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Stitching a dream: An interview with a Tibetan designer on work, passion and life.
Phayul[Tuesday, May 03, 2016 17:14]
By Tenzin Dharpo

Photo: Tenzin Lekmon/Freelance Photographer
Photo: Tenzin Lekmon/Freelance Photographer
It is grossly inaccurate to say Tennor is a just another typical entrepreneur from the neighborhood. The work which he calls his passion is not anybody’s cup of tea; requiring many overlapping roles of a passion-driven artist, a profit eyed businessman and a level headed boss to oversee day to day demands. He owns and runs ‘Sharlho Design’- a cottage fashion workshop/boutique, producing fusion ethnic Tibetan dresses and accessories with a Himalayan interweave. The business has covered a respectable ground since it opened last year and has big dreams, treading ever so bravely and diligently in the direction of an organic success.

His story has a parallel with many other Tibetan refugee children who came from Tibet into exile through the Himalayas and grow up in one of the Tibetan refugee schools, TCV (Tibetan Children Village School) in his case. But the parallels diverged when he took a leap of faith and followed his dream, pursuing Fashion Designing and bringing it all back to his roots, here in Dharamshala. So I paid a visit to him to show our readers what it takes for a Tibetan youth to follow his or her dream.

Tenzin Dharpo: Tell me a bit about yourself?

Tennor: I came to India when I was five years old from Lhasa (Tibet). As far back as I can recall, I haven’t a clue why I was sent here, I remember reaching TCV (Tibetan Children Village School) where I did my schooling and essentially grew up to become a real person. I studied fashion (Bachelors in Designing) in Chennai’s Pearl Academy, learned my tricks there and I am now finally doing what I love.

TD: How much of your formative years can you relate with fashion and how crucial was fashion growing up?

T: Well, looking back, it is all a bit dreamy and nostalgic so I am not sure how accurately I can tell of the past but what I remember clearly was that I was not at all a good academic student. I failed in a few classes and never had ambitious career choices like doctor and engineer. I was a big day dreamer; all kids are in a way I guess. What I now feel I had different going on in my school days was that I loved the activities where we got to create things and make things with our hands. The class projects and school activities like ‘Tibet our country’ where essentially everybody had to make models related to Tibet and sets for cultural competitions. I really looked forward to that time of the year. I had this reputation of being the go-to-guy when it came to those things and I assumed the role seeing that I fit in them quite easily. I also use to improvise a lot on the school uniform. It was a challenge to look different when thousand other students were wearing the same shirt and pant. I also got into trouble for that. (Laughs)

TD: Fashion designing is a peculiar choice coming from an environment like TCV School; I also spend a good part of my childhood there. If you look objectively key aspects like career counseling on an industry like fashion and the fact that in exile or even in the whole of Tibetan history, it is safe to say we do not have a home-grown reference, like a Tibetan role model, how did you manage?

T: Yes, That’s true. We not only lack reference in terms of personalities from fashion designing, we as a people collectively do not have a clear idea what fashion designing is. The popular preconceptions such as fashion means pomp and showing off are generally associated with the field. So yeah when I went to my career counselor, I didn’t get much help. So it was, I wouldn’t’ say lonely, but a solitary journey. When I was in class XII, I organized a fashion show where I could express my passion for the field. The same year, my last year in the school when everybody else was preparing for the final exams, I was preparing for my entrance exam to the most prestigious designing colleges. That didn’t work out but having scratched and clawed your way to something; it’s a relief to yourself that you did not leave any stones unturned.

TD: Fashion designing is a very unique field to a Tibetan kid growing in exile, when it came to taking the leap of faith in college and pursuing fashion, was there any apprehension, doubts that crept from within that threatened your choice? If there were any such doubts, how did you shed them?

T: To put the whole context in a simple way, first of all, I was really committed to my choices, in that aspect I was brave but more importantly when you are at that stage, your support system is really important. Fortunately I had a very supportive relative that encouraged me. And my friends, whose say wasequally important at that stage, were also very supportive.

TD: Talking of designing as an art, like any other art, creativity is hugely dependent on inspiration. Where did you get yours from?

T: My creativity comes from all the mundane and everyday stuff, it’s what we see, how we emulate a feeling on to the design of a clothing or a bag. But in all honesty, the business is also my livelihood so I have to also look at what will look appealing, wearable enough so that I can sell them. So I try not to over design things. All in all, there is a great satisfaction in making something you can call your own. A product is a culmination of all the things you have worked towards, all the things you learned along the way.

