Internationally reputed haute couture designer Mandalli Mendrilla—better known to her friends in ISKCON as Mandali Dasi—is displaying her new collection, SLAVE2LOVE, on her website mendrilla.com only, rather than on a catwalk, in tribute to her late husband Nitai Dasa.
Mandali was working on the collection when Nitai, whose famous Krishna Kitchen program distributed prasadam to thousands at festivals such as Burning Man and Wanderlust, passed away in a tragic car accident in Florida at only thirty-one years of age. She dedicates it to him and to the selfless love that he had for her, and for others.
Mandali has created many other intriguing collections throughout her life as a fashion designer. Her interest in this career path was piqued as a youngster in her native Croatia, when her mother had her own wardrobe of custom-made clothes created by her impeccable seamstress Mrs. Bozena every season. Mandali took tailoring lessons with Bozena, and later, in high school, attended an art retreat that had a workshop on designing clothes.
“That’s how it all started,” she says. “I realized it was something I really liked to do, and began to take private tutoring in sewing, construction, and other elements of design.”
In 1995, Mandali saw an opportunity to attend I.F.F. Fashion News, the official Croatian Fashion Week at the time. This was an international event where designers from New York and London exhibited their collections along with Croatian designers. Participants were judged and given prestigious awards by major names in fashion such as Valentino. It could easily have been an intimidating venue for a rookie designer.
But Mandali went straight to the event’s organizer Katja Restovic with her first collection, “Roadrunner,” a satirical rendering of the fashion system and mass media marketing. Restovic was so impressed that she promptly chose it as the theme collection of the Fashion Week.
Mandali was immediately hurled into the dizzying world of fashion. “Roadrunner” and her two ensuing collections “Jailbird” and “Reflection-Reaction” received the I.F.F. Fashion News Grand Prix - Golden Line award. She was inundated with media attention, made an appearance on MTV Europe, and created a host of “looks” for rock stars, DJs, socalities, TV personalities and other Croatian celebrities. She went clubbing, socialized, and was surrounded with friends. She was successful, by any worldly definition.
“But in 1997, by the time two years had passed, I was already jaded with my life,” she says. “I didn’t know which of my friends were really my friends. I wanted something more. I had studied philosophy and literature in college, and to me, it just didn’t make sense to simply wallow in a life of enjoyment with little depth.”
Mandali read the works of mainstream Westerner philosophers, then moved on to New Age books. She began to seriously meditate upon finding God. Soon, she was rewarded with meeting devotees and receiving spiritual books from them. Finally, although apprehensive that it would affect her public image, she visited her local temple, and found the transcendental atmosphere so powerful that she stayed.
Mandali continued working in fashion for some time after joining ISKCON, her collections now inspired by her new way of life. One of these, Vrindavana: The Sari Experiment, was her attempt to see how the Croatian public would react to the traditional Indian dress.
Working with London-based anthropologist Chantal Boulanger, who had written her Masters Thesis on 100 different ways of wrapping the sari, Mandali created outfits combining the sari with more familiar items of clothing. The public response was enthusiastic, and even led to Putokazi, one of Croatia’s most popular young bands, wearing saris throughout their nationwide tour.
After this, Mandali began to focus on delving deeper into her Krishna conscious practice, dedicating ten years to translating spiritual books into Croatian and serving as a pujari (priest). While she was assisting with the Deity Worship Academy in Mayapur, India, she met ISKCON leader Malati Dasi, who invited her to help worship the Nrsimhadeva Deity in New Vrindaban, West Virginia.
“I was supposed to stay for just a few months and then return to Mayapur. But things went differently,” Mandali says. “I met Nitai.”
While returning from a festival with a group of devotees one evening in spring 2006, everyone in the van fell asleep except Nitai and Mandali, who was driving. The two struck up a conversation, and never stopped talking for the rest of the journey.
“It was destiny,” says Mandali. “We knew right away that we had something really special. We were married two months later. It may not be the best example in most situations, but considering how brief his life was on this planet, somehow Krishna arranged that we could spend as much time as possible together. Nitai taught me not only how to love him, but also how to love everybody, without criticism or judgement, and how to encourage people to be themselves in Krishna’s service.”
During annual trips to the alternative art festival Burning Man to serve prasadam, which Mandali accompanied him on, Nitai especially encouraged the devotees he traveled with to express themselves through art for Krishna. Mandali herself was one of these.
“I’m so grateful to him,” she says. “He was always so supportive.”
With Nitai’s support, as well as that of Hridayananda Dasa Goswami and her gurus Krishna Ksetra Dasa and Radhanath Swami, Mandali decided to restart her devotional artistic expression through fashion design, and embarked on creating a new collection, Mandali and Me.
Traveling to India, she designed hand-loomed khadi kurta tops in a facility founded by Mahatma Gandhi. Back in the US, she hand-painted them, then had them photographed at Burning Man with second generation devotees Rasa Acharya and Kalindi Patel photographing and modeling respectively.
