Payal Khandwala: Paintbox, proportion, shape and drape

The Mumbai-based designer and artist on how colour and proportion influence fashionability


Payal Khandwala in her Mumbai studio. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Payal Khandwala in her Mumbai studio. