SMALL TALK WITH KULTURE SHOP

From biotech bindis and modern insights to exciting collaborations, cool events and great packaging, it's no wonder that everybody’s favourite new label is Kulture Shop, which retails men’s and women’s T-shirts and art prints by some of the finest Indian graphic artists around the globe. The Bombay-based brand which launched in October calls it "being excited about a visual graphic design style coming out of India and doing everything they can to update the Indian identity by sparking and changing the conversation on art".

I wanted to learn more and dropped in to their Bandra showroom one afternoon and got to talking with Arjun Charanjiva, CEO and founder and Kunal Anand, creative director and curator who alongside PR director Jas Charanjiva and digital director Rajeev Sathe make up the Kulture Shop team. 

Here are some excerpts from our long chat.

Tell me about the early inspirations for Kulture Shop.

Arjun: This started frankly many years ago in New York, when the whole online thing was starting. There was a brand called 2K t-shirts out of the UK. As opposed to the other e-commerce sites, it just had 15 artists which was quite different at the time. Subsequent to that, Threadless came out and crowdsourced design from around the globe and printed them on blank t-shirts. Subsequent to that, Society 6 came out and introduced the idea of affordable art on products. These are some of the inspirations for the business.  

I noticed graphic artists were producing some brilliant stuff but it was not being seen anywhere. It seemed to be hidden in their computers or in their sketchbooks and it seemed a different kind of work. It wasn’t the traditional graphics that you see on T-shirts or contemporary art that you see in art shops or galleries. It fitted really well in the zone of affordable art and affordable art products. The backstory is that for many of the designers, a lot of the work was being consumed by clients and frankly was being abused which is why they were wary about putting their stuff out there in the public. This was very personal, high quality work sitting between graphic design and what we consider art.

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So how did Kulture Shop come about?

Arjun: The idea was to get the top twenty to thirty Indian graphic artists together and shine a light on them and help them monetise their work through products. 

By then I has met Kunal. I was desperate looking for somebody who could take this on at an intellectual level. I was looking for the creative director as well as a curator. Jas had met him at a party and shown me his work and he really stood out to me. He was very current and global in his thinking and he brought a very different and fresh Indian perspective into graphic art.

We decided it was going to be only Indian graphic artists which sounds a little racist but I felt the idea of throwing together graphic artists and affordable art was not coherent. By delineating it was only Indian artists, we believed what was going to come out of this would be a fresh visual perspective on India, which we are quite happy with, it was only a theory at the time.

The question was was it going to be coherent and we figured we needed to build a brand to house all this. So now if you see the work, it does have a spectrum but it is coherent. So this is really now about as we deepen the conversation from graphic art on products to being a fresh statement on Indian identity. A globally attuned Indian identity. This is a made in India brand and this team believes that the Indian identity needs to be updated. The reality is that 80% of who we are is global and human and 20% is Indian so we give artists free reign to do what they want to do because we have full faith in their observations about what is going on and their articulation of that from a visual perspective.

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How did you find your artists?

Arjun: It was a relentless job of poring through domestic Indian design graphic magazines, blogs, people from Kyoorius to Masala Chai to Creative Gaga, there are only a few publications in the zone, getting on Behance, finding Indian artists, using keyword searches. The brief was Indian artists not just in India, but all around the globe. So today five to six of our artists [Editor note: including my friends Karan Singh and Meera Sethi] are sitting overseas and they provide a very different angle.

How does the design process between you and the artists go?

Kunal: We give the artists 12 themes in advance for each year so they can actually have the time to figure out which ones they want to work on, how they want to work on them. Then we schedule calendars and track in with them and help them develop their work or concepts. Some artists are pretty well established and need very little treatment and others need more mentoring. We usually Skype with them, we’re visual people so we find Skype the best.

Arjun: The core of what we can rely on is themes. This is our driving engine. Even though there were some amazing works, most of these artists had very few pieces and these are also the kinds of artists very comfortable with working with briefs. Themes was a great idea to springboard them into creating works for us.

These are fundamentally cultural themes, there’s no accident that we’re called Kulture Shop. A lot of it is observations on culture, and it provides a fantastic playground for artists to engage and give their own spin on these things. The briefs are focused on a subject but very broad in how you take them on and we celebrate that. The last thing we want is for exactly the same artworks to come back, but each artist we’ve curated also has a very unique style. The other kinds of works are commissioned works, existing original works and new original works. We will also provide the artists in the very near future with a primary platform that provides them with a space to sell their more personal works.

What are your current product lines and will you be extending them?

In regards to our product line, our logic was simple. People wear clothes, people have walls. So we started with T-shirts and art prints.

We will expand the product line judiciously, expanding to notebooks and a bunch of other cool creative products we're working on and treating each product as something we’re happy to sell, collaborating with the artists about the colour options and the products they are comfortable with putting their art on. It will also vary tremendously by label.

Speaking of labels. Can you go into a little bit of detail about those.

