Maybe it’s the fact that she was once a journalist that makes Bandhini Homewear Design’s Tai Schaffler such a good interviewee. Or maybe it’s as simple as her passion for her business and the dying crafts of the people who hand make her products.
As an 18 year old, “small town Kiwi girl” Tai got a scholarship to study in Thailand, and her love affair with textiles began. “I would drive the other students nuts, fossiking through the Jim Thompson Silk stores. God I loved that silk! Still do,” she tells me. Her writing life started as a Christchurch correspondent for More Magazine.
She left journalism when Geraldine Sethi offered her a job in Perth to re-market and refurb her fashion business, Asaan. With a toddler and her husband in tow, Tai relocated to Perth and started traveling to India with her new boss. “I was hooked on textiles,” says Tai. “Not clothes but cloth for homes.” It wasn’t long before she saw the potential to open her own home textiles label.
These days she heads up Bandhini, now in its 20th year. Key to its success has been the longstanding relationship between the Schafflers and another family, in India. “I met Sangetta and Yuvraj Narain when I worked for Asaan and they were doing a stunning clothing collection called KALAKARI,” says Tai. “We were totally on the same wavelength of quality, cultural and handmade soft furnishings. That was it, I wasn’t going anywhere else! I adore them.”
Both families’ children have now have joined the business, with Tai’s son Sharm and the Narains’ sons Sharan and Karan, heading up the team in the USA. “They have finally got our gusto!” says Tai. “I think they are more business orientated than us. The next generation take it to the next level. They want to keep it on the same page ethically though, that’s important.”
On that note, there’s a reason Bandhini’s stunning soft furnishing don’t come cheap. Quality is their integrity and everything has to be beautifully made and finished, by hand. “We support local cottage industry, that’s number one. None is displaced into factories. I couldn’t bear that. It is better than fair trade, it’s equal trade. All our guys run their own small units and we pay well. This is an industry in total threat. What we do now may not be possible in 20 years. Our weavers’ sons are not following their dads into their craft, they are going into IT or call centres. It’s a dying craft and I personally am doing everything I can to keep it alive and vital. We need these wondrous craftspeople.” Each piece of Bandhini is French-seamed and finished under the highest quality standards using all natural fibres except Rayon, which is derived from tree bark.
Far from taking a back seat, in Bandhini’s 20th year, Tai says she has never worked harder or traveled more. “We have showrooms in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Dallas, Los Angeles and Laguna, with some new ones in the USA coming up! I am very blessed to have my studio at home so the morning traffic is not bad! Trips to the USA are now 2-to-3 a year, plus India, plus Europe.” It’s lucky she still loves what she does. “We have our beautiful Feng Shui architect-designed offices here in Tallebudgera Valley (QLD) and I am religious about my morning exercise, 7 days a week.”
Not surprisingly, her home is full of Bandhini. “I have all the samples that didn’t quite work; my misunderstood children I call them, or vintage Bandhini that I am still nuts about.” She gave the architect the brief of wanting to live in a glass tent with an Australian aesthetic and eastern details. “It comprises of all pavilions: a living pavilion, a guest pavilion, a studio/office and workshop.”
Although consumers can buy Bandhini online, the brand is essentially a designer one, for a designer market. “I want our product to be accessible to the general public but over the years there have been less and less retailers like the fabulous Hermon & Hermon (our champions, who have supported us for 20 years). When we started we were all about retail.”
The relationship with interior designers is very important. “I work with them up close and personal. I need to know what they think and what they are looking for. Whenever we bring out a new collection, I will travel Australia to showcase our latest designs and meet our clients personally,” says Tai. “We also have a special service that helps our designers with storyboarding and choosing the right soft furnishings to match the rest of the room they are decorating. They simply need to send us a picture of the room or furniture and we will send them a moodboard with BHD selections!”
When dreaming up or collaborating on new collections, Tai slips into a space which is almost like meditation. “It’s a matter of who is pulling down the ideas. They are flowing past us in the ether and it all depends who tunes in to the consciousness and hooks them in. Seeing them come to life is extraordinary.” She loves the people she works with too. “Without people, what is life? I am definitely still a journalist in that way: I ask a lot of questions and love to hear others’ stories.”
She describes the Bandhini look as a cultural nature walk. “We take the best of what India crafts so beautifully and then strip it back to a western palette. I am obsessed with ancient cultures, that’s never left me, so there are big influences there, as well as living where we do in the country. Nature has an enormous play in it. I have been putting sticks, stones and shells on cushions for years.”
Tai doesn’t much care when Bandhini’s accused of being very black and beige and believes they do the best black cushion in town! “Black is a marvellous backbone in design. We always do colour. I have done lime, orange, oxblood red, blues and greens, in many hues for 20 years. Our collections are always intricately layered. I think people remember us for that and the detail, full of surprises and crazy ideas you didn’t expect. Put it this way, in 20 years I have never heard a single soul say they don’t like it!
“We could never be accused of selling pastels. And yellow? We couldn’t even give yellow away. I know it’s in all the magazines but tell me, who sells yellow?”
In terms of trends for 2013, Bandhini is all about geometric patterns. Orange is making way for copper and of course, emerald, and she’s pleased to see a return of her mate (and my personal favourite) navy. “Our cultural experience this year is Japan. My grandmother always had Japanese pieces and I have had a deep love of kimonos so watch out for those in our new collection. Another trend you will see is patched fabric and we will revisit some retro Bandhini fabrics for our 20-year existence! Poor old chocolate has died a 1,000 deaths though.”
This week Tai’s flying to the States because Bandhini’s been nominated for an American Arts Award, quite possibly the only Australian company to have received such an honour. While she’s there she’ll showcase the latest designs to the Dallas market. “After that I will fully focus on getting the 2013 collection finished and putting our 20 years of work in the spotlight when I travel Australia to showcase it. Our New Zealand agent changed last month so that is the start of an exciting year over in NZ and there will be another great agent joining the force over in the USA.” Seems Tai’s not planning on sitting still for very long in the near future. It’s not in her nature.”
Bandhini are currently having a 20th anniversary sale online.