TD: Was there any specific challenges that you faced being a Tibetan refugee while pursuing design, and for that matter any benefits?

T: Yes and no, while I was trying out different colleges in the beginning, few colleges rejected me because I was a refugee and didn’t fall into being either Indian or a foreigner. But other than that I did not feel any specific problems. In the industry (fashion), having a different face and background even helps to a certain extend break the monotony and come out different and unique.

TD: What does Sharlo mean and tell me a little about what you do at Sharlho?

T: Sharlho is my family name and it has somehow always been with me even though I was separated from my family when I was just 5 years old, that word is my link to the family I know little of. The work that we do here at Sharlho, the products that we make are very expressive for my admiration of the traditional Himalayan and especially Tibetan ways of making clothes. I am trying to bring back a lot of the old-school techniques of stitching, embroidery and patterns; the reasons being that those methods
Tennor of Sharlho Designs at his studio in Dharamshala, Photo: Tenzin Lekmon
Tennor of Sharlho Designs at his studio in Dharamshala, Photo: Tenzin Lekmon
have since been undermined by assembly line culture and the bulk manufacturing demands. I believe each person is different as is their taste for clothes; I am trying to cater to that. I am also emphasizing on using authentic Himalayan fabrics and organic handmade materials and organic dyes which are locally available. The products here although inspired my original Tibetan aestheticism, comes out modern and extremely wearable. And it is a purely Tibetan owned and run business employing seven tailors (four local Indians and three Tibetans).

TD: There are many Tibetans making Tibetan style inspired clothing in the market, how is yours different and what conscious steps have you taken to come out different?

T: Yes, there are quite a few similar products in the market but then if you look closely those products and mine are poles apart. Each of my products has gone through a stringent quality control and careful selection of every component. My raw materials come from Bhutan, Nepal and from various corners of India. If you noticed, they are mostly hand weaved and a result of many man-hours which naturally comes at a higher price but the feel it attaches to the clothes is unique. None of the other products can boast of such effort and result. Even while cutting down cost, I am careful not to compromise on the quality and even go as far as to check if the dye used for a particular fabric is organic and guarantee durability. I believe each garment that we wear has a story; If you look at the clothes that we see today, some of them come from sweatshops with modern day slaves in a third world country, some are targeted for people who have more money than they can use. It’s a very satisfying thing that my products are guilt-free in that respect.

TD: A business like yours, especially in its early stages must have faced many problems, specifically you handling the business aspect of things as well as the creative processes and even daily management. How much of a problem is that?

T: Well, I have overcome most of those through a trial-and error process (laughs) but as we say, you learn more from your mistakes, which has been true in my case. Since we have a lot of orders, my small team is struggling to keep abreast of the demands. And even hiring new staff is a challenge since the business is at a stage where I need already-trained staffs. Of the seven people who work here, four have been trained here. On the management of the business, my wife helps me a lot. She has been responsible for seeing to the day to day operations like maintaining our material stock or finances of the business.

TD: What are your future plans for the business and where do you see it in the years to come?

T: See my hopes for my business is for Sharlho to reaffirm people’s belief that clothes that we wear are representative of our identity. My brand of products has a big potential to attract customers from not only Tibetans but all the people from the Himalayan belt who share similar and comparative cultures. But most of my orders till date, since the six months that we started selling, have gone to the west. Out of the 2500 units that I’ve sold, more than half of those have been brought by clients overseas. So the progresses and my own belief in the business lead me to think optimistically.

TD: Lastly, anything that you want to say?

T: Yes, I just wanted to say that collectively, us Tibetans should look at fashion as we see any other profession, although we make things to wear and carry, it should not be viewed superficially. It’s not about the pomp and grandiose that is associated to the occupation. It should not only be about luxury-related idea that we Tibetans have seen this craft as. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that we need more professionals and this is no different. What we wear is of equal importance to the identity as a people and our survival in the many, many years to come. I also want to tell anyone who is passionate about designing or any other art form to pursue their dreams and justify their love for it through putting hours behind it. Not a thing is undoable if you just put your nose down and do what you love.

TD: Thank you for your time, pleasure talking to you. All the best.

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