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Costuming the First Lady

Costuming the First Lady
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First Published: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Michelle Obama wearing a  necklace from Erasmus’ Nizam line. Mandel Ngan / AFP
Michelle Obama wearing a necklace from Erasmus’ Nizam line. Mandel Ngan / AFP
Updated: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 11 10 AM IST
At a London jewellery trade show last fall, a fast-rising star in the fashion industry purchased Pieter Erasmus’ spring line of intricately designed, crocheted and jewelled necklaces. The client, Ikram Goldman, a Chicago boutique owner, happens to have her own famous client: Michelle Obama. American newspapers credit Goldman as being Obama’s “closest fashion adviser”.
Michelle Obama wearing a necklace from Erasmus’ Nizam line. Mandel Ngan / AFP
After Goldman placed her order, Erasmus joked to his friends, “Imagine if Michelle ever bought something!” They all laughed, he recalls.
But on 9 May, he got an email from a good friend, South African fashion journalist Emma Jordan. “You have to watch this!” she wrote, sending him a link to a YouTube video of the First Lady at the highly visible annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Obama smiled in a bright magenta Michael Kors dress paired with an elaborate bejewelled necklace: Erasmus’ own design.
Erasmus, a South African, had stumbled upon the fashion lodestone. Blogs immediately took notice. “I. Need. This. Piece. Now. It reminds me of something that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan would wear along with her flapper-inspired dresses. J’adore!” Fashion blogger Café Fashionista wrote on Cafefashionista.blogspot.com.
“We were delighted—this is an understatement—to finally learn more about the stunning statement necklace,” wrote Mrs T at Mrs-O.org, a blog dedicated solely to Obama’s fashion sense.
Over cold coffee on a steamy Delhi day, Erasmus says that one week he had been doing much of nothing and the next week, emails were pouring in—media requests, potential clients asking for samples, current clients asking for previews of the upcoming line. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” he says.
The seal: After Michelle Obama paired this necklace from Erasmus’ Nizam line with a fuchsia Michael Kors dress, Vogue.com wrote that ‘statement necklaces’ were the season’s biggest jewellery trend.
Of course, it has only been three years since the launch of his jewellery line, St Erasmus, though the 39-year-old has been designing since he was in school, doodling dress designs on the back of science books.
After moving to London in 1995, he worked on projects for Givenchy, Matthew Williamson and Roberto Cavalli while at Erickson Beamon, and launched his own bag and sandal line in 2002.
Five years ago, he moved to India part-time to manufacture the line. One day, bored at his friend’s New Delhi factory, he was sitting with a group of women practising crochet. Let’s throw some crystals in there and see what happens, he thought. St Erasmus was born out of boredom, he chuckles.
His necklaces, bracelets and rings are sculptural designs, with semi-precious stones, freshwater pearls and Swarovski crystals interspersed with crocheted fabric. He says growing up in South Africa helped inspire his work. There, people take anything and make jewellery out of it. “You take straws, you take buttons, branches, flowers, glass bottles—always made with ‘found’ things,” he says.
Erasmus says this gave him the ability to “take something out of context and make it beautiful”. To him, crochet is something his grandmother used to do. But he now sees himself creating something glamorous out of what were once just his grandmother’s doilies.
Though he splits his time between London and Delhi, he wants to eventually move to India full-time. When he first came here, he fell in love with the overly ornate Indian designs. He sourced his beads and ideas from Delhi’s Kinari Bazaar and Turkman Gate. But when he took his first jewellery collection back to London, it came off looking too much like “mommy’s stage costume”. He toned down the Indian influence—borrowing rather than imitating.
For his latest line, inspired by the 18th century jewellery collection of the nizam’s court at Hyderabad, he did not spend time looking at the court jewellery. Instead, reading about it in William Dalrymple’s books, he felt inspired by “the feel of the harem, the opulence, the tremendous riches...the peacocks...the cardamom smells”.
Even with a toned-down look, Erasmus is the first to admit his designs are over the top. He says that to wear his jewellery, people need to have a sense of fun. “You can’t take it too seriously. It is costume jewellery.” He says he loves to see his necklaces being worn with evening wear, as in Obama’s case, or just casually, to wildly dress up a white T-shirt and jeans.
What’s old is new: Erasmus says his designs take his ‘grandmother’s doilies’ and turn them into something glamorous
At the Delhi Fashion Week in March, designer Atsu Sekhose asked Erasmus to design pieces to accent his Fall/Winter line of luxury dresses. “The whole look was bang on with the clothes. It blended very well. I wanted to make a statement,” says Sekhose. And Erasmus’ matte black line was intricate yet modern. “It’s not comical or something very outlandish. I’m looking forward to doing something with him for Spring/Summer also.”
In March, Erasmus had a successful show at Calypso, a fashion boutique in Mumbai which has since closed. But the self-described costume jewellery-maker says Indian buyers are still not comfortable with costume jewellery.
He finds good design far more intriguing than the high-price value of materials. But Indian buyers often opt for pieces that retain value over time. “At the end of the day, you can melt down your gold necklace and it’s still worth as much. What are you going to do with expensive costume jewellery?”
He does want to move to using more semi-precious material and creating a small section of new lines that use real gold threads and pearls to appeal to his Indian clientele. But even with that concession, he’s still unsure about whether the country is ready to embrace costume jewellery quite yet. “This is not a criticism but the Indian middle class is still emerging. They want Yves St Laurent...not an un-known designer,” he says.
Of course, with fans such as Michelle Obama, Erasmus likely won’t be unknown for very long.
The price range for Erasmus’ pieces is £25-650 (around Rs2,000-50,000) and they can be purchased directly from his site, www.st-erasmus.org
Melissa A Bell blogs at blogs.livemint.com/theexpatblog
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First Published: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 12 30 AM IST