Trishala Bhansali’s Lightness of Being

A childhood split between India and New Orleans inspires the Lekha designer’s new line of gauzy essentials

Photo: Tim Black

Trishala Bhansali in Lekha’s Aisha dress, outside her New Orleans showroom.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the designer Trishala Bhansali’s love of Indian textiles began just moments after her first breath, when her mother wrapped her tiny wriggling body in a dohar, a traditional Indian blanket made of three layers of fine soft muslin. Now in her early thirties, the New Orleans native still won’t travel without one. And muslin, along with a handful of other high-quality natural fabrics, has become the foundation for Lekha, her new line of handmade dresses, blouses, pants, jackets, and shoes, all inspired by the two rich cultures that shaped her childhood.

Bhansali was born and raised in the land of gumbo, Mardi Gras, French-accented architecture, and second line parades—her Indian father fell hard for jazz during his residency at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, and his wife emigrated to the United States—but she spent her summers in India. During those months, the designer, who is descended from royalty on her mother’s side, moved between the glittering halls of her family’s ancestral homes in Gwalior in the north-central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and the marketplaces of Mumbai with her father’s family. Bhansali, who began making her own clothes when she was twelve, liked to roam the larger city’s bustling fabric stalls.

“New Orleans and India are both cultural meccas,” she says. “There’s an abundance of color and sound. And in that way, I think I’ve always had a natural inclination toward design.” The thick air and suffocating humidity in both locales meant that Bhansali’s lightweight summertime creations easily made the transition into her stateside wardrobe. “Indian textiles are very complementary to life in New Orleans—lots of breezy muslins and linens,” she says.

After nearly a decade of working in fashion and interiors in New York, Bhansali returned to her roots—though a move south was never far from her mind. “The city pulls at you,” she says. In New Orleans, she was energized by the growing entrepreneurial community—creative forces such as Stirling Barrett of Krewe eyewear and Erin Wexstten of Oxalis Apothecary. But it was Bhansali’s pioneering political powerhouse of a grandmother, Vijaya Raje Scindia (formerly Lekha Divyeshwari Devi), who served as her muse for the name, as well as much of the look, feel, and culture, of Lekha. Married to the last maharaja of Gwalior, Scindia became a founding member of what is today the country’s largest political party. She was also ahead of the ethical fashion trend.

“All of her garments were made from khaddar [hand-spun cotton] and other heritage Indian fabrics,” Bhansali says. “She felt strongly about supporting women in rural communities.” Scindia’s legacy of empowerment and local investment prompted Bhansali to seek out female makers and small business owners in both New Orleans and India to create and promote Lekha.

Photo: Tim Black

Phulkari mules.

In India, she partners with the Nabha Foundation, which includes a Women’s Empowerment program to address the effect of gender bias on economic opportunities; the Saheli Women’s co-op, which strives for the economic independence of its members; and technical designer Sanyukta Singh to stitch and sew her designs. Bhansali, who wears a size-four shoe and has been making footwear for herself since adolescence, was particularly impressed by the Nabha Foundation’s skill at phulkari, a traditional embroidery technique from the Punjab region used to create Lekha’s signature mules. (Look for new tone-on-tone styles in black and tan canvas this year.) Then, to debut her designs, which favor simpler styles over the ornate, brightly colored clothing often associated with Indian fashion, Bhansali turned to the women of Sunday Shop, an all-female collective of artists and designers on Magazine Street.

Bhansali, who rolls out her summer 2019 collection in April, now offers three ways to shop Lekha: by appointment at her carriage-house showroom near Audubon Park, on the line’s website, and at trunk shows, including upcoming appearances in Austin, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; and New York. “I’m passionate about the clothes—rustic, simple, approachable, well made,” she says. “Lekha is a lifestyle. At its core, it’s about community and the people who want to engage in it.”