Curator Donald Ryan and fashion designer Supriya Lele first met two years ago at a London dinner party hosted by the stylist Tom Guinness and writer and editor Tish Weinstock. The evening would prove serendipitous for the artistic pair, who quickly became friends. “It’s not often you meet someone who you instantly click with so well,” Lele says.

The two bonded over a shared outlook – and a frustration at the dictates within their respective fields. “I found art to be an industry defined by middle management, which has created a growing sense of alienation among artists and art professionals,” says Ryan. “There’s a centralisation of power that’s led to suffocating homogenisation, which I was struggling to find my place in.”

Works from Small Paintings by Jai Chuhan in Qrystal, a former pharmacy in Southwark
Works from Small Paintings by Jai Chuhan in Qrystal, a former pharmacy in Southwark © Billal Taright
Supriya Lele’s SS24 moodboard, partly inspired by Chuhan’s works
Supriya Lele’s SS24 moodboard, partly inspired by Chuhan’s works © Billal Taright

The curator and designer have subsequently pooled their talents and resources as Qrystal Partners, creating a space inside a former pharmacy in Southwark, London – an everyday urban outpost that is a jab at endemic hierarchy and snobbery. Qrystal launched in May with the inaugural show Small Paintings, an exhibition of the work of Indian-born British painter Jai Chuhan.

Chuhan, whose vibrant expressionist art is channelled through the lens of her experience as a British south Asian woman, chimes with Lele, whose London-based label founded in 2016 explores her Indian heritage and British cultural identity from a female perspective – her parents having emigrated from India in the 1980s. A student of the Royal College of Art, Lele was touted as “one to watch” when taking part in Fashion East at Tate Modern during London Fashion Week in 2017, and is known for work explored through an ever-evolving sense of self-realisation and development. Her aesthetic is confidently feminine: her colourful draped silhouettes, a twist on minimalism, reference sartorial influences such as the sari.

Ryan and Lele in the gallery space
Ryan and Lele in the gallery space © Billal Taright

Ryan, meanwhile, has spent the past decade working in galleries in New York, LA and London. Of his many hats, he’s currently collaborating with the gallerist Parinaz Mogadassi and her artist husband Peter Doig on independent projects, including an exhibition of Doig’s work at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which will open this October. He met Chuhan on a trip to the Manchester Art Gallery in 2021 – and wanted to collaborate with the artist from the outset. “I thought that I would try and visit a local painter while in the city and we’ve kept in touch ever since,” he says of their meeting. “Jai’s an astute art historian and, most importantly, she is not cynical. Instead, she confidently stakes her claim on the medium and brings her vital perspective to the table.” 

Having decided to stage Chuhan’s work, Ryan and Lele initially sought a small vacant space in Lele’s studio building for an exhibition, but then they discovered the pharmacy next door was for rent, and their plans quickly changed. Rather than turn the shop into a gallery, it remains much as it was, complete with the original fixtures and fittings, which include bright green “Prescriptions’’ signs on the windows. The unexpected venue is a place to explore exhibitions, projects and research within a relaxed setting. 

Fashion designer Supriya Lele in her atelier
Fashion designer Supriya Lele in her atelier © Billal Taright
Family photographs and personal objects in Lele’s atelier
Family photographs and personal objects in Lele’s atelier © Billal Taright

Southwark High Street is only the beginning, however, and their concept has already evolved. During the summer, Ryan took Qrystal to Chicago to collaborate with Soccer Club Club – a private bar turned gallery (where the original club decor is part of the experience, mirroring their own venture) operated by the record label Drag City, which works with indie rock stars such as Joanna Newsom, Pavement and Ty Segall. Their exhibition I Wish I Was Alone Right Now explored the work of visual artist B Ingrid Olson and painter John Henderson – the Chicago-based married couple have been friends with Ryan for over a decade. Having found these kinds of creative connections to be the most exciting aspect of his work, he and Lele have sought to unite with like-minded creatives at Qrystal Partners.

Parinaz Mogadassi, owner of the influential New York- and London-based gallery Tramps, has been one such creative force, and has not only contributed ideas to Lele’s first standalone runway show at London Fashion Week, but also produced a corresponding exhibition at Qrystal. Opening this month, their co-curated exhibition will probe the allegorical positions that artists use to characterise modern existence, with works by Satoshi Kojima, Peter Doig and Edward Burra pointing to ways one can be moved by environments, yet never feel fully integrated in time and space. 

Lele and Ryan inside Qrystal
Lele and Ryan inside Qrystal © Billal Taright

Conversations about the exhibition fed into Lele’s collection, which, much like the artists in Qrystal’s exhibition, explores “the fragility of identity”. She’s infused this concept with wider aesthetic references that enrich the work: “I’m being pulled in a few directions creatively – one force is the colour of Jai Chuhan’s violet lipstick from our opening exhibition at Qrystal,” Lele explains. “I’m also drawing on classical Indian sculpture and ’90s fashion, while reviving my archive of previous collections to consolidate and consider the overall vision for the brand.”

Lele will continue to collaborate with Ryan as she moves forward with her fashion business. “Like Qrystal, we have looked to see how we can surround the brand with collaborators and friends,” says the designer, who is already working with others – most notably as one of four designers who have created a collection of 11 looks for the Victoria’s Secret World Tour 2023. The show, presented as a film by Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), will be streamed internationally this autumn. 

Lele is appreciative of Ryan’s support – and his balancing influence: “Donald is clear and direct. He knows what he wants straight away and achieves it. I procrastinate,” she smiles. “He’s not an artist or designer, and has an altogether different type of sensibility, which ultimately is why we work so well together.” Ryan, in turn, admires Lele’s fearless fashion stance: “I see a lot of designers using references and ignoring their original context. They ask the question, ‘What can I get from this?’ rather than, ‘How can this make me see differently?’”

The fusion between art and fashion is a hot topic right now, but Lele and Ryan’s contribution feels fresh and relevant within the mix. Ryan calls it “a space where people with a shared sensibility can come together to make something cool, rigorous and enjoyable”. But how long will it continue? “In the end, what we have done has been done before and maybe our iteration of it won’t last forever. We hope, however, that it will say something about the moment.” 

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