The imminent arrival of winter brings with it a landscape scoured with grays, blacks, and the dirty white of streetside snow. But that’s not the case in Ellenville, where a Canal Street storefront blazes with clothing in crayon-bright colors—the hallmark of designer Alpana Bawa, whose eponymous shop has brightened the village since opening its doors in May.
A rainbow-patterned carpet leads to the bright blue front door. On either side, clothing in saturated hues are spotlit on display. And inside, a raucously patterned vinyl floor is awash in waves of tangerine, melon, and blue. In the midst of it all is Bawa herself: a designer with 35 years of success in Manhattan.
Born in Delhi, India, Bawa always craved a creative outlet. “Colors are in my blood,” Bawa explains. “As a young girl I traveled with my mother, and the tribal people’s intricate clothing and textiles were always exciting.” Landing at Parsons School of Design in 1983, the color-loving Bawa was surprised with the fashion she saw. “Everything was black!” Bawa says. “I realized I had a reaction to that, and so when I designed my own clothes, my first line was chartreuse, navy, orange, purple…”
After completing her studies, Bawa was working at legendary event producer, socialite, and 1980s New York City nightlife maven Susanne Bartsch’s SoHo store when Bartsch offered to sponsor a debut line by the rookie designer. Soon, Bawa’s clothing was hanging alongside those of Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. “It was very exciting, almost surreal, to have my very first line carried there,” Bawa says.
Bawa’s first shop opened in the East Village before adding a second space in SoHo in the ’90s, and in NoLita in the 2000s—on top of working fashion shows and trade shows, too. “At one point, I was doing eight trade shows a year, including Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy,” she says. “I think by 2005 I stopped doing trade shows, and I had cut down from two stores to one.”
Thirty-five years is a lifetime in fashion, and designers often find themselves tweaking their styles to fit current trends; however, Bawa’s always been a bit of a rebel in that regard. “Fashion changes, but for me it became more of an expression of my work; it evolved without changing,” says the designer. “My designs are not trend-driven. This is exactly what I want to create.”
What she has created is a style described by Craig Seligman in ArtForum as “fever dreams of psychedelic embroidery over multihued Indian fabric.” Indeed, a thickly quilted poncho shows off blocky stripes of red, blue, orange, and fuchsia. The slim, pencil-skirt bottom of a dress has checkerboard nine-patches in yellow, black, and white— the colors repeat in an oversized plaid on the bodice. A supple, rich green, cotton blouse is embroidered with a garden’s worth of beautiful flowers. “The wools and outerwear fabrics are bought here; the silks and cottons are bought in India,” Bawa explains. “The dyeing and embroidery is done in India.”
An orange dress glows with vintage-like flair that would have suited Twiggy in the ’60s. But don’t try to fit Bawa’s designs into a certain era, because that’s not her motivation. “My work doesn’t follow a particular period,” she says. “It’s more of a geometric abstraction.”
When you do visit the Ellenville shop, prepare for a bit of sticker shock. Alpana Bawa pieces sell for between $180 and $800; and the range of her bespoke line surpasses that. That’s because each piece is made individually, by hand, at Bawa’s three-person studio in her hometown in India. “People really appreciate all the work that goes into the clothing,” Bawa says. Customer and artist Erika deVries agrees: “Alpana’s clothes, colors, and patterns are celebratory with great functionality. I always feel in an elevated mood when I wear Alpana’s clothes; they spark joy in all who encounter them!”
So, after 35 years in Manhattan, how did the high-end designer land in Ellenville? “My husband, Einar, and I bought a house in Wawarsing in 2017, and by the fall of 2020, the Covid pandemic led us to leave New York and move here full-time,” she says. The influx of city folk who were also fleeing at the time sparked an idea for a shop upstate.
“My first thought in opening a shop was in Kingston, but I wanted true nature—I wanted the woods and the fresh air,” she says. “I did a few popups in Kingston,. Mountain Dale, too. So I got to test the market and check out how upstate reacted to my work.”
Bawa’s been influenced by country life (and its rugged temperatures) as well. On a recent weekday at the shop, Bawa explains that her designs have become a bit more utilitarian, albeit retaining that colorful flair. Demonstrating, she unzips her quilted blue jacket and spreads her arms, revealing a dazzlingly bright pair of overalls.
The bright colors and warm welcome that greet customers at Alpana Bawa are a Prozac for the soul in these dreary winter months. And if you don’t want to go all in on a blouse or dress, Bawa offers beautiful accessories: wood and resin bracelets, rings, and earrings; leather gloves made in Italy; a multicolored dot scarf that frames the face; and bright pouches that are perfect for stashing makeup.
Alpana Bawa is still testing the waters up here, and enjoying the ride. “It’s like a puzzle—the more I work with this, the more fun I have, and the more opportunity I have to add more color,” she says. “I question myself about why I bring more stuff to a world that already has a lot of stuff. But my work really brings joy, and that creates vibrations that ripple outward.The timing is perfect, as a lot is changing in Ellenville, and I hope the future is bright and colorful.”
Visit Alpana Bawa from 12-5pm on December 9 for a holiday toast and 20% sale.