By immersing herself in what truly inspires her — art, traditional crafts, and colour as a reflection of everyday life, Madame Hall has flourished, attracting a dedicated community of followers and customers from around the world, and even gracing the pages of Australian Vogue on one Cate Blanchett.
Taking the road less travelled requires a level of fortitude, a tenacity to seek opportunity in spite of the possible bumps in the road that lie ahead. And bumps there were — building a business and settling into a new pace of life in the conservative Indian town of Bhuj, India, was not without its challenges.
It was also not the most obvious path for a shy girl from Adelaide who grew up with an acute awareness of not fitting in. But for Lisa, the profound influence of a number of strong-minded, independent women that weaved in and out her life as a young adult had opened her mind to radically different lifestyle possibilities. The move to Bhuj was as much about taking a chance on an exciting new life as it was to create the conditions by which she could spend her days doing what she loves most; making beautiful, one of a kind garments that fuse traditional skills and fabrics with contemporary styling.
Despite growing up in a creative household where art and performance were a staple of home life for Lisa and her three sisters, struggles at school were rapidly eroding her self-confidence. ‘School was not something I enjoyed or was interested in,’ she says. ‘I quickly fell behind, and became a loner who hated that environment, with no desire to fit in or to achieve.’
There’s always work for a good dressmaker.
Though not suited to the mainstream education system, Lisa reasons that ‘the good fortune of fate delivered an alternative means of acquiring life skills.’ She was obsessed with the theatre, taking in any and every production of the State Theatre Company of South Australia. And though too shy to act, had already made up her mind she could sew her way into the industry she loved.
‘My year 10 results were so bad it seemed pointless to continue,’ explains Lisa. ‘My mother said to me at the time, ‘there’s always work for a good dressmaker.’
On her mother’s advice — who, prior to having children had worked as an artist, illustrator and costume designer — Lisa left school to undertake sewing and pattern making at TAFE. ‘I would have preferred a theatrical costuming course, but none were offered in Adelaide in those days,‘ she laughs.
It was here she met the first in a series of women who would open up her world. ‘I first met Sophie (Van Rood, proprietor of Australia’s first antique and vintage clothing emporium, the Banana Room, Adelaide) when I was 14,’ Lisa recalls. ‘She was a difficult woman sometimes. But one whose influence on me was the most profound.’
‘I discovered Sophie’s store when I was wagging school one day,’ she laughs. ‘I loved the bohemian atmosphere of her shop, and the interesting clientele she attracted.’
Lisa spent hours there each weekend, and soon enough, she was helping Sophie with the repair and restoration of vintage dresses attire in-store. But it wasn’t just Sophie’s wonderful sense of personal style and her appreciation of beautiful handmade textiles and garments that left a lasting impression on Lisa. Sophie was a radical thinker, politically left wing and an ardent feminist — ‘everything my mother hated!’ she laughs.
‘Sophie challenged all the conservative attitudes I’d grown up with. There were always interesting and articulate discussions and arguments taking place, particularly about women’s issues. I learned so much on many different levels. It was so refreshing after years at dreary school,’ Lisa recalls. ‘Although I only knew her for a few years, she greatly influenced the direction of my life.
The difference between clothing and costume
As fate intended, Lisa ended up working for the State Theatre Company of SA at the end of her studies in the 80s and 90’s before moving on to the State Opera Company. Her involvement in the costumery for the legendary 1988 Adelaide Festival of Arts production of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata now seems like a premonition for what lay ahead.
In 1994, Lisa moved to Sydney to help broaden the scope of her theatrical career. Easily settling into the pace of life, she became the Senior Women’s Cutter at the Sydney Theatre Company, during which time she met Jennie Tate, one of Australia’s leading costume and set designers a much-loved arts scene personality.
‘Jennie was an outstanding designer,’ remarks Lisa. ‘She taught me the difference between clothes and costume in that a costume is what you put on, like a disguise, but the right clothes can enhance your character, creating a visual dialogue that supports your fundamental nature.’
Despite her health battles (Jennie eventually lost her battle with breast cancer in December 2007), Lisa remembers her expressing a sort of gratitude towards her disease, which, as she saw it, highlighted the beauty to be found in everyday life. ‘Everything about Jennie was beautiful,’ she explains. ‘She used to carry around this big bundle of photographs she had taken during her many trips to India. Her enthusiasm for this exotic, colourful country was what first planted the seed for my own visit.’
Trading theatre for film, and supplementing her income as a dressmaker for wealthy Sydney socialites offered Lisa a way to fund her travels. A trip to Lithuania in pursuit of high quality, traditional linens preceded her first trip to India, which didn’t go entirely to plan.
