Suki Cheema, Textile Designer
On occasion, the editors of Sight Unseen spot a story about creativity told from a viewpoint that’s not unlike our own. This one, an interview with the London-born, Williamsburg-based textile designer Suki Cheema, was posted yesterday on the blog of the bi-annual fashion and culture mag Dossier. In it, writer Emma Barker talks to Cheema about his collections’ focus on places and periods — currently it’s Peru, next fall he’ll tackle Europe — and how the business of textile design in general is different from that of fashion. Our excerpt, though, focuses mostly on their discussion of Cheema’s inspirations and collecting habits. To read the full interview, follow this link over to the original Dossier post, and help support independent journalism by subscribing to the magazine here.
By Emma Barker
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: 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.
The interview continues on the Dossier website. Read the original post by clicking here.