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Wearable Art

Alba Amicorum featured in Mint & The Wall Street Journal

A silk scarf is perhaps the simplest item of luxury clothing imaginable. To the untrained eye, it looks little more than a square of luxurious fabric that is often, but not always, finished with a lively pattern or print. And that is about it. Subsequently connoisseurs pay hundreds upon hundreds of dollars/euros/assorted international currencies to acquire exquisite scarves made by marquee brands.
Or so it seems. But, in fact, the simplicity of a silk scarf, I recently learned, is partly illusion. The same illusion that is created by a simple film or an easy-to-read piece of classic prose. The simplicity is limited merely to the eye of the beholder. To the creator, the synthesis of the work often entails backbreaking work and perseverance.
After some two decades of working as a graphic designer and creative director for some of the world’s most well recognized brands, Darshana Shilpi Rouget began working on a collection of scarves only a year ago. She told me that she embarked on the process expecting it to be challenging, but more so from a creative point of view. Instead, she found herself grappling with things like fabric traders, manufacturers and supply chains.
So there is a palpable sense of relief when she showed me her shiny new brand of scarves called Alba Amicorum at her workshop in London last month. The workshop is a charming little space furnished sparingly with an eclectic mix of art, furniture and a large, healthy dog.
Unusually, giving that she is making scarves, Rouget calls herself a curator. And not a merchandiser or designer. This is because of the unique creative proposition that Alba Amicorum revolves around: Rouget has created them as limited works of wearable art.
“I wanted to make scarves that were truly a luxury proposition,” said Rouget. There are, of course, many brands that sell large numbers of expensive, branded scarves all over the world. “But most of these are mass-produced designs made from mediocre fabrics that simply get sold because of branding.”
Or what some brands like to call “mass luxury”. Rouget wanted to turn the proposition on its head. And, thereby, set it right again: she would make precious objects that are well-made and are in limited numbers.
While Rouget went around the world trying to figure out good silk and great scarves, she commissioned a group of five artists to create 12 designs for her. Each design would be reproduced only a 100 times each.
Rouget’s plans involve bringing out two sets of 12 unique, Alba Amicorum only designs twice a year. For a grand total of 2,400 pieces. I met Rouget a week or so before her official launch in London. But already she had sold several pieces. Surely, if demand outstrips supply, as she expects, she will be tempted to increase volumes.
“Out of the question. That is exactly the point of Alba Amicorum. To create an intimate product that is designed, bought, sold and worn intimately.” Rouget told me that she intends to personally service every single buyer. She wants to talk them through the product, explain each design and even help them incorporate the scarf into their wardrobes. “That is real luxury.”
The 12 designs are diverse. One of the most arresting is “Brief Encounters” a facsimile of a typewritten page reproduced onto the fabric. Rouget told me that the page, written in the form of a screenplay by writer Ross Klavan, was drafted exclusively for adaptation into an Alba Amicorum scarf.
Another exquisite design is called “Indian Carousel”. It is a graphic representation of scenes from Indian history by Babuji Shilpi, Rouget’s father.
Shilpi Senior is something of a renaissance man. He started his career as an artist and a designer of jewellery and textiles. Then after India’s independence, he decided to start a business selling educational toys. Later, he became a wildly successful interior and furniture designer.
“Indian Carousel”, based on a Babuji Shilpi painting, is a rich, emotional design. And because Rouget’s scarves are so large—almost 4.5 sq. ft—they would actually make for wonderful framed wall art. She agrees. But then immediately whips a scarf around her. “But see, how even wearing it a little differently gives each scarf a different dimension?”
Steeped, as it were, in her father’s creative energy Rouget moved to New York in her youth to study art and design. She then worked there for almost two decades before moving to London with her husband, a French banker. Entrepreneurship is a whole new challenge, but Rouget says that she is going to take it slow. At most, she wants to have an atelier—”A workshop where customers can some and experience the scarves and the art.”
This spirit is also reflected in the name of the brand: Alba Amicorum, or “albums of friendship”. “In the sixteenth century, wealthy Europeans collected small works of art into…kind of scrapbooks that they could share with their friends and family.”
Rouget hopes that clients will do this with her scarves. That they will wear them in different ways, talk about them and share that pleasure with their friends and family.
The 12 designs are available in modal, silk and blends. Prices start at £600. For more details and to order visit www.albaamicorum.com

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