Jeanne de Kroon produces the collections for her label Zazi Vintage in India. Here, she tells us about her travels and the country
I must have been around 7 years old when my mother first told me about India. She showed me a picture that Norman Parkinson had taken for Vogue back in the Diana Vreeland days, and the backdrop was the “Pink City” of Jaipur. It looked like it had come out of one of my princess books: There were elephants painted with flower mandalas, Mughal architecture, and this fabulous guy in a pink Turban standing next to a woman who seemed to have stepped out of old Hollywood. I also used to celebrate the Holi festival with my Hindu neighbor. Known as the “festival of colors,” I would go home afterwards with a bindi that I would proudly wear for a week with my Spice Girl braids and princess dress. I think my love for India started right then and there.
At the age of eighteen, I left Holland and started my adventure as a street musician in Paris before a short and unsuccessful attempt at modeling in New York. I ended up in Berlin in the summer of 2013 and, like all foreigners do, I fell in love. Berlin seemed to be a place where I could still wear a princess dress with a glittering bindi while biking to my philosophy classes on a vintage East German bike, and not be judged. But after a few months in Berlin, I noticed that my once colorful outfits had been exchanged for an all-black uniform. The thought of spending a whole winter in black, under grey skies…I booked a ticket to the Himalayas. And although the colors of Nepal brought me back to life, I knew I had to go to India.
The bus that got me there shook the entire way – the ticket cost about €1.70. I sat next to two ladies who had their faces covered in tribal tattoos and fed me samosas. Then I arrived in Varanasi, the holy city of death on the banks of the Ganges. Varanasi was a spectacle of the senses that shook my deepest beliefs and fears. I sat for hours next to the burning ghats and spoke to an Aghori baba dressed in black. He wore a necklace made of bones and told me the most fascinating stories. He had dedicated his entire life to bringing souls stuck between the worlds of life and death to the right place. I don’t know what his name was, but he was way cooler than any black-clad person I ever met in Berghain. We drunk chai overlooking the sunset, performed pooja prayers, and watched the world go by the holy river.
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I’ve divided my time between Berlin and India ever since. Although my Hindi is still far from perfect, I’ve found that my appreciation of glittery tops and sparkly silks becomes a universal language. Whether it was finding soft silks in Varanasi, mirror work in Rajasthan, linen cloths in the South, or the softest cashmere in the Northern Himalayas, India has always been the place where I found my outfits. So three years ago, while I was dancing and smoking bidis with one of the tribal women from a matriarchal society in a salt desert, I decided that this was way more fabulous than going to any store.
I founded Zazi, a company that combines my connection to glitter tops and those women from dusty villages with my love for philanthropy and sustainable development. Madhu Vaishnav, who owns an NGO in a small village called Bhikamkor, or the “Blue City,” told me that I had to become a designer if I really wanted to help. The “girlfriend club” (or “Saheli Design,” saheli meaning girlfriend in Hindi) is a part of her NGO that provides women from the village with a stable income. So, I took a train to Jaipur and met one of my personal closet suppliers, the Afghan family. They have this small room in a back alley motel which is like a sea of old dusty treasures. I had a vision of a Thea Porter-like princess dress made from silk ikat from Uzbekistan. Then it was decided: The girlfriend club would make them and the Afghan family would supply the vintage pieces.
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The ikat dress became a reality with the help of a local saree tailor who cut my pattern from old Indian newspapers. Before I knew it, it was an actual dress. I still can’t quite understand how this miracle happened, but after coming back to Germany in April with nothing but 10 dresses and some stories to share, the ikat dress became a quick hit.
I returned to India in September 2017. After a quick stop in Mumbai, I flew to Jaipur. I was feeling a little insecure because, all of a sudden, I had to become a designer again. Although I know a little bit about the fashion dream world and have some knowledge of fabrics, I never considered myself to be a fashion designer. Zazi came about more out of a fascination with Martha Nussbaum’s essentialism and my love for glitter tops than from a longing to design collections.
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While staying in an Airbnb owned by a Gujarati artist that was filled with his sculptures and books about Jaipur princesses, I was captured by this image that Cecil Beaton once took of Gayatri Devi in the Rambagh Palace – she was a revolutionary princess in her day and left an incredible legacy. I was sketching on the rooftop with this image in my mind when my father, who makes art documentaries, asked me if I was in the Blue City again. I told him that I was in the Pink City and he replied, “Well, that’s a shame, but maybe you can bring some Yves Klein Blue to the Pink City?” Before I knew it, I had my first collection in this little notebook. It was a combination of the Parkinson image and Gayatri Devi in Yves Klein Blue.
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Slowly but surely the Pink City opened up to me. Being in Jaipur felt like an episode of Gossip Girl, but with a more fabulous backdrop. I was diving into different worlds every day, from the dusty vintage rooms where I picked out Tajik carpets while enjoying fresh mulberries, to polo parties at city palace. I got to know the “Chuck Bass” of the Pink City, who hooked me up with an ambassador car to explore the city through his eyes. I found out that Gayatri Devi’s daughter, Diya Kumari, has her own philanthropic social outreach initiative with a “girlfriend club” as well. The idea of working with a new girlfriend club in a pink palace seemed to be the most fabulous foundation for a new summer collection.
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The last weeks of my travels were the most intense. I finished the samples with a local master and his team. We worked 16-hour days to Bollywood tunes to make sure the Yves Klein Blue silk transformed into suits and dresses in time for the shoot. Stefan Dotter, my creative director, flew in with massive old analog cameras and I scouted Indian models through Instagram – thank god for Instagram. They agreed and we had a three-day shoot in the Pink City, surrounded by cows and flower-mandala-painted elephants with pink palaces in the background.
So there I was, exhausted but fulfilled. I bought some glitter bindis on the last day and sat on my balcony overlooking the Pink City, remembering that Norman Parkinson image that had captured my attention all of those years ago. And it all clicked into place.
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Dutch native Jeanne de Kroon founded her label Zazi Vintage in Berlin in 2016. She still works closely with the NGO in Bhikamkor and supports women and young girls in India with her collections.