I have been silently stalking Delhi-based textile studio Safomasi for about a year now, and I’m obsessed with their beautiful Instagram feed, illustrative textiles with exotic narratives, and their cross-cultural creativity. In 2010, Sarah Fotheringham moved from London to Delhi to work at creative agency Wieden + Kennedy, and there she met Maninder Singh — who had recently returned to India from living in Melbourne — at a photo shoot. Together they formed Safomasi.
After just over a year in business, the duo’s Camel Traders print won in the “Bedroom” category at the ELLE Deco International Design Awards and they became darlings of the Indian design press. In a country where an online presence alone can make you stand out (a lot of great, established Indian brands still don’t have websites), I was super keen to get to know this savvy duo — one of a group of emerging young creatives in Delhi’s exciting design industry. While the pair was in London last month exhibiting during the Design Festival at Tent for the first time, I jumped at the opportunity to get to know them beyond my iPhone and settled in for a long chat about designing and making in India, taking risks, and Delhi’s burgeoning design scene. —Rohini
What does Safomasi mean?
Sarah: It’s a mix of the letters from both of our names; Sarah Fotheringham (Safo) and Maninder Singh (masi)! We wanted a name that reflected us personally, yet at the same time sounded a bit abstract and like it could come from anywhere.
Maninder: We were thinking up all sorts of weird names, things like Princess of Panipat (Sarah means “princess” and I am from a village near Panipat in India), and then we’d tell our friends and family and they’d all get rejected. I came up with Safomasi, it went down well and stuck, so here we are!
How did you transition from a full-time job to Safomasi?
M: You could say it all started with an artwork of 169 Indian sweets Sarah was working on — her background is in illustration (she studied at Brighton University) — she was always working on her own things on the weekends and evenings; and I was around so we’d bounce ideas off each other. The sweets started off as felt tip drawings she’d made whilst traveling around India, and we thought it would be cool to do [it] in a screenprint. At the time, I was at the Fashion Design Council and knew a lot of designers. We found a screenprinting guy in Delhi to do some sampling, with whom actually turned out to be a disaster — he ruined about 300 meters of our fabric. So that was a learning curve! We knew at that point we needed to find someone reliable with good experience and quality work, and we weren’t going to find them in our spare time — we needed to do it seriously or not at all. So we did a lot of research before we produced anything else and we got lucky with the next printer we found. We are still working with them today. We try our best to form great relationships with the people we work with.
S: Maninder was ready to leave his job and he was already doing production for Safomasi part-time. I couldn’t leave my job because of my Visa, and you can design in the evenings and weekends, but you can’t do production then. We needed someone to go full-time.
M: It made sense for me to do it because I knew people, I could speak the language…
What factors made you decide to take the next leap?
S: I guess we got a lot of interest and we really enjoyed the process of creating the products. Initially, we didn’t know how it was going to work out — our friends told us our product was great and we just went for it. I don’t think we thought about it too much!
M: We were nominated and won the EDIDA (ELLE Deco Interior Design Award) early on for the Camel Traders print from our first collection, so that helped us with the confidence we needed to see that we were doing something different and that there was potential to turn into a proper business.
Tell us about the aesthetic inspiration for your pieces.
S: All our collections are inspired by different places that we travel to, so the illustrations and designs, including the color palettes, reflect our impressions and experiences of that place. For example the “Alleppey” Collection, inspired by the South Indian state of Kerala, features lush, tropical greens and blues. Our new “Salcombe” collection is inspired by a town of the same name on the southwest coast of England, where my family have been holidaying for years. The collection has a nautical feel with a lot of blue and pops of red. One of the designs, “Estuary Walk,” illustrates walks along the verdant coastline — something we always do as a family. I can even tell you who the people in the prints are based on!
Everything has a story and we like the idea that different people can relate to it, either in an exotic or nostalgic way, and create their own narrative. All our fabrics are hand-screenprinted, so each color is printed in a different layer and sometimes we have to edit the colors down. The Estuary Walk print has 10, which was pretty tricky as there’s so much detail in the design. The most we’ve done is 13 for our Mithai print of Indian sweets.
Do you feel like it’s less of a risk to do something like this in India than in the West?
M: I think so. I mean, Sarah had a full-time job and then on top of that together I was acting as an account manager for Sarah for freelance projects, which funded us initially. Especially for the industry we’re in, to be producing textiles, it feels [like] there are more opportunities here than in the West — for centuries India has been making the most amazing fabrics, has the most amazing skills — there is just scope to do so much here.
