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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Of the many hats Shilpa Chavan wears, her career as a milliner is the most unique. As a little girl, she often browsed the slides of My Fair Lady through her View-Master and admired the hats Audrey Hepburn wore. “I particularly loved the black and white one she wears to the races,” Chavan says. Today, Chavan is India’s leading milliner. Her headpieces and accessories have been showcased at the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, the Drap-Art recycled art festival in Barcelona, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And Chavan’s star following includes Sonam Kapoor, Poorna Jagannathan, director Kiran Rao and Lady Gaga.

What is your background and what did you study?

In a country like India where headpieces are clearly not a fashion trend, the journey hasn’t been easy for the Mumbai-based, 39-year-old designer. But that’s never worried her. “I have always designed to satisfy the creative streak in me. I’m not worried about making a statement,” Chavan says.

It took some time for hats to feature in Chavan’s career. As a teenager, she dabbled in designing and sewing her own clothes. In college, she took a course in apparel design at Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University in Mumbai and then worked as an assistant to several fashion designers, including Manish Arora, Malini Ramani and Tarun Tahiliani. She also worked as a stylist for Channel V and Cosmopolitan India for several years before shifting her focus to millinery. “I designed headpieces for the swimwear rounds at Femina Miss India shows with designer Hemant Trivedi for a few years in a row,” says Chavan. Trivedi noticed Chavan’s passion and genius and suggested she take a course to hone her skills. In 2003, she completed a millinery course at Central Saint Martins in London. Two years later, an instinctive cold call won her an internship with the world-renowned, London-based, Irish milliner Philip Treacy.

What was the turning point?

Chavan’s career took off when Lakmé Fashion Week introduced an accessories show at her suggestion in 2008. The show celebrated Chavan’s work and won her critical acclaim. Around the same time, Chavan launched her brand, Little Shilpa, the name Trivedi fondly used for her. Little Shilpa designs are very different than the hats in the 1964 Hepburn flick Chavan grew up watching. “My designs are distinctly bold and dramatic,” she says. “They’re also awe-inspiring and are sure to leave an indelible mark on your memory.”

Why did you choose hat design?
It’s not difficult to understand why Chavan chose millinery. “I’m a very hands-on craftsperson, so making headpieces is a lot more fun than designing apparel,” she says. “I’m also very visual,” Chavan explains, adding that she takes pride in turning the most commonplace objects into interesting works of art. Chavan once bought a bunch of slipper thongs hanging on a piece of thread from a cobbler on a Mumbai roadside and turned them into a headpiece for her collection Mumbadevi. Another time, she drew inspiration from a peanut vendor’s collection of paper cones.

“Art gives me the freedom to express myself. But fashion needs to be wearable and sustainable,” she says, which is why Little Shilpa has showcased both at Lille, France and London Fashion Week. “I make smaller versions of my art to be used as fashion pieces,” Chavan says. But unlike most couturiers, Chavan didn’t choose to design hats to make a living. “I’m a bad entrepreneur,” she confesses, “forever unwilling to compromise my pieces.” She never repeats a design — even on request. “I want to give my clients something they’ve never seen before. A wearable piece of art which has its own story.”

Where are your designs being showcased?

Chavan’s big moment came when pop star Lady Gaga wore her headpiece for the cover of Flare Magazine in December 2009. “Lady Gaga knows how to wear a headpiece and does total justice to it,” Chavan says. On her visit to India in 2011, the singer also sourced
Chavan’s hat through her stylist and wore it to a public appearance. In 2012, Fortune Magazine’s Indian edition listed Chavan as one of the five fashion personalities to watch out for. This past July, Chavan was invited to speak and exhibit her pieces at the Dutch fashion festival MºBA 13 Fashion Biennale Arnhem — Fetishism in Fashion.
So far, Chavan has retailed through art fairs, group shows and stores like Bombay Electric in Mumbai, where she sets up a pop-up shop every December. In Paris, you can find her creations at the concept store The Space, and the famous London online store Love Hats also sells Chavan’s millinery. What has both surprised and elated Chavan is that Indian women have been warming up to headpieces. “People have started understanding the design value of my pieces,” she says. “Now, it is not only the celeb and fashion fraternity that shows interest in my millinery. A good number of young women ask me where they can buy my work.” This has led the designer to e-tailing through her own online store (www.littleshilpa.com), which will be up soon and will ship globally. “But, before you buy a headpiece,” cautions India’s only milliner of distinction, “keep in mind that it should not take over your personality but become a part of who you are.