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July 9, 1999
Manhattan Designer's Passion For Indian Fabrics And Gems Shines
Six months each year, Virginia Witbeck leaves behind her Manhattan home and travels across India -- in search of patterns, fabrics and gemstones. She travels to cities and villages, enduring the heat, the dust and the grime while continuously searching for the fabrics and gems which can best capture the essence and mystique of India.
Four months ago, Witbeck held a fashion show at the Asia Society in New York of her safari suits, brocade hunting jackets, evening dresses, coats and shawls, and of gold and semiprecious jewelry.
Witbeck, who first visited India 15 years ago, revisited it three years ago to explore the possibilities of using its fabrics and gems.
On her return, Witbeck, who has worked with creative directors at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, and carried out freelance assignments for the French and Italian editions of Vogue magazine, began selling her creations to Linda Drasner in New York, and private clients.
"You can't have a real job and do what I do. It would take up too much time," said Witbeck who is currently in Jaipur and communicated with this reporter by phone and fax for this story.
Ruled by her passion for work that she calls a lifelong research project, she shops, trains Indian tailors in western techniques and meets gem cutters to choose the best stones. "I love India because it is rich with inspirations. I know some say that they have been to India and never found anything like what I sell," Witbeck said.
Or perhaps seen the side of India that she revels in.
"I am writing to you from my garden at the guesthouse in Jaipur. I am surrounded by peacocks and other exotic birds...," wrote Witbeck recently.
A lawyer's daughter who grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York, Witbeck acknowledges she lives a dream.
"My love of beautiful things brought me to India. I was born with a good eye and a great imagination," said Witbeck, who has never had any formal training in design.
Witbeck said she gave up working for others whenever she felt her creativity and passion had ceased to be challenged.
"I left when the jobs had nothing to offer me except financial gain," she said.
The nomadic lifestyle allows her something she believes every artistic person craves for: freedom.
"I am a very independent person, therefore working on my own tends to be more rewarding to me, sometimes financially but always more enriching," she said.
"This is no mystery to any creative person. We all create at our best when undisturbed by conventions."
"My desire to travel and search for the exotic was evident since childhood. My family always took us on holidays, not always to traditional and resort type vacations," Witbeck said.
With her parents, Witbeck had traveled to China, South America, Africa, Europe and Australia but not India, an oversight she was determined to correct.
"I love India. It is rich with inspiration and I am designing clothes that would never be ready made, not cheap things. Each one is a creation."
Most of Witbeck's clients, who are well traveled, remain private. They come to her via a personal shopper since they don't shop in traditional stores.
"They are the type of people who are not looking for labels or status. All they want is an individual look that represents classic good design with a worldly flair and beautiful workmanship," Witbeck said.
Apart from designing, Witbeck also spends her time learning and imbibing everything she can of India.
"The country is so rich... so many different cultures, religions... India represents the extremes of all human senses. Beauty, horror, poverty, wealth, kindness, sadness and nature at its best and its worst, especially now in the rainy season," she said.
"It is too bad that some people can only see poverty and dirt but these are people that only see the surface, never get to know the people or try to understand the culture," she continued. "Not that it is always easy, sometimes I don't understand but I ask questions because I want to learn."
She is also learning Hindi and does understand its basics but doesn't speak it yet. But on occasion, she is able to comprehend "more than the dealers of stone want me to know."
Witbeck has no intentions of ever giving up her lifestyle. "I feel I am using the best of both worlds. With my eye and experience for design, beautiful things are being developed with Indian fabrics and jewelry alike," she said.
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