Tell us about your studio and the great little creative community you have there.
M: We got our studio this time last year, and we have a really big space, in half of the studio we have tailors sitting there working for us. One wall is our showroom and we have two big desks that we share with other designers. Another American couple who have a research and content studio, Dear, joined us, then a local illustrator — Shweta Malholtra — then two girls from Canada with the fashion label NORBLACKNORWHITE with one of their tailors. So seven people share the office in total.
S: It’s great because we’re all in creative fields that are different yet overlap. So we talk about fabrics, production and logistics stuff, like shipping with NORBLACKNORWHITE, and help each other out with our experiences. Dear have worked a lot with one of our stockists, Indelust, and shot a film on us and our process, which should be out soon. It’s always nice to have friends around that you trust to ask for a second opinion on something. We try and have studio drinks and get a few other friends over as often as we can as well…
Who makes your products?
M: Initially, we used to outsource it, but then we had a lot of wastage and outsourcing is hard. That was the main reason why we got our studio, so we could have space to hire tailors [to] bring the production in-house. We started with one tailor in January this year, now we have three tailors working for us.
S: Our screenprint production is done in a workshop just outside Delhi in Noida and then the stitching is done in our studio. We used to make all the products in bulk — a hundred cushions at a time — and then we’d sell them. Now we can make them as we sell, which is a lot more cost effective, makes us more flexible, and allows room for creativity; we can make oversize cushions or customize them. We’ve also been able to experiment and expand our product range. If we were outsourcing, we wouldn’t have been able to do that unless we committed to a particular quantity.
Can you tell me about your tailors? Do most studios have their own tailors, or is this a unique position to be in?
S: Shiv Shankar, known as “Masterji,” is the head tailor in our studio. He’s been a tailor in Delhi for 16 years, coming originally from a village in Bihar. We’re really lucky to have him as he’s so creative — we’ll come back from a meeting and find he’s made a cover for the printer in the studio, or a pouf filled with scrap fabrics. He’ll always tell us his opinion on products, too, whether he likes how we’ve designed it [or] if he thinks it would be better another way. Our other tailor, Suresh, is from Uttar Pradesh, and has five years working experience. They’re helped by Jatin from West Bengal, who has also been working for five years. Most designers here, especially in fashion, have their own tailors. If they can set up a unit in-house, they will.
Why did you choose Delhi over London or Melbourne?
S: It wasn’t really chosen… we were just there. We were here for other jobs and initially started Safomasi on the side. But it’s an amazing place to be, Delhi is such an inspiring place right now, all the textiles and all the opportunities — there’s a lot happening and we have a lot of creative friends also starting their businesses.
M: I think it was a good time for us. When I came back from Melbourne, Delhi had changed massively in the past five years. There were so many people from all over the world, working, traveling and starting their businesses. It was a good time.
In the past, India has had a reputation for being a place where it is notoriously hard to get things done. How do you navigate this?
S: It still is very difficult, but it’s easier being there and producing. I know people do live outside of India and produce there, but if you don’t have your setup sorted then it’s going to be really hard.
M: Have you heard of a “foreigner price in India?” Well, they will see Sarah and charge double! So with production, I don’t even introduce Sarah to my vendor beforehand — I just introduce her once I’ve done the deal!
S: I think we’ve also learned that we can’t really put out a product until we have road-tested the production timeline and that we can deliver. We know that if the workshop says one month, it will be two months, so we need to build in a buffer!
What’s next for you guys?
M: We want to make new products and collections, but scale steadily, so we can continue to control the production without compromising on anything. Quality is so important to us, so we want to maintain and improve on our high standards and be realistic with what we can take on.
Where should someone interested in design and visiting Delhi for the first time go?
S: I would explore all the different sides of Delhi — from markets like Hauz Khas, Mehar Chand and Shahpur Jat, where you’ll find new designer boutiques, to the lanes of Old Delhi which has areas dedicated to particular industries — so one street only with matchboxes, one with fireworks, one with paper products, etc. Kinari Bazar is where we go to scout out ribbons and trimmings. Old Delhi is endlessly fascinating!
What is your advice for someone wanting to produce in India?
S: India is an incredible country, with so much craft and heritage. It’s a wonderful place to produce, but it does require a different mindset. You have to be prepared for the completely unexpected and always have a backup plan! I would spend as long as you can here, meeting people and sampling. It will take a long time. But persist and find people you can build a great relationship with.
Studio Images: This is Sheena