“Khadi (खादी) is couture for me."
"It is handmade. India happens to be the only country in the world which can produce it from start to finish," said well-known fashion designer, public speaker, lecturer and heritage conservationist James Ferreira.
Ferreira spoke to me from his 200-year old family home and in-house fashion studio at Khotachiwadi, Mumbai, India. His home has long been declared a heritage building, and Khotachiwadi itself happens to be one of last surviving heritage villages of Mumbai.
Ferreira’s parents were large landowners from before the time of Indian independence. Ferreira’s father was a hockey coach and had a business that provided catering services under a contract for the Western line of the Indian railways during the British Raj. The business was later nationalized in 1958.
Both parents of Ferreira were strongly against the idea of their son becoming a fashion designer.
"Their argument was that they didn't want me to become a 'tailor'"
"But I was a stubborn child," said Ferreira.
He used to visit his local Church every morning until he was 21 years old. He studied at St. Xavier’s which did not offer art as a subject. "I was a good artist, but I wanted to perfect my drawings and hone my skills. For that I knew that I had to transfer to an educational institution that would offer art as a subject." Luckily, a Principal who he met at Church gave him some support and advice.
Ferreira then forged his parents' signatures to get a school-leaving certificate from St. Xavier's, and then forged the signatures again to get admission into an institution that offered art courses. Predictably, his parents were livid.
"Our maids were asked to not wash my clothes for a year."
"And they [my parents] refused to pay my tuition."
Another lady who Ferreira met at Church got him a job at EPMC Road, where he began teaching children.
"My daily schedule then was: teach children from 5 am to 7 am, go to college, then return to EPMC Road to teach some more, and be back home by 8 pm in time for the family rosary."
Ferreira received Rs. 7,000 per month, and one of the things he fondly remembers doing is smoking and drinking a beer after dinner.
"Smoking and drinking were not allowed at home, unless we paid for it ourselves. Since I was earning, my parents could not say a thing."
But despite all this, it is clear that Ferreira would not be who he is had it not been for the cultural influences that he had from his family, particularly his mother.
James Ferreira spent a significant amount of time, while growing up, with his mother who he himself describes as "very fashionable." Since the age of 6, he remembers accompanying his mother every Thursday to buy new shoes, then getting new clothes from Jewish merchants, and then to Bandra to his aunt's for day dresses. In addition, his mother had a family tailor stationed at home to make the clothes for Ferreira and his seven siblings.
"We were regularly designing with the tailor. [I feel as if] I have been dreaming of fashion since I was 12 or 14."
Ferreira learnt how to cut clothes at Colaba. His first job as a fashion designer was at a boutique called The Purple Pussycat.
He spent about five to eight years working on exports: sorting, checking, cutting clothes and fabrics, as well as quality control and production. He started to freelance at boutiques in Mumbai.
Ferreira’s longest job prior to launching his own label was at Bada Saab, where he got the opportunity to design and dress fashionable Indian men. He worked on almost all of popular superstar Mithun Chakraborty’s films. He also made clothes for the blockbuster movie Rocky.
Then, Ferreira worked at the First Lady, where he switched to designing clothes for women. He dressed all major actresses during this time, including Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Poonam Dhillion and Tina Ambani.
He lived at his flat in Bandra, where he was great friends with and a neighbor of the late actor Smita Patil.
Ferreira’s parents asked him to move back home, since all of his younger siblings had left.
And he has worked from his iconic Khotachiwadi home fashion studio ever since; with many of his neighbors being his own family members, including his grandmother and aunts.
James Ferreira is an extraordinary artist. Over the past 55 years, he has acquired a deeply nuanced understanding of the fashion industry, which is no small feat, given the complexities, opportunities and challenges of designing and selling couture in India and the world. In addition, he has been a popular lecturer at prestigious fashion institutes, as well as a generous host to those interested in learning about fashion and preserving cultural heritage at his studio.
When one looks at Ferreira’s collections, one often sees his designed clothes displayed in places of natural peace and beauty: inside a shed, next to commonplace items like a broom, or out near a tree stump and sunlit greenery, almost as if his couture came straight out of the Earth, or is a part of it, and is now moving gently with the breeze, much like the leaves near them.
Perhaps the words, then, that one could use to describe Ferreira’s artistic style would be earthy; natural; free; tropical; effortless.
Anyone who has visited or seen pictures of 47-G Bungalow at Khotachiwadi, Mumbai, can immediately discern recurring themes in James Ferreira’s style and decor: spacious and airy, comfortable, filled with antiques, surrounded by nature; nostalgia seeping through the carefully, painstakingly curated art artefacts, and charming, old wooden furniture.
Given his rich experience in the fashion industry, what would he tell young designers?
"Learn how to cut clothes. Cultivate your own, unique perspective. Collaborate with people who share your vision and who have skills that are complementary to yours."
And how does he design clothes?
“The fabrics tell me what to make.”