Shalini – Poet, Artist, Designer, Perfumer

Chapter One: An Artist’s Journey

You might say Shalini was destined to create perfume. Her mother loved flowers. She lavished attention on a succession of gardens and massaged her baby with scented oils – rose, jasmine, sandalwood, ylang ylang (a woody, evergreen climbing plant). When a child (anyone, in fact) is exposed to scent during emotional parentheses, it embeds itself in memory. These are some of Shalini’s first scent memories -associated with pleasure.

Shalini and Her Mother in India

It was her grandmother’s Bombay astrologer who advised choosing a name with three syllables. Shalini is a Hindu word signifying someone intelligent, sensible, talented, charming, modest. The artist’s mother had masters in English Literature and Political Science; her father was  a prescient physicist who advocated solar and wind energy 30 years ago. She grew up tapping into both sides of her brain and both their personalities. Mom was an introvert, dad gregarious. Middle ground is rare. This is not a woman to whom you talk about the weather.

Shalini was nine when the family moved to London. Classical music filled the house. Romantics Chopin and Debussy were favorites. She assures me that adolescent years featured Queen, The Doors, Serge Gainsbourg, and Miles Davis, lest I think her reserved. “I’m a rebel – my family are doctor’s, diplomats, scientists, but I’ve also been groomed by them so I’m very much a lady.”

Young Shalini

While still quite young, she read Gauguin’s journals and resolved to go to Tahiti. “I spent a month there not long ago,” Shalini tells me, eyes sparkling. She devoured Colette, Anias Nin, Marguerite Duras, Ernest Hemingway (an interesting contrast) and dreamed of marrying Milan Kundura (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), not, like her peers, Freddie Mercury (front man of Queen).  “Art has never been a superficial thing. It’s an in depth exploration,” she reflects.

“Mom said that even as a child I was thoughtful and empathetic.” Shalini’s first earnings came from selling teenage poems to local magazines. Following in the footsteps of family, a portion of that money was donated to Mother Teresa. Children’s charities continue to benefit.

Provence Dream by Shalini

The young woman moved to this country for higher education. Ever a seeker, she acquired a masters in mathematics, then studied architecture at Harvard (as well as having several Newbury Street gallery shows of her painting), interior architecture and fashion at Parsons. Drawn to the clean lines of I.M. Pei, Shalini missed color and pattern. She’s particularly inspired by Cristobal Balenciaga, often called the architect of haute couture. He said, “Elegance is elimination.” And Ernest Hemingway who ” exemplified the power of saying something very complex in the most simple words. He called it the technique of the iceberg: 80 percent under the surface, 20 percent above.” Barely into her first matriculated semester of fashion, she was alerted by her professor to a job opportunity at Valentino, hired, and continued school at night.

At that point, a multiple car crash sidelined Shalini, leaving her with cracked ribs and an injured back. The entire front of the vehicle accordioned. “You’ve been given a second life; I hope you use it well,” a police officer said. The headstrong young woman walked out of a hospital emergency room (too crowded), put herself to bed with a glass of Bordeaux, and visited a doctor only later.

Line Board

While laid up for a couple of months, she decided to follow through on the idea to found her own couture line, reading books on how to incorporate. To call Shalini  “can-do” minimizes the kind of intelligence and determination that might lead Hannibal’s elephants over the mountains. Once on her feet, an attorney was consulted. “The crash was a wake-up call. I had nothing to do, so I sketched.” The accident occurred in March. Her first line was astonishingly complete and sampled for November shows.

Only the best fabrics would do: Solstiss laces from France, Dormeuil wools and cashmeres from England, Linton tweeds from England, cottons from Switzerland and Belgium. Like Balenciaga, she worked as well in Taroni Silk Faille from Italy. Tailoring was paramount, seams and darts excluded, silhouettes defined. Everything she had studied came to fore.

Fashion by Shalini

After her show, Shalini telephoned the buyer at Barney’s, then the preeminent store for progressive, new designers. She left a message, following up with photos and a line sheet. Once again, fate stepped in. Shopping at the store, she was approached by a woman who asked if she was Shalini. “I recognize your distinctive voice from the message you left,” the buyer told her. (It’s kind of a British educated purr.) “I loved your photos.” Their first customer was secured. It wasn’t long before the atelier moved locations to a floor through with windows on the street.

Unexpected confluence continued. Barney’s divisional head lived near the new 9th Street location and would, he told Shalini, stop across the street to watch fittings. Apparently very like a party, the designer would serve wine or Champagne unabashed by public view. She invited him in, but he preferred to linger outside unless on actual business. Relations were copacetic.

The Atelier

Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue followed as did moving to a fully equipped five-story townhouse on 18th Street. Exclusivity applied to certain models, colors or fabrication. There were classical and seasonal collections based on such as Gauguin, Kandinsky, Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, and the French Riviera.

Chapter Two: Scents and Sensibility

Twenty years ago a successful couturier, Shalini serendipitously met Maurice Roucel at a social occasion. The world celebrated perfumer had  just moved to New York from Paris. “I was wearing Hermes24 and he said, ‘I made that.’ I didn’t really believe him and responded, ‘Oh yeah?’” She emits a girlish laugh. Shalini had been drawn to Hermes because of its Neroli notes. An essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree- not the fruit- it’s sweet, honeyed and a bit metallic. “We had orange trees where I grew up.” She smiles.

Shalini Parfum

Continued tomorrow

All photos courtesy of Shalini

About Alix Cohen (1750 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.