Aashumi, at home.
On a blazing early summer Saturday I, in my infinite wisdom set up temporary shop at Silver Spring, Maryland’s answer to Brooklyn Flea, the Fenton Street Market, without benefit of a tent. In this “babies and fools” moment I had the good fortune to be placed next to Aashumi Shah. I was selling vintage goods, she her wonderful, whimsical, eco-friendly line of handmade kids toys, pillows, gifts and accessories, mirasa design. Though I initially enjoyed the caress of sunshine, when Helios’ kisses became a little too intense, Aashumi kindly allowed me to sit in the shade of her beautiful, canopied booth. In vendor camaraderie we chatted and soon discovered we share an alma mater.
Aashumi (“Tears of Joy”) was born the youngest of three daughters to Anju and Kishor Shah and raised in the bustling city of Bombay (now Mumbai.) She attended J.B. Petit High School for Girls, where Principal Shirin Darasha “encouraged independent thinking and empowered us to dream high. Our school badge and slogan is ‘Ever Forward’ which I think is beautiful and powerful,” she says.
The Shah girls, Aashumi, Manasi and Shivali.
Upon graduation, the honors student planned to take the exams for Law School in South India. “I love analyzing,” she says. In an ironic twist, her older sister, who’d planned to become a fashion designer, didn’t make it into art school and is now an attorney while Aashumi shifted to art–she had been, after all “very industrious,” creating handmade cards since childhood.
She settled on Sophia Polytechnic, though she was not very happy there. “I felt the grading system for art and design made no sense; not enough creative space to grow and be different.” Nonetheless, she met the first of two important mentors with whom she remains friends and sees whenever she returns to India. Professor Snober Mistry of the textile design department, introduced her to woven design. “She understood me and encouraged me through my textile specialization.”
The second mentor was entrepreneur Neeru Nanda, for whom she began working at 19 as she neared the end of art school. “I did design, product development and managed production for lifestyle products such as placemats and pillows. It was a great learning experience and I loved working with Neeru. She understood my need to grow and spread out into the world. I wanted to be independent in every aspect of the word. I wanted to live on my own, pay my own bills, make my own decisions…I love my family and so it wasn’t about running away from home. It was just me and I had to live it, express it and prove it to myself, that I can.”
In 2002, with family living in New York City, her parents were comfortable with allowing their youngest to pursue her artistic passions in the United States. She spent a month studying graphic design at Parsons, “just to make sure,” before majoring in textile and surface design with a concentration in woven design at F.I.T. Admittedly her U.S. college years were “very spoiled,” as she lived with her mother’s brother Nitin, his wife Sunanda and cousin Bijal (a Master’s candidate at Columbia) in a spacious 5-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “I am so grateful,” she says of that time. Though being welcomed into their warm and loving family “made my transition to a new city, culture and country very comfortable,” she immersed herself in school and spent much of her time on campus. “I totally loved it,” she says.
A year later, she would meet her dearest and most influential friend at her cousin’s birthday bash. Bijal’s good friend Paresh drove up from Washington, DC with his buddy, attorney Carlos Vanegas in tow to attend the festivities. Carlos, spilling wine on the white carpet, could be said to have left an impression. Though he was terribly embarrassed, it was a “cordial party atmosphere,” Aashumi recalls and all was forgiven. It would be six months until Carlos and Aashumi’s paths would cross again in Washington, DC, where he lived and worked as a Public Defender and she and Bijal were visiting Paresh. When Aashumi mentioned that she’d like to go running, Carlos offered to take her and she was taken by the “amazing music,” he had playing in his car. Upon her return, she shared with her cousin that she felt ”a real connection,” to Carlos. On her November 18 birthday just weeks later, she received a Fed-Ex package at her NYC home filled with glorious music. Carlos had sent sixteen compact discs: Poncho Sanchez, Alpha Blondy, pre-Wailers Bob Marley, Carmen Sings Monk, Cachao’s Master Sessions 1 & 2 and an Afro-jazz mix that he’d compiled among the birthday booty. She was elated and the two became the best of friends, speaking daily across the miles.
Los and Shumi.
Graduating Summa Cum Laude from FIT in 2004, Aashumi took an invaluable post at Britannica Home Fashions, doing design and product development. She was responsible for production artworks and followed up with the overseas factories for product eventually sold at retailers such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, JCPenney and Fortunoff. She’d secured the career, so it was time to “make it on her own.” She moved from the comfy family digs to an affordable apartment in Queens.
On a March day in 2008, she asked Carlos, visiting from DC and with whom she’d had general conversations about marriage, if he wanted to marry her. He said yes. She cried. Months later whilst enjoying celebrated chef José Andrés’ DC mezze hotspot, Zaytinya on July 4th, youthful-looking Aashumi hadn’t brought her identification so she was refused alcohol. “Los got up to go to the restroom. Then there was a random tall glass of lemon fizz in front of me. He suddenly appeared with a ring and proposed.”
The year 2009 brought exciting change; the two married in a traditional Jain ceremony in Mumbai; she moved to DC and she launched mirasa. Of her supportive husband, Aashumi says, “he has no expectations of me other than to do what I feel passionate about.”
Above Aashumi’s desk, she and Carlos radiant in brilliant color at their wedding alongside a long-ago black and white portrait of her beautiful parents.
