditional gowns. Northern clients are very specific about what goes into each piece they order, they like all the details.”
“Up until recently, people in India would worship the West and anything that came from Europe (all the music and fashion trends) and now a shift is happening. We are learning how to appreciate our own culture. You know, there is a certain pride nowadays, when it comes to preserving our own designs and traditional fashion. So I am definitely not scared of losing anything. The Indian culture is too powerful to lose itself to the West.”
These past few years Leonna considered going to Mumbai and work in fashion from there but Bangalore grew on her, it seems to be the perfect city for her fashion. After all, the Creatress thinks that Bangalore is in need of a certain variety when it comes to fashion and aesthetics so she decided to stay and invest all her passion and unconditional love into her work. While discussing unconditional love we also spoke about marriage. Leonna’s husband is her number one fan and her life-long supporter. He, just like her mother, was the one who pushed her into starting her own label.
“I got married while I was completing my final year in college. I had the opportunity to design my own wedding gown, which is something I always dreamt of. It was probably one of my hardest projects, that wedding dress. My husband is such a big part of my designing journey. I wouldn’t be where I am today if my husband and my mother weren’t there to motivate me and encourage me. My mother always wanted to see me own a business and be successful and she always gave me the best support even when the means were limited. She is a Creatress of her own kind! I wish to become like her someday and that would be a very proud moment for me. “
I often heard women in India say that once you become a wife, your life stops. In some parts of India, you can only be a wife and mother, there is no other option. I wondered what Leonna has to say about this.
“Surprisingly for me it was just the opposite! Once I got married, things started moving for me! I went abroad for the first time with my husband for example. I think that if you marry the right person and out of choice, marriage shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want and continue growing on a personal level. My husband and I don’t live the traditional marriage life. We split the chores, we help each other, we grow together!”
The Creatress believes that there is a drastic change happening in India when it comes to women’s role; women are slowly rising and voicing their opinions. Things are being stirred within the Indian society and women’s positions are changing.
In the near future, Leonna wants to work on a project that will help train underprivileged women who have some knowledge of sewing and embroidery in order to help them find employment. With her powerful story of leaving behind a fate that wasn’t hers and sacrificing security to follow her heart, Leonna wants to inspire other women to follow their dreams and take risks even when your entire family thinks that you are completely mad. Now that’s what I call a true woman of character!
If you find yourself strolling the streets of Bangalore, pop by Leonna’s fairy land: Saldanha Design Studio on NO 2031, 9th Cross Rd, Marenahalli, 2nd Phase, JP Nagar.
Or else, find eye candy designs on her instagram page: