Wandering through the Left Bank apartment of designer Lisa Fine, I am reminded of Colette’s description of her heroine Léa de Lonval’s sumptuous Paris boudoir. Only instead of “rosebud watered soie on the walls,” the Mississippi-born Fine’s bedroom is lined in a silk tent fabric from a village outside Jodhpur, dyed her favorite shade of pink. There’s a headboard with embroidery based on a mural Fine saw in a palace near Jaipur. And the rug, featuring a Chippendale trellis pattern in dusty rose, apricot, and cream, looks vaguely Indian or Moorish. It’s a 21st-century take on 19th-century orientalisme, with one foot in the door of old-world grandeur and another in the modern designs of David Hicks or Albert Hadley.
This same hybrid aesthetic defines the fabrics Fine creates with Carolina Irving, a Venezuela native and Vogue Living style editor. Under the label Irving & Fine, the two women design handmade blouses and tunics as well as by-the-yard textiles for upholstery, pillows, and wallcoverings. With intricate embroidery and, often, adornments such as hammered gold, raffia, and beading, their pieces draw inspiration from all over the map—primarily India, Central Asia, and other stops along the ancient Silk Road.
At Fine’s apartment several tunics are spread across the floor in a dazzling pastiche of ikat dyes and masterful stitching. Bell sleeves, scoop necks, and tapered forms give tailored shape to postcolonial exoticism. The patterns and appliqués feel both foreign and familiar, and one is hard-pressed to attribute the collection to a specific culture or region. “It’s all about combinations of color and taking different stitches and embroidery from the places we love,” Fine says.
The challenge with the tunics is to keep them from looking costumey. “They’re not hippyish,” says Irving. Adds Fine, “We want things that are fashionable and classic.” Irving cites Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta as designers who have seamlessly integrated non-Western flourishes into their couture for years.
The two women met in the late eighties, when Fine was working at Mirabella magazine and Irving at Sotheby’s. They have remained close, and a few years ago, when both were spending a lot of time in India, they began having clothes custom made there. After receiving countless compliments from friends, they decided to start a business and began presenting pieces in trunk shows at boutiques such as the Charlotte Moss Townhouse in New York. (The next is at Nathan Turner in Los Angeles this spring.)
Both Irving and Fine travel to India a few times a year, with occasional visits to Turkey and Central Asia. They research old textiles, source materials, and find the best weavers, dyers, and embroiderers. The ikat tunics, for example, come from Uzbekistan, while most of the embroidery is done in India. One of Irving’s obsessions, a folkloric dress from Eastern Europe, served as the model for a blouse, which they embellished with Indian needlework.
The duo’s palette is inspired by everything from the natural vegetable dyes on Mongolian yurts to Indian and Persian miniatures. What differentiates Fine and Irving from counterparts who incorporate “ethnic” elements into their collections is that they “start with colors and embroidery and then adapt those to fashion,” Fine says, instead of the other way around.
In addition to their collaborations, the two women also do their own home furnishings and accessories lines. Fine takes custom orders for rugs and embroidered headboards like the one in her bedroom and she is planning to add comforters, pillows, and bedding.
Irving recently launched a collection of linen and hemp curtains and upholstery with hand-printed patterns found in Greek embroidery, Persian textiles, Turkish mosaics, and early-20th-century Arts and Crafts fabrics. Pieces are available from Irving’s Web site, carolinairving textiles.com, and from interior designer Peter Dunham’s L.A. shop Hollywood at Home, which sells standout original and vintage tex-tiles. “I like things looking slightly faded and soft—they’re easier to use, and I love to mix stripes and flowers,” Irving says, adding, “I’ve been in love with textiles all my life.”
Irving & Fine tunics and blouses (from $265) and coats (from $1,500) are sold at the Charlotte Moss Townhouse (20 E. 63rd St., New York; 888-960-3888), Nathan Turner (636 N. Almont Dr., Los Angeles; 310-275-1209), the Sugar Mill Trading Company (Bay St., Harbour Island, Bahamas; 242-333-3558), and Maria Luisa (2 Rue Cambon, Paris; 33-1/47-03-96-15). Scoop NYC boutiques start carrying the line in March (scoopnyc.com). The duo’s by-the-yard textiles are available by special order from Hollywood at Home (636 N. Almont Dr., Los Angeles; 310-273-6200).
Listening to Fine and Irving discuss their designs takes one from Damascus palaces to old Indian mosques. Their inspirations include Jean-Etienne Liotard’s 18th-century portraits of Western nobles in Turkish garb. For books on Eastern textiles, they cite the Calico Museum of Textiles shop in Ahmadabad, India (91-79/2286-8172), and the Rambagh Palace hotel boutique in Jaipur (91-141/221-1919) as invaluable sources. At the market in Kashi, China, they found a trove of rug and textile dealers. And Decour Décoration in Paris (33-1/53-65-17-60) is the duo’s go-to upholsterer.