This article was originally published in the Ocotber 2018 Princeton Echo.
What was once a thriving pop-up shop in Palmer Square will become a permanent fixture on Chambers Street. Originally from London, Orvana is Princeton’s newest boutique — it specializes in scarves, shawls, and kaftans made from artisanal fabrics.
Orvana, a brand that’s made its way into closets around the world, is remarkably a one-woman show. In many ways, the boutique’s sole designer and owner, Alka Mattoo, mirrors her wares: elegant, conscientious, culturally transcendent.
Combing through the rack, it’s evident these dresses are of quality. The sturdy feel of handwoven cotton is printed with deep hues of all-natural dye. These handmade textiles, which Mattoo sources directly from India, drape into adjustable one-size designs.
The dresses are cut into versatile, simple shapes like sheath and shirt, allowing the material and patterns to take center stage. Mattoo hand-picked each bolt of cloth from her home country, India.
“And because I am from there, I have a massive advantage,” she says.
By there, she means the Kashmir region, where India’s finest cashmere wool is made. Pashmina, a type of cashmere, is made of wool fibers from the Pashmina goat. Their coats produce fibers that are thinner than other wools, and these must be handspun to prevent damaging the delicate, soft threads. Because of the painstaking labor required, genuine pashmina scarves easily sell upwards of $200.
Mattoo spent her childhood admiring the region’s rich history in fabrics. Both her mother and her grandmother were avid collectors. Some of their textiles, handed down for generations, are so rare they could be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to Mattoo.
“My love for textiles comes from them,” she says.
In starting her own fashion boutique, it seems Mattoo inherited her mother’s social values as well. “My mom was fiercely social entrepreneurial. She was always supporting artisans,” Mattoo says. Orvana makes a point to source all its textiles from local Indian artisans as well. All of the craftspeople with whom Orvana contracts are paid above fair trade wages. “But fair trade should not be a unique selling point, it should be a part of your business practices,” Mattoo says. “Without the artisans’ work, this store would not exist. We work together.”
Purchasing directly from local artisans, she says, is also more environmentally sustainable then relying on mass-produced, synthetic fabrics. “The artisans always respect their resources because their livelihood depends on it. For example, there’s a strong incentive not to over-shear a flock of sheep as the same animals are relied upon year after year. Or, in the scorching valleys of Rajasthan where cotton is king, there’s no need to power electric ovens. Fresh textiles are dried in the sun.
“Everything is made in the traditional method. It’s intrinsically sustainable,” Mattoo says.
As an entrepreneur in the fashion world, Mattoo considers herself the “black sheep” in the family. Both her father and her brother studied engineering, while she graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1999. “All of my family is either an engineer or a doctor. When I told them I was going to be a designer, they thought I was going to become a model! They had no clue,” she says.
Marrying Herik Kleven, a Danish economics professor, was also “very different culturally from what a person of my background would do,” she says.
From its roots in London, Orvana nearly landed in New York City, had it not been for a surprise offer from Princeton University to Mattoo’s husband, who previously taught at the London School of Economics. They have a seven-year old daughter who attends the Riverside School and a three-year old son.
Sustainability also plays a role in the accessories and clothing that Orvana first specialized in, back in 2009. Mattoo decided to design scarves, and then kaftans shortly after, because both are rarely sized.
“People could just pick it up and accentuate whatever they were wearing already,” she says. “I design clothes in a way that’s very versatile — anyone could fit into it. And the fabric is so important to the silhouette, so it just flows next to your body.”
Having worked for large corporate brands like Theory and Bill Blass for over a decade, Mattoo associates sized items with excessive stock — that often ends up chucked as waste, after collecting dust on a sale rack.
“I think having leftover stock because of sizes is a big cost to the environment,” she says. She would rather sell out, than knowingly create excess stock just in case she could sell more.
“I worked in planning for various fashion companies and I know how much of this inventory they carry is costly, not only to the company itself as the company can often sell it for a base price to outlet stores like T.J. Maxx, but the resources are massive,” she says.
Consistent with this logic, Orvana’s items are priced to sell — they rarely go on sale.
“I don’t want to put things on sale, because there shouldn’t be any,” she says. Orvana’s pure wool dresses retail for around $200. Her cotton designs hover around $100, depending on the print; some are stamped by hand with wooden blocks.
“It’s seamless, can you see that?” she says, as she pulls out a linen dress covered in maroon vines. “You can’t even see where it starts and begins. It’s a dying art.”
These skilled printers have no guidelines, nor a template. “They’re so skillful that they just know,” she says, “It’s perfect.” And while she is hesitant to carry sized dresses, she will customize dresses for clients who need alterations. Eventually, she would like to offer clients a line of designs and a swatch book to create their own clothing.
Given the purity of handspun textiles, Mattoo points to similar dresses at Anthropologie that retail closer to $400. And yet, her dresses are marked around half the price; because no discounts are factored into Orvana’s prices (as other stores that host frequent sales might), the dress prices are “never massively exaggerated,” she says.
Her next collection will be inspired by diverse cultures and landscapes, from the American southwest to Indian temples, paired with the sensible and chic style of female artists like Georgia O’Keefe and vintage silhouettes (“I hate disposable fashion,” she says).
Weaving enough wool to make a single Orvana dress can take a single artisan up to four days. The weaver must craft each cloth just one thread at a time. Because of the concentration involved, Mattoo considers weaving a form of meditation.
“For me, being next to someone who is weaving, is the most peaceful place to be. People are meditating on it, essentially, when they are doing their craft. The peace around that is priceless,” she says, describing a recent trip to visit the Navajo weavers in Monument Valley.
Mattoo expresses these connections with textiles — whether it’s the similarities in weaving techniques between the Navajo people and Indian artisans, or customers making the connection. “In London I would have customers from all around the world and people would say, ‘This [fabric] is very similar to something in Russia, something I remember from my grandmother. They can feel a connection,” she says.
Orvana, 12 Chambers Street. www.orvana.co.uk.