As a gift for Atia, Bijal’s one-year-old daughter, Aashumi created some “soft toys with tactile elements to stimulate Atia’s sense of imagination and play. The toys were bundled into a cloth bag that Atia could easily carry around with her.” After having toiled long and hard for Britannica, Aashumi decided to put her experience and energies into her own product line inspired by Atia’s gifts and named mirasa–Hindi for “heritage”–in homage to hers. Incorporating the colors of the Indian landscape with kantha and ari style embroidery, she honors the traditions of the sub-continent and creates gender-neutral items uninfluenced by western notions of pink and blue. A socially responsible venture, mirasa design utilizes fair trade practices, employing artisans in Mumbai to hand craft Aashumi’s designs in eco-friendly, azo-free, dyed cotton. In a gesture of “giving back what I was so lucky to receive,” a portion of the company’s proceeds are donated to Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to creating educational opportunities and encouraging literacy among girls in the developing world.
The mirasa animal kingdom, now on tiny onesies. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.
“Designing for kids is fun, freeing,” she says. Though her entrepreneurial foray has its challenges, she enjoys nurturing her young business. “It’s like a baby.” The delightful products are available online, but she garners most of her sales while vending at markets and art fairs, which provides valuable and deeply satisfying feedback. “What brings me the most joy is when a child attaches to a particular animal.” I’ve borne witness to and been as charmed as Aashumi by the decisive selection process of the wee ones. The choices are definitive–and enchanted.
As we had coffee in her lovely Columbia Heights home, her absolute enchantment with her Ecuadorian-American husband was evident. “Is it okay if I put Carlos on the list? I know he is a person, not a thing, but he influences me a lot. He is a big part of who I am.” When I complimented her on their home she said, “it’s Carlos,” his visual sensibilities aligned with hers, “he’s aesthetically-driven.” True to the shy aspect of their shared astrological sign of Scorpio, they aren’t horn tooters but they are each fervent in their passions. Here are a few of hers…
1. Hand-thrown Coffee Cup. She enjoys her morning joe in a ceramic mug bought from Contemporary Arts and Crafts in Mumbai. From age six to twenty-three she lived near the emporium of “real treasures of handmade product” and brought her beloved cup with her when she moved to the United States. “It’s a very easy, very pleasing shape to hold; a wonderful color to wake up to. I love the contrast of the matte dragonfly and the glaze and I love the imperfection of the inside.”
The perfect cup.
2. Her Bike. The first bike she’s owned, it is “really empowering. It meant a lot. I’d worked really hard and used my bonus money to buy it.” She enjoys its smooth, comfortable ride. “Riding is addictive.” She squeezes in a 20-mile ride through Rock Creek Park whenever she can. “It’s the best way of escaping.”
“The best thing in the world after Carlos,” her Giant OCR model .
3. Mauritian Coconut Handbag. On a family trip to celebrate her father’s 60th birthday on the island of Mauritius, Aashumi’s parents wanted to gift her with a memento. A handbag in the airport there caught her eye. “I love that it is a coconut, the yellow cross stitching and that it’s leather-free.”
Aashumi eschews leather goods, so the coco-purse is an animal-friendly option.
4. Carlos’ Pesto. “It is the best thing he can make — and he’s a very good cook.” But it’s the lack of cooking that makes for an easy Sunday quick mix. “No flame required, he can mix it up, watch the game, have his Guinness and make me happy all at the same time. He always has it ready for me after the market, little sandwiches he makes with love.”
Carlos enjoys making pesto. “I think he enjoys the smells of it,” she says.
5. Swatch Skin. I love that it is so clean in its design, and it’s thin.”
From the Swatch Skin Collection, Ligne de Vie, Aashumi’s favorite watch.
6. Monsoon Vermont. Carlos’ friend Julia Genatossio founded this company which produces home and fashion accessories of non-recyclable plastics in Jakarta. Aashumi uses her Monsoon Vermont passport wallet every weekend to hold her monies at market. “I think it’s incredibly fun.”
She owns several of the colorful, eco-friendly offerings from the socially responsible Monsoon Vermont.
7. FabIndia Soap. She’s formed a real attachment to these natural soaps and the refreshing ritual of bathing with them. They scent her home with fragrance and transport her (particularly the Jasmine bar) “to the smells of India,” where children sell garlands of jasmine blossoms strung together at nearly every traffic stop. “My skin feels really soft and smooth.” She snaps up several bars (in various fragrances) every time she goes to India.
Her favorites among the many available FabIndia scents are tucked in ceramic bowl made by her Aunt Sunanda.
8. Yoga. Practicing Vinyasa mostly, “it is a recent obsession,” fostered by the “great teachers” of the studio Past Tense, just blocks from her home. She volunteers as a studio assistant three days a week and incorporates practice four times a week.
Aashumi joins fellow yoga devotees in an outdoor Past Tense class in Lamont Park. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography for Past Tense Studio.
9. Frida Kahlo. During a trip to Mexico City, Aashumi visited Museo Frida Kahlo, the house where the revered artist was born and died. She was stunned by the number of people who spoke of her resemblance to the icon. “Frida was so inspirational, so dynamic, so talented, such a woman…and of course, her work is amazing. It is such a clear expression of what she’s feeling and who she is. To express with such honesty takes a lot of courage.”
A gift from Carlos, Aashumi treasures the published diary of the iconic Mexican artist.
10. Music. “Carlos is so passionate about music, he opened a window to a world: jazz, reggae, bossa nova, Fela Kuti…They all came alive for me through him.” From tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Lincoln Center and Mexican-American conguero Poncho Sanchez at the Blue Note in New York to Brazilian singer Gal Costa at George Washington University in DC, Carlos has gifted Aashumi with the wonder of live performance.
Gal Costa lent her voice to this charming animated commercial for Brazilian skin care line, Natura.