‘When I visited India for the first time it was a short, two week trip with a friend through all the major cities of Rajasthan,’ she describes. ‘But it was much too fast, I felt like I’d been in a dreadful Indian theme park!’
Despite a terrible first impression, Lisa knew there were aspects she still wanted to explore, and a good friend, costume designer Jodie Fried, had suggested getting off the tourist trail to visit Bhuj in the western state of Gujarat, known for its beautiful textiles and embroidery. And it was on a return trip that Lisa’s impressions of the place were radically challenged.
‘I visited Bhuj many times over a two year period before I began seriously considering the possibility of moving there permanently,’ she recalls. ‘But I had three elderly cats who would never be allowed back into Australia if I changed my mind. If I moved to India, I had to make it work.’
At the same time, Lisa’s namesake fashion label, Madame Hall, was evolving, and a chance meeting with then editor of Australian Vogue, Judith Cook, resulted in a commission piece for actress Cate Blanchett. ‘I’d met her completely by chance in India,’ she explains. ‘She loved what I was wearing, and asked me to design Cate an outfit for a magazine article she was doing!’
It would be the first of many big signature skirts Judith would use in shoots for Vogue, each hand sewn using over 80 carefully aligned, vividly patterned panels combining quality cottons and the finest silk satin mashroo, sourced from India.
The only foreign woman in Bhuj
It was in 2012, at age 48, that Lisa finally packed up her three senior cats and sewing machine for the move to Bhuj. ‘I couldn’t procrastinate any longer,’ she admits. ‘A life in India had become much more viable. I would have access to all the materials and inspiration I needed to make a proper business out of Madame Hall.’
Though buying fabrics and sourcing the right people to make garments to her exacting standards was not quite as it had been played out by Judi Dench’s character, Evelyn, in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It wasn’t until she met her treasured assistant Dipu, that things started to fall in place. ‘I had ducked into a side street to check something in my bag — that’s where I first met Dipu. I can’t tell you how lucky this meeting was. Without him and his wonderful eye for detail, his cultural insight, and his cheerful disposition, Madame Hall would not be possible,’ she says.
Lisa still works with Dipu and two amazing tailors, Sandeep and Magan, and out of their little workroom in the heart of Bhuj’s old Shroff Bazaar, each one of a kind Madame Hall garment is designed, cut and sewn, right down to the little calico parcels required by India Post for international deliveries.
The epitome of slow fashion, Madame Hall only produces a small number of garments at a time, and by using local vintage, artisanal materials and embroideries, each piece is entirely individual and can rarely be reproduced a second time. Lisa also sees it as her responsibility as a designer, particularly a foreign one, to support the traditional crafts of the different local tribal communities. ‘I don’t order embroideries or try to get them to change how they do things to encourage better sales to tourists,’ she says. ‘I don’t consider it appropriate to impose my aesthetic sensibility on artists here in India.’
‘My regular customers appreciate the original nature of my designs, the uniqueness of the embroideries and materials I use and know the amount of attention and thought that goes into each piece,’ she explains. ‘When you’re working with artisan textiles, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. I love the challenge of interpreting textiles and embellishments in unexpected and surprising ways.’
‘Life in Bhuj is very different from Australia, but I’ve welcomed that challenge and not found it difficult to adapt. I’m the only full-time foreigner living here and feel like a local now. I am regularly visited by women from local tribal communities who know I like their embroideries. It’s always great fun looking thru the treasures they’ve brought!
Marching to the beat of your own drum
Reflecting again on the influential women who helped shape her life, Lisa realises she is now around the same age as they were when she first came to know them. ‘It’s a very funny feeling,’ she remarks, ‘And I often wonder if there is someone out there that I influence in a similar way.’
Negotiating the ups and downs of life and having a practical plan in place to achieve goals, was an important lesson Lisa recalls learning as a child from another strong older woman, her (outrageously) divorced neighbour Mrs. Jemison — a woman with a plan.
‘Without having met these vibrant, exciting older women my life would have been very different from what it is today. Taking risks, like I did in moving to India is usually totally unlike me, who generally loves routine. But what I have learned from these women is if you want change in your life, waiting for fate to transport you into something different rarely works. Be brave, make the changes you want, and try not to be moulded the expectations of others.’
A recent testimonial from a regular buyer offers both a glowing endorsement for Madame Hall and an insight into the woman herself, creative, brave and inspiring. ‘Your clothes represent everything I love — handicraft, ethics, connection with traditional skills, beautiful fabrics, and colours. They are the perfect antidote to a world of chaos!’
If you happen to be visiting Bhuj, Lisa loves to meet like fellow gypsies and like-minded folk, so do drop her a line via her website at www.madamehall.com, where you can also find all the relevant links to buy Madame Hall pieces. She does recommend visiting during the winter months from November to March, due to Kutch’s extreme temperatures during summer.