New Delhi: He calls himself the last couturier. In India to attend the Mint Luxury Conference in Mumbai on Friday, French designer Emanuel Ungaro spoke of his career in fashion, with opera playing in the background. With a mottled pistachio pocket square tucked in his beige suit, quoting poetry, and eliciting applause—he is indeed the last of something beautiful, if not couture.
Ungaro, 78, comes from an era when being in the business of haute couture meant being able to cut, sew and fit. “Like Chanel and Balenciaga”, he says, adding that he owes much to Cristobal Balenciaga, under whom he started his career in fashion after his move to Paris at the age of 22.
Ungaro was born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where his Italian tailor father had fled because of the fascist uprising in Italy. His foray with dressmaking started early, when his father gifted him a sewing machine as a 12-year-old. Over the years, he made ruffled dresses, floral patterns and drapes his trademark, setting up his eponymous label in 1965, and dressing the likes of Jackie Kennedy.
In 2005, Ungaro retired and sold his label for $84 million (Rs375 crore today). He now spends his time as an educator and designing for the opera. Edited excerpts:
What brings you to India for a summit on luxury?
I have a great emotional relationship with the country. I’m convinced that if I had come to India when I was in my 20s, I would have never gone back.
I always tell our representatives or partners in Asia that they must insist on the strength of their own culture and aesthetic, that they shouldn’t fall into a cycle of parody.
You learnt tailoring and design from your father, who designed for men. But you’ve been known for your seductive couture for women. Why did you choose to design for women?
Design, for me, is all about provocation. When I was dressing models as a designer, I wanted to be seduced by them. It is the most important thing in fashion. I did design for men in the early 1970s, and it was important to do that to learn discipline. But designing for women teaches you about life, and about passion. I learnt a lot in the years I spent dressing the femmes du monde, or the society women, in Paris. I was confronted with their needs. The quest of my design has been to answer what women want. And I still don’t know what that is.
You set up your own design house at the very young age of 32.
I had to prove myself. I was successful working with other design houses, but when I started off on my own, it was with nothing. I rented a small place and had four girls working with me. From Balenciaga, I learnt not just mastery in fashion, but the rigours of working hard—a rare talent in the world of fashion.
Who were your first patrons or investors?
I didn’t want investors, I wanted my freedom. It was not acceptable to me to be told what to do. I wasn’t—and I’m still not—very well-versed with the trappings of the trade, but in the creative world you have to take risks. Some designers are good at straddling both of these, such as Karl Lagerfeld. Take Coco Chanel, she accomplished a lot. She was an incredible woman, but she was also mean.
The design house had been in trouble since you left. It must have been a difficult decision to sell your label and to retire from all you had built in 2005?
It was partly due to health reasons. I don’t repent it. I’m a family man—again, unlike many in fashion—and I had to protect them. Also, to put it simply, I retired because the design house was trying to train a young designer to succeed me.
But when a house such as Ungaro loses its creator, it loses its soul. It is finished.
What do you look back upon?
Can you imagine the absurdity of being in a profession in which one is judged four times a year? To be judged so for 43 years was trying. But it was also inspiring. It was an adventure, a very dangerous one in which if you don’t succeed, you’re dead.