Arjun: What we’re trying to do is essentially create an economy - which doesn’t exist right now. There’s a lifestyle market that sits on the low end and an art market on the high end and we sit smack in between. We’re borrowing elements of lifestyle and art in building our labels. It’s important when working with artists to place them in the right spot and to effectively price their work and for consumers to be able to relate to and the price

Those are the two things that define our labels, what kind of work are we talking about and the price. The main graphic art scene is being projected by Select label, our core label which has some experienced and some emerging graphic artists. Labs is an inhouse label and the pricing is very similar to Select. We have Aviral Saxena who isn’t part of the founding team but we were blown away by his work. He lives in Bombay, was happily engaging with the platform and gave us a very complementary feel to Jas who has American and Japanese influences in her work and Kunal who has music and British Asian Underground influences, and has come through London and Africa. Aviral was born here, he went to NID.

We have Showcase which are designers who have really established themselves and are moving towards art so people like Sameer Kulavoor and Lokesh Karekar, they’re the best recognised, they’re independent and the quality of the work, some of the techniques used, the price that they can command that defines what Showcase is.

These are not static, we will be judiciously adding to these labels. We will see perhaps 30 artists by the end of year one, I don’t see it ever going over fifty because we’ll be defeating the purpose of having highly curated artists and artworks.

Some of the gallery artists out there are questioning the art model that exists and feeling the need to connect with more people. By September, we should see the inclusion of the high end label which is Presents.

Tell me about your showroom:

Arjun: The showroom was a very happy accident. We were determined to be in Bandra, we live here and it does a lot for our brand. An art gallery previously existed here, this building has a lot of creative history - a lot of film production happened here, it's bang opposite Mehboob studios so there are a lot of creative good vibes. It was the perfect size for our studio, and it had innovative storage and lighting.

We were looking for a space where we could do multiple things and we can create spaces within it depending on our needs. I’m a huge fan of design and Kunal and I have a similar perspective about the brand. It was created as a curated culture brand so there were also ideas around music discovery and an urban culture venue. We were thinking modular and dynamic for the studio and showroom, and we chose the tangram as the logo because it is modular and dynamic, we were going for an iconic logo that could be extended across various kinds of businesses and a brand architecture that could accommodate that. We’re trying to extend the idea of the logo into the pieces [in this instance - furniture] that we don’t directly sell.

In addition to what we do, we also want to curate things in the art and cultural design space. In the showroom, we also stock Motherland magazine, Kyoorius magazine, Dekho which is the definitive conversation on design by Codesign based in Delhi. We back Love Guides by Fiona Caulfield. I am a huge collector so this [collectibles] is some of my shit. There’s no rulebook for this. This is who the fuck are we, let’s celebrate it.

You recently launched the Katalyst collection based on some collaborations. Tell me about those.

Arjun: How do we collaborate with other kickass creative people. That’s what Katalyst is about. The idea here was from a spirit standpoint, these are the people we respect. We believe they’re the movers and shakers, the one pushing the boundaries in culture, fashion, music, design. We’ve always wanted to collaborate with these people, and now we have a fantastic excuse to do that.  How cool is that we can now go up to these people and say you can create your own products and you’re the inspiration for one of the top graphic artists in India.

We were excited to work with them and it was a very synergistic type of relationship. It also gives us the opportunity to seep into their worlds and their set of people.

Kunal: When you put an artist and a collaborator together, one's gonna inspire the other.

I love the idea of putting them in a room and giving them a simple starting point. Some of the other collaborations were more controlled but I had nothing in mind when Randy [Randolph Correia - Pentagram, Shaa'ir and Func] and I met up together. We emailed back and forth for months until I pinned him down in the studio one evening while he was working on an album. I went to the studio with four bottles of wine and we just got tanked up together and had a session. While he was making the loops, I was doodling and he also drew in my sketchbook. I didn’t make any bad music but I wish I had a chance, it would have been full circle.

What can people expect from a Kulture Shop product?

Kunal: Nobody else is talking to illustrators the same way we are. It’s a collaboration between us and the artists to get the best out of them.

You can expect levels of thought in our products. You can look at anything and take it at face value but if your mind is inquiring, you’ll see more levels to stuff. We also do hangtags to give a story and context to people.

And also quality. We screenprint, we don’t do digital prints. In the beginning, I was personally present for every printing. We’re not just making products, we’re making artworks.

Now that we’ve taken care of business. What is your favourite neighbourhood in Bombay?

Arjun: Bandra. It’s a creative force.
Kunal: Bandra. I like Borivali as well because it’s leafy and quiet and it feels far away and it’s nice to escape there but after one day you want to come back.

What are your favourite places in Bombay to -

Eat:
Arjun: The Bagel Shop. The vibe is very important for me and the Bagel Shop hits the mark.
Kunal: Khane Khas for garlic pepper chicken tikka and jhinga parathas. They put these tiny prawns inside the parathas.

Shop:
Arjun: Chor Bazaar. I’m a collector.
Kunal: I like to buy my garms and my lungis at Mesh.

Hang out and spend time:
Arjun: With my musical friends.
Kunal: I like Rangsharda cos you can get beer on a rooftop. It’s so tacky, they fucked up the whole place and they’re happy about it.

Art print images courtesy Kulture Shop. All other images copyright Sheena Dabholkar.

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