Here’s an interview with Chimmi (Tshering) Choden, Owner/Designer of CHIMMI House of Design on what influences her craft and how her work is interpreted in other countries…
What’s your background?
I am a Bachelor of arts student, my major was Family child welfare. Growing up I had always loved fashion and my mother being from the eastern side of Bhutan where women are popular for their weaving culture, so textiles and weaving came naturally to me. I took up two weeks crash course training on fashion design here facilitated by ministry of economic affairs Bhutan, which was a good introduction to the basics of fashion design process and techniques of sewing. After which I started to research more and study on my own through tutorials on youtube and google.
A few of my design pieces were recognised and featured in the local magazines and media after which I started commissioning orders in a very informal business set up. Making clothes gives me happiness and contentment. So it was clear that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What is SABAH, what did you do there ?
SABAH is an project funded SAARC Development fund which focusses on helping home based women to earn livelihood through sustainable business. SABAH stands for SAARC Business Association for home based women. Since majority of women in Bhutan weave or work in the fields the project focussed on designing and value adding to hand woven textiles and also focussed on food processing of the agricultural produce. Working with this organisation helped me build my business which has social impact, It also made me realise that my skill can contribute in boosting and uplifting our textile culture in modern times which in return can help income generation for our weavers while we preserve our valued old tradition of weaving.
What are the concepts behind you work? Who realises them for you?
The concept is to make modern silhouettes and designs which makes our textiles accessible in the global market. I work very closely with my full time weavers on textiles which is the main backbone of our pieces and then with my tailors on how we will be further developing the pieces. Every time I come up with a design or an idea it is always discussed with my weavers and tailors in the studio and we work on it together as each piece takes shape.
What is the process of your work?
I do not have a definite process.. sometimes I can get inspired from the patterns, designs or the texture of the textiles and work on the design backward. Sometimes the concept of the design is made first and then the weavers work on the textiles as planned and then it is further developed into the desired design.
What is the meaning behind the geometry in your work, or is it just pretty to look at?
Most of the geometric patters are from the traditional motifs and they do signify the elements of nature, animals and Buddhist beliefs. The labor, love and care that the weaver puts while weaving the textiles makes each piece unique and this unique piece of art cannot be replicated as much as you try since it is handwoven. Each piece has unique story throughout the process of its development. And it is with these unique pieces and story that inspires the designs and my work.
Do you see any differences in how people interpret / receive your work in Bhutan in comparison to when selling to the global market?
Yes, it is very definite how people relate to my work and how they interpret my designs. Bhutan being very young in fashion and many other areas is exposed to ideas which have succeeded and failed in other developed countries and on the global stage. So by virtue of its limitation it has been a blessing in disguise to appreciate what we have in Bhutan. And what we have in Bhutan is this age old tradition of weaving which is till valued and has a market within the country itself for the weavers to sustain themselves, thanks to our forefathers who envisioned in embracing our unique culture and to keep its identity made it mandatory for the citizens to wear the traditional attire in the country. This has not only encouraged weavers to produce hand woven textiles but also innovate and specialise in the skill so much so that Bhutanese weavers are considered one of the most talented weavers in their fine, intricate designs.
For Bhutanese customers it is exciting to see contemporary designs made with our traditional textiles and they love to wear something that defines their Bhutanese identity with their own unique personality and style. Many of my Bhutanese customers also enjoy wearing or carrying my deigns as they want to wear something Bhutanese when they are out of Bhutan without looking too traditional or boring. Bhutanese also encourages and strongly supports the businesses that are in line with the four pillars of gross national happiness so they appreciate our work.
For the global customers, most of their comments or feedback on why they like to wear our designs is because they like the whole concept of the slow fashion because each piece is handwoven and unique, it is not mass produced or common. the fact that the unique design has a story to tell and has lot of culture and depth despite it looking very fashionable. The fact that also commissioning these designs are encouraging the green fashion and giving power to the good impact it is giving to the whole process of its development. Sometimes I have had customers who have been just drawn to the designs without knowing the background story saying that they can picture it being worn on the high fashion streets of New York and Paris as statement piece.
We have had very good response on international fashion shows such as Malaysia fashion week and other International platforms such as Vogue India. In todays world where everything is fast paced and machine made with precision and in mass amount. People are desiring slow fashion since that trend has become unique and is rapidly gaining appreciation all over the global stage.
What are the main building blocks of Bhutanese history and culture that have lead to contemporary design today?
As mentioned in the earlier question, our fore fathers vision was to preserve our unique identity so in that mission one of the rule was to make it mandatory to wear our traditional attire. We Bhutanese also have our thirteen arts arts and crafts known as ‘Zorig Chusum’ which acts as a service to the community. it entails following :
Paintings, tailoring/ sewing, wood carving, embroidery, pottery, gold and silversmith, masonary, bamboo weaving etc.. some of which is very evident is in our architecture of the buildings and structures of our houses, monasteries, utensils, accessories and our daily life.
All of this tradition and culture has taken shape of the modern Bhutan today. It has a major influence in our designs.
Are you now influenced by ‘Western’ design?
It is not just now that I have been influenced by Western design. Growing up especially my generation we were exposed to Western culture and fashion through television and internet which were introduced in Bhutan during the 80s.. and my parents didn’t have that growing up. We have one foot in the modern world and the other in the traditional world.
This has a major influence in my work because growing up I was surrounded by weavers from my mothers village (my mother is from the east of Bhutan where weaving culture is popular) she had an informal set up of cottage industry at home. She would design and sell Kiras and Ghos to family and friends. Sometimes she would also get odd contracts for examples that she made for the first set of uniforms for the Druk Airlines crew; the only airline back in the days.
Basically I grew up watching my mother and her team weave textiles using traditional methods and also at the same time was exposed to modern fashion and trends, so it was natural for me to combine these two elements to form my own unique fashion house.
How has the internet influenced your designs and shaped your career?
Firstly I am a self taught designer so I did most of my research on google and youtube. I learnt most of the sewing and designing skill from these tutorials. Later on I learned more with the experience and exposure that I got along my journey in this path. My work and business became popular from social media such as Facebook, Instagram and later I developed my website. The social media gave me a wide audience and customers.
Where do you work from?
I work from home and have a small boutique currently in Thimphu at Namgay Heritage hotel.
Chimmi (Tshering) Choden