Shimul Javeri Kadri’s design for a weekend home in Alibaug, a site home to mango and neem trees, had leaf-shaped canopies of concrete. In an ongoing project at Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, Kadri drew from the region’s brick-making tradition to create arches and vaults. Her Mumbai-based SJK Architects firm, founded 25 years ago, currently has a team of 25 architects who believe in building in harmony with nature—using sunlight, wind, natural materials, cultural contexts.

Sitting on the balcony of her Mumbai apartment, overlooking the sea, Kadri talks about architecture and fashion in the same vocabulary, as geometry, folds, flow, structure; she sees both as a means of self-expression. Her wardrobe includes a collection of saris that primarily reflect the colours of the earth—shades of brown, green, blue, madder, serene whites and creams, striking blacks—flowing dresses, skirts, kurtas, bags and silver jewellery “picked up over time from travels across the towns and villages of India".

As we shift things around her living room, looking for the right natural light to photograph her in, Kadri, dressed in an elegant lilac Khadi Jamdani sari, is unperturbed and helps slide the heavy furniture around. “We (she and her husband Rahul Kadri) are two architects living together. We are very comfortable with disrupting things around here," she says. Kadri tells us about the negotiation between being contemporary and being rooted in tradition and culture; it’s an idea that reflects in her work, in her wardrobe, and in her ideas. Edited excerpts:

You have a distinct sense of style. Has it been curated consciously?

When I look at photographs of myself when I was younger, I see glimpses of awkwardness. As you grow older, you start believing far more in what is innately you. As you tune into who you are, your sense of style becomes sharper and sharper. That’s what one enjoys the most also, being able to choose clothing and dressing exactly as one feels it represents who you are. Like I’ve never used nail polish in my life, and that’s me. I’m extremely comfortable with being 5-foot nothing. I never wear make-up and I don’t colour my hair. And that’s all just me.

A selection of jewellery.
A selection of jewellery.

Can you identify where your sense of style stems from?

I think it was in architecture college (Rachana Sansad, Mumbai, from 1980-85). The 1980s were very much about modernist architecture that drew from the vernacular, like Louis Kahn’s extremely contemporary expression of bricks, as he did in IIM, Ahmedabad (Indian Institute of Management). There was a delight in revisiting places like Ahmedabad and Kerala and unearthing local textiles and fabrics. Even when I went away to the US (University of Michigan, 1986-88) to study further, the pull of Indian aesthetic remained. When you’re away from your country, you get a lovely ability to zoom out. Those few years were amazing in how they expanded my mind, but the surrounding aesthetic of America just didn’t work for me. I was drawn to the earthy tones of India, the sunlight, the craftedness of everything from architectural materials to garments to utensils. When I got married, Lakshmi, our cook, who is still with me, used to say, “Kaisa ghar hai yeh, mitti ke bartan aur Khadi ke kapde (What kind of house is this? Utensils of clay and clothes of Khadi)."

A silk dress by Metaphor.
A silk dress by Metaphor.

This aesthetic is Indian but not traditional. Your wardrobe is pretty modern. A Jamdani sari paired with quite an avant-garde neckpiece.

Being in the now is important to me. In our work also, we strive to be honest to the current context. We don’t like claddings and cover-ups and false ceilings. It is the same with dressing: what I wear should adequately express who I am and how I feel. If you see this sari, it’s Khadi and Jamdani, but these sparse little triangles somehow make it modern and minimal.

Looking at your accessories, there’s pure geometry but always with some quirky touch.

That’s a very accurate thing you’ve picked up on. Like most architects, I enjoy geometry, the story and functionality of geometry. But like life, the purity of geometry is too unreal. Life is never pure. There’s always a twist in every situation, in even the most beautiful of objects. That’s what actually makes it interesting. One must know the rules before you break them. In my practice as well, it’s about knowing your craft very well, and then being able to localize it, to tweak it ever so slightly, so that it fits contextually rather than pushing a square knob into a round peg.

A dress in Balinese Batik.
A dress in Balinese Batik.

Are there any fashion designers who resonate with you?

I love structured fabrics and interesting folds. And that’s why I love Payal Khandwala, and how she simply takes a fabric, stitches it in maybe two places and changes its character. I admire what péro (by Aneeth Arora) has done with Indian fabrics. I like Kishmish and Eka. I respect design at every level so am happy to invest in it for what I wear. I look out for the works of Anavila, Sanjay Garg, Abraham & Thakore and Akaro. My very first piece of designer clothing was when I was much younger. I walked into Melange and bought an Aki Narula kurta that I still wear. It must be at least 20 years old; just a beautiful, mellow-green, single-button, full-sleeved, soft mul kurta with a sarong-like bottom in the same fabric. Among all these designer saris, there are others too, like a traditional Assamese Patola that belonged to my mother.

Saris by Payal Khandwala and Sanjay Garg.
Saris by Payal Khandwala and Sanjay Garg.

Would you say you are a collector, flâneur, or consumer of fashion?

I was never given a trousseau but that turned out well because I’ve built a collection on my own now. It’s very slow and very random. I still wear the clothes I bought 20 years ago. I’m not a shopper. The mall is the last place you’ll ever find me. But I buy clothes that are designed particularly using Indian craft—from well-curated stores or exhibitions. When I travel, I buy silver. Every single village that I go to, I will pick up a piece of silver. It’s almost become a ritual. This silver cuff (a broad silver wrist clasp that Kadri was wearing during the interview), we bought from Karni fort, just outside Udaipur, in a sleepy little village. Most villages will have a silver shop. They always display their new shiny things, but I ask them for their old silver.

A bag made in banana fibre by the Kishkinda Trust in Hampi. Photos: Aniruddha Chowdhry/ Mint
A bag made in banana fibre by the Kishkinda Trust in Hampi. Photos: Aniruddha Chowdhry/ Mint

In your work, lectures and papers, the natural elements—sunlight, wind, water—are very consciously thought of and brought out. Do you find that reflecting in your wardrobe as well?

Totally. I only use natural materials in how I dress. It’s all cotton and silk. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a polyester piece. It doesn’t work for me. After years of trying to find a definition of the work we do, we came up with these three words—crafted, contextual and contemporary. I think that’s also how I like to dress.

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