Enormous soft sculptures are suspended from the ceiling and draped over a mood board in a corner of the Atelier at the Tory Burch New York office. At an adjacent table piled with textiles, a young woman is at work, quietly spinning yarn one moment, knitting it the next, then running the fabric through a sewing machine. Alistair Carr, Creative Director at Tory Burch, frequently stops by to discuss her project. No, she’s not a new member of the Design team. Shradha Kochhar is a Parsons student working feverishly on her masters thesis in textiles; she is currently taking part in the MFA Textiles Atelier course.
The Atelier course is one of the most distinctive features of the MFA Textiles program at Parsons. Instead of a traditional internship, the course allows students to participate in an externship where they are matched with a professional design studio, textiles making space, or technology company/lab that aligns with their own textiles making practice, in order to strengthen their making skills in a “real-world” setting with professional mentorship.
“She is inspiring,” said Alistair, who has been mentoring Shradha for the past two months. “I’m throwing questions at her, challenging her to think about her decisions and asking her to look at her work from different angles physically and intellectually.”
The work is an exploration of khadi, a handwoven, handspun textile using highly sustainable Kala cotton—indigenous to India and which can be cultivated with minimal amounts of water, thriving on rainfall. Khadi has a rich history in India where it has come to epitomize de-colonization and was historically at the center of a movement led by Gandhi, who made it a national symbol during the struggle for freedom from colonial rule. Calling for a boycott of British textiles, he encouraged the embrace of ancient craft traditions in general, and khadi in particular.
“I’m drawing from history and referencing a movement that existed in the past to create something modern,” said Shradha, who works on a charkha, a traditional spinning wheel, then knits the yarn into textiles that she will be showing in April, May and September at Parsons, at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen for NYCxDesign 2021, and at Mana Contemporary (a New Jersey gallery) during New York textile Month 2021.
Her unique textile art draws on family and the South Asian experience. A sculptural sock covered in knitted khadi is a nod to the way Indian women traditionally wound yarn, wrapping the fiber around their feet. Two cylindrical shapes joined by a rope-like construction is an abstract representation of her father’s chair, commemorating his recent passing and a comment on life, loss and family dynamics. There is also an intarsia-knit portrait of the artist and her father.
“I’m trying to create a conversation between fashion and art,” said Shradha, who was born in India and lived in Delhi before coming to New York to study in the MFA Textiles program two years ago.
Having access to resources—space, raw materials and professional guidance—is tantamount to students’ experiences in the Atelier course. Several studios and companies participate in the MFA Textiles Atelier program, including Three Asfour, Wearable Media, and Suzanne Tick Studios, among others. As part of the program, Tory Burch offers Atelier space and mentorship to Shradha, who is in her second year of the MFA Textiles program at Parsons. The externship enables her to develop her ongoing professional textiles practice by attending the Atelier once a week and working closely with Alistair Carr.
“Alistair has been so integral,” she said. “He has helped me clarify my vision by pushing me to assess what the work is about and he has helped me make anything happen.” She was also thrilled to meet Tory, who was already familiar with the khadi movement; the two found common ground in being inspired by family experiences and wanting to create timeless narratives.
“I’m so grateful for this experience,” said Shradha.
Alistair is equally enthusiastic. “She brings ideas to the table—she’s not someone who doesn’t have enough ideas—and her enthusiasm for sustainability is inspiring,” he said, noting that his approach—questioning her process—was shaped by his experience as a student at Central Saint Martins, under the tutelage of the late Professor Louise Wilson. He sees the potential to build on this experience with other mentees.
“Sharing knowledge is vital to the growth of the new generation of creatives, as is being open to learning from people with different experiences than your own,” he said. “Shradha has inspired me and the team on a daily basis and we have learned from her as she has hopefully learned from us. I can’t wait to see where her ideas take her next.”