Devi Vallabhaneni

As winner of the Textile Art Student category, Hand & Lock delve into Devi's story behind her piece and entering into the Prize for Embroidery with an exclusive interview.

Devi Vallabhaneni, from Chicago, has been studying fashion and embroidery for the past three years. She has long believed that embroidery is her ‘métier’ and can now confidently assert that it truly is.

She now believes she has found her calling in how she can fully express herself creatively. Since she started preparing for The Hand & Lock Prize she constantly thought about how she could develop unique embroidery designs and configurations using beads and sequins presented in 3D. She tells of waking up in the middle of the night with ideas and can’t wait to try them out the next day. She likes the new category ‘Textiles/Art’ as part of the 2016 Prize as it allowed her to experiment and find her creative voice. She thanks is grateful for the opportunity to challenge herself creatively.

Did you face any obstacles when creating your piece?

On an existential level, my biggest obstacle was self-identity. I was on a path to excel analytically and take on more and more life responsibilities. I never had the freedom to pursue a creative identity. I put part of my soul on hold to be a responsible person and have a traditional business career. Going to fashion school three years ago and studying embroidery were my ways to explore personal creativity. Giving myself the space and permission to just create was an unfamiliar and unsettling feeling. The more pieces I created for the Hand & Lock competition, the more I wanted to create. I was on a virtuous creative cycle for the first time in my life.

On a practical level, I was really surprised how much math was involved. Calculating area, volume, and square roots was commonplace. I used vintage French sequins as much as possible. The problem with vintage sequins is that you have to make do with the quantity you have since you can’t order more. To make sure the sequin quantity covered the area and volume I intended, I had to ‘backwards’ calculate a design or find additional materials. Before studying embroidery, I studied accounting and finance, so I guess it’s not a surprise that I created an Excel spreadsheet for each piece. You can call me ‘the mathematical embroiderer’!

For as analytical I am, I am just as confident in my aesthetic, which has been informed by examining couture and ready-to-wear for over a decade. I am deeply motivated by colour and texture, given my Indian upbringing and fascination with the sari. I also knew I wanted to create 3D pieces that were fluid and had movement. Because I knew how I emotionally respond to colours and textures, I knew immediately whether I liked a particular design. For every design I liked, there were probably three to four that didn’t work. Because of the volume of designs I had to create before finding the right one, I knew I needed a system that would help me arrive at my aesthetic.

What is your plan for the next year and what do you hope to achieve?

I’d really like to push my creativity even further next year. I have already formulated new contemporary art series and installations to begin dialogue with art galleries. The reaction from people without fashion or embroidery backgrounds has been extremely positive. I recently shared pictures of my work with someone who said “I’d love to have your work displayed in my home. The more I look at your work, the happier I become – the colours, textures, and designs create happiness.” That’s the best compliment I could receive. The making of each piece creates so much joy in me that it’s satisfying when the same emotion is generated in others. I’d also like to begin designing my own sequins to experiment with colour, textures, opacity, translucency, and shapes.

Who was your mentor and what was their contribution to this winning piece?

Daniel Heath was my mentor. We spoke and met before the actual Prize- giving Event. Daniel has been extremely supportive, from discussing framing ideas to taking my work into other areas, like sculpture. His critique was fair and balanced while inspiring and encouraging. He’s become a role model of someone who has created a successful career for himself using his own creativity.

What is your favourite element of your piece and why?

That’s like asking ‘who is my favourite friend or child.’ In all seriousness, my favourite element is the totality – the totality of colors, textures, volume, density, and movement. I’m happy with each piece in isolation. In total, however, it’s visually mesmerising. I believe the real beauty is seeing all 12 pieces together.

What inspired you to take part in this competition?

Hand & Lock is synonymous with quality and heritage. It’s also the only worldwide embroidery competition. I treated the competition as my thesis project to cap my time at fashion school and to show the strength and depth of my creativity to potential employers and creative collaborators. I am making a career-transition from finance and business to fashion and art. My resume on its surface reads business, but I know I’m capable of creativity. I wanted to show, not tell, the fashion and art worlds that I’m equally balanced between left-brain and right-brain activities.

Describe your piece in 3 words.

Organic, harmonious and captivating. If I could have a fourth word, I’d use ‘liberating’.

If you could have any job role what would it be and why?

My ideal job would be one that combines my finance and creative skills. Now the priority is exploring what that looks like. It could be a corporate role at couture houses or something independent and entrepreneurial where I can collaborate freely with artists, designers, and galleries. All I know is that regardless of what it looks like, I know I will always be creating contemporary art via my métier of embroidery.

What do you think this competition has taught you?

On a simple level, it’s practice, practice, and practice. It’s also discipline, self-cultivation of joy, and dedication to details and precision. More personally, it showed me that I’m capable of being creative on an entirely new level.

With over a 25-year career in business and finance and only three years of fashion education, I knew I could be creative but didn’t know its depth. Switching mid-career into fashion felt like a risk, and through deliberate practice and commitment, I know now I’m on the right personal and professional path. I really believe winning this competition has changed my life. I may not know how but I sure know it did. In some ways, I feel like the new category of Textile Art was specifically created for me.

By preparing for this year’s competition, I found my métier and how to best express myself creatively. Most importantly, I made creativity an integral part of my self-identity. I had even created a space in my home to resemble an atelier, where I can be the creative director, the premiere, and the petit mains all rolled into one person.


What inspired your choice of colours for your 3D pieces?

My inspiration was Josef Albers’ ‘Homage to the Square.’ His color combinations were a starting point. From here, I married the visual identity of the couture runway. To me, the black /white series was a nod to the classicism of Chanel and Dior. The pink series incorporated the 3D essence of Iris van Herpen and the softness found in Giambattista Valli. For the green / yellow series, I tried to channel the individuality of Maison Margiela and Jean Paul Gauthier.

How long did it take to finish all 12 pieces?

With a strong confidence in my aesthetic and analytics, I was free to focus on the precision of the technical execution. All in all, it took about 8 months working around-the-clock.

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