To her surprise, when they found out that Mandali had created a new collection, the organizers of Croatian Fashion Week 2008 in Zagreb invited her, as one of their VIP guests. The collection brought a surreal touch of spiritual otherworldliness to the event, as both male and female models strutted down the catwalk wearing white dhotis and chaddars. In front of them, they held the khadi kurtas, draped on sticks to display their devotional art, which included conchshells, Bharat-Natyam dance mudras and images of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra.
Despite their out-of-the-box nature, both Mandali and Me, and an ensuing collection, Anatomy—which portrayed how the soul identifies with a body made from matter—were received positively.
“The fashion world is a very open playground for designers to be whatever they want to be,” Mandali says. “There’s no end to how crazy or different you can be in presenting your design.”
Mandali’s approach to the fashion production cycle was also different.
“All designers connect with something in the air for inspiration,” she says. “I connected with the devotional energy of Radha, Krishna, and the devotees, through meditation on the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. As a result, my relationships with the people I worked with—seamstresses, photographers, and others—were based on humility, respect and love, rather than on me and my clothes, as they used to be. And in that kind of environment, everyone thrives.”
In 2011, Mandali began work on a new collection, SLAVE2LOVE, intending to premiere it at the Fall/Winter 2012 Fashion Week. Inspired by the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita on reincarnation, it also drew from the famous passage about metempsychosis “Dream of the Butterfly” by 4th century BCE Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. In it, the philosopher talks about dreaming he was a butterfly, and musing upon awakening “whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”
Mandali elaborates: “Just like the butterfly, I feel that our condition of being trapped in the material body, thinking we are this limited form, is like being in a cocoon. But when we look inside ourselves, and connect with Krishna in the heart, then we discover that we’re actually a beautiful, spiritual being. And we can fly, like a butterfly.”
These themes of death and the eternal quality of the soul kept arising in Mandali’s work. In retrospect, they were strangely prophetic, as Nitai tragically passed away while she was still creating the collection.
“Sometimes Krishna just prepares us in every possible way for the things that are about to happen in our lives,” Mandali says.
She is glad that Nitai saw the photographs of the collection before he passed on. “I’ll never forget that look in his eyes, how proud he was,” she says, tears in her eyes. “Because for him, it was always about others. To see that look in a devotee’s eyes when they’re happy for you, that’s the greatest blessing.”
While SLAVE2LOVE was originally intended to comprise seventeen outfits, there are now only seven, as Mandali halted her work when Nitai passed away. Each one was lovingly hand-sewn and -painted by Mandali and her friend Harinama Devi in New Vrindaban. The fluttering organic silk cloth features basic colors of black and white accentuated with red, yellow, green, violet and blue, and the design subtly incorporates butterflies and hearts throughout.
The collection will no longer be displayed at Fashion Week in Croatia—instead, it is available to view as a silent tribute at mendrilla.com. The photos, taken by Radhika Patel and Rasikananda Das, and featuring models Visakha Turner and Usa Ramkaree, with hair by Vidya Dasi, and makeup by Radha Devi Dasi, evoke aching sadness, love, and the blissful eternality of the soul all at once.
This year, Mandali is putting her fashion career on hold, and instead dedicating her time to preserving and promoting Krishna Kitchen, Nitai’s legacy project. Joining her, amongst others, will be ISKCON Laguna Beach temple president Tukarama Das, Rasikananda Das, Pushpavan Das, Kuvalesaya Zakheim, and Australian prasadam distributor Nitai, who was inspired to help when he heard of his namesake’s passing.
“We’re all volunteering,” Mandali says. “We just want the prasadam distribution to continue, and for people to see that there are devotees who love Nitai so much they just want to continue his legacy.”
As well as ISKCON devotees, there are many key figures in the festivals that Nitai catered for with his Krishna Kitchen who are paying tribute to him this year.
Shiva Rea, one of the most famous yoga teachers in the world, dedicated all her classes at Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California to Nitai this May. Many kirtan singers at Shakti Fest also dedicated their kirtans to Nitai and displayed his photo on stage, including his friend CC White, who appeared on Gaura Vani’s album Ten Million Moons. Several tribute events are also expected to be organized in honor of Nitai at Burning Man by his friends there this August.
Next year, Mandali plans to work on a new collection, along with which she may display SLAVE2LOVE. She also intends to immerse herself in the service of designing outfits for temple Deities. Along with these, of course, she’ll also spend every summer helping to develop Krishna Kitchen into the full prasadam distribution program and cultural presentation of Krishna consciousness that Nitai envisioned.
“Nitai showed me what it means to be humble,” Mandali says. “Amongst so many other wonderful qualities he had, his humility is the one I will miss the most. It inspired the happiness we felt in his association, and made everything else he did so attractive. That’s why I’m inspired to continue what he was doing, and to try to keep his spirit alive.”
Please visit www.mendrilla.com to find out more about Mandali, and to view her collections. To view SLAVE2LOVE, please visit