Culture

Textile maverick Peter D'Ascoli on Diane Von Furstenberg, sustainable fashion and the dreaded 'firangi tax'

In conversation with David Abraham

His obsession with fabrics has taken Peter D'Ascoli all over the world, but there's only one place he's fallen in love with: India. Thirty-six years later, the textile maverick and print wizard sits down with his friend, designer David Abraham, to talk about how it all began.  

David Abraham: I feel like I’ve known you since the beginning of time [laughs].

Peter D’Ascoli: Actually, it’s only been about 35 years. The first time I came to India [D’Ascoli was born and raised in New York] was in 1982, the summer before my final year at FIT (Fashion Institute Of Technology, New York).

DA: Yes, and I was at NID (National Institute Of Design, Ahmedabad).

PD: I came with Hector Herrera, who was working with a handloom handicraft export council at the time, for the Festival Of India.

DA: Was it a summer job?

PD: It was. And they said that since I was studying textiles, I’d have to come back and work with them after I graduated. They were trying to market handwoven fabrics in New York.

DA: And what was going on in your head at that time?

PD: That my aesthetic was, well, not quite there. I didn’t grow up in a family that was immersed in art and culture or textiles and fashion. I hadn’t had much experience; I was a clean slate. And then I came to India and saw the wealth of traditional textiles it had to offer. It seemed to me as though people on the street knew more about textiles than I did—and I had just graduated from design school. It impacted me deeply. In those days, India was very different. Coming from New York, this was a huge learning experience. There’s no way I would have come back and stayed here without friends like you. And I knew that if I was to live here, I didn’t want to develop products like a tourist; I could have sat in New York in that case. It’s taken a long time, and it was difficult for me, as a foreigner, to do what I am doing.

DA: Well, you’ve managed to make Delhi your home. You’re hardly an outsider now.

PD: In most ways, I’m not. But in some, I’ll always be. When it comes to work, I don’t feel like an outsider. But I’ll still have someone else from my office make certain calls, and I don’t show my face, to avoid the “firangi tax” [laughs]. I want to move like a local, and sometimes that requires me to not be me.

DA: What about creative direction?

PD: My clean slate came in handy. When I went back to New York, I had the good fortune to work directly with Diane von Furstenberg for five years. In that setting, I got double the exposure: the world of mass, industrial business, and Diane’s aesthetic.

DA: You were doing textiles for her?

PD: Yes, for fashion and interiors, as the director of the design studio. I would work with her in Paris, and she would take me around Europe. And this, coupled with my experience in India, began to form an aesthetic that got me interested in the history of decorative arts and historic inspiration. This, in turn, helped me set up the studio here.

DA: Well, you did start off as a design studio.

PD: Yes, Talianna Studio for licencing. And then I began moving into production and manufacturing.

DA: And what is Peter D’Ascoli about now?

PD: Change. And it’s interesting, because my own tastes have been developing for many years. But that is the challenge: to build an identity, a brand culture. In the end, I think fashion and textiles are like art: they are about ideas. And that’s what is so exciting about having the studio, and creating in small batches. Even today, we try and keep a minimal carbon footprint and only create when we get an order.

DA: Tell us about the studio.

PD: My wife, Cecile, started doing fashion within our company in 2012. Because we’ve always been self-financed, to create clothing with the kinds of prints that we’re making now was a huge risk back then. But in-house printing, which we started doing in 2016, changed everything. Suddenly, we could create a collection of garments that linked with our printmaking capability!

DA: That’s when you put all your creative focus into creating the garments?

PD: Yes, and now I have created a niche for myself, one that I am happy to say is recognized the world over. Today, we sell at Matchesfashion.com and Modaoperandi.com, among others.

DA: And I notice each collection has a story.

PD: Stories are what inspire us. For instance, our Resort 2019 line, a mix of dresses and kaftans called Creole Collection, celebrates the Caribbean’s tropical life and eclectic cultural mix. And we’ve used hand-spun and handwoven Indian cotton in a melange of Madras checks, block-printed motifs and tie-dye patterns blended with easy-going silhouettes, to create the signature D’Ascoli bohemian style.

Photographs: Abhishek Bali

Styling: Rahul Vijay