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Verve People
July 31, 2019

Artist Elissa Patel Waverly Creates Floral Headpieces To Foster A Sense of Community

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

In an exclusive interview, the founder of East Darjeeling, talks to us about her Indian influences and using the power of flowers to spread joy and friendship

Elissa Patel Waverly fundamentally believes that every human can create magic. During a conversation with the San Francisco-based artist, she revealed that she constantly plays a game with herself called ‘what if’ where she re-imagines bizarre versions of seemingly normal scenarios. For Elissa’s creative soul, this allows her to push the boundaries of her thoughts and actions and she is able to create an environment that she wants to be part of. In fact, this very game is what led to the inception of East Darjeeling, the artist’s recently-founded niche brand that specialises in silk floral headpieces. One of Elissa’s friends was going through a rough time so she brought her a bouquet of flowers. She remembers hoping that the bouquet would make them both happy but a couple of hours later, they were both still stewing in anxiety. At some point during the evening, Elissa walked by the bouquet and subconsciously indulged in the ‘what if’ game. Her creative console lit up suddenly and she took the bouquet apart while her friend stared at her bewildered. She twisted a few flowers around some of the stems and creating a make-shift headpiece out of it, happily crowned her friend. “The environment began to change instantly,” Elissa reminisces. “Our anxiety was giving way to joyful whimsy. I saw the headpieces as a vehicle for joy and friendship, so I kept going.” East Darjeeling has, since then, grown into an extensive line of faux floral headpieces.

What made you name your brand East Darjeeling?
The modern is very minimalistic, and this, to me, lacks personality. I believe the world becomes more vibrant when people lean into themselves. I intentionally picked a maximal name that represented storytelling. East Darjeeling connects to my background as an Indian artist. When I think of India, I think of vivid hues. This reminds me of all the flowers I use in each headpiece. Darjeeling, to me, represents a place of lush green beauty set against the beautiful Himalayas, but it’s also a locus of history between Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the British regime. The whole idea of nature meeting conflict reminded me of the juxtaposition of the flowers and anxiousness in our inception story.

Tell us about your process of creating a single East Darjeeling headpiece.
I’d like to live in a world where things are handcrafted and made from the heart instead of being mass-produced. All our headpieces are limited edition. No two pieces will ever be the exact same because we make them by hand and I think the real beauty lies in this imperfection. I like to design by experimentation and imagination. When I’m lucky, I just visualise the piece in my head and I am able to put it together. Other times, it takes days. I start by choosing a colour palette, sketching and testing shapes.

You mentioned that you work with local artisans and milliners to make the headpieces. How do you find them?
Growing up, I didn’t know art school existed. I am a girl from the heart of Silicon Valley, so I knew about tech, medicine, and engineering. When I decided to break into art, I didn’t have a formal background, but I had faith in my ability to ask the right questions. When you honestly admit you don’t know everything, you are able to have an open — even loving — dialogue with people, who inadvertently become a part of your journey. I created a goal to meet at least one new person with an artistic background every day for three months, which I’ll admit, was aggressive. I didn’t reach my goal, but I did get to ask a lot of questions; I even bought seven pages filled with queries to one of my meetings. These meetings helped me forge many friendships with people who studied at Parsons, RISD, Royal College of Art, and other schools. They are the ones that taught me everything I know and these are the first places I look to while hiring people. A candidate is great if they know more than me. Before I hire someone, they are given a hands-on challenge, and once they commence working with us, we give them the liberty to work on creative assignments of their own. I believe every person is inherently creative, so I like to see what people come up with using their own imagination.

A portion of the sales from each headpiece goes to Roots of Peace, an organisation that transforms battlefields to farmlands. What made you want to support them?
Roots of Peace is an organisation that works to improve the lives of farmers in Afghanistan by promoting peace and advocacy. They remove landmines in various regions and replace them with plants and trees. With each headpiece sold, East Darjeeling donates $3 to Roots of Peace, enough to cover the cost of planting one cherry tree, directly improving the lives of farmers and their families. For 15 years, Roots of Peace has worked with agricultural value chains to plant over 5 million trees, creating more than 10,000 full-time jobs and facilitating exports worth over $125 million. We’re excited to contribute to some part of this because it aligns well with our own philosophy of enriching the lives of people through flora.

What importance do flowers hold in your own life?
I actually view people as flowers — each individual is fascinating, unique, beautiful and wildly different in their own way. To highlight East Darjeeling’s founding story of companionship, I named the collection after friends of mine. Sometimes, life picks at your petals, but like all flowers, we need someone to give us a bit of sun and rain to grow. This collection is for those who helped me. Each headpiece has a different story to tell about someone in my life that has had an impact on me. Sometimes, the colours are also inspired by the paintings I’ve seen. Other times, I’ll be walking down a street and see flowers draping the wall of a home so I’ll snap a photo and try to assemble a piece based on this. 

What occasions do you envision women wearing these flowers for? Are specific blooms appropriate for certain occasions?
We see a lot of brides and bridal parties in the store and I love having an Indian bride visit us for something colourful she wants to pair with her sari/lehenga. Then there’s a whole category of events where a floral headpiece would not look out of place like the Kentucky Derby, summer garden soirees, music festivals and surrealist suppers. It also really is about how whimsical the wearer is because they can then wear it to any occasion they feel like.

Your floral headpieces give off a very Frida Kahlo vibe. Is that intentional? Do you seek to empower women through your headpieces?
We like to do dinner parties with women where we seek to forge a sense of community. We gather women who don’t know each other around a table to share a meal. Everyone wears a headpiece, so the environment becomes very playful. We did this in Havana after the Trump administration tightened regulations on travel there. We invited the first professional woman surfer, a famous tattoo artist and a jewellery designer to break bread with us. It was our way of spreading joy and friendship in the face of tragedy.

What has been one of the best reactions that you’ve received about your store on Bleecker Street?
After the opening night, a guy popped into the store and said, “I walked by your party yesterday. I live around the corner and wanted to stop by to say thank you for bringing joy to this neighbourhood.” His words sent a happy chill down my spine because that was the primary objective of East Darjeeling — to promote joy and whimsy in a seemingly normal environment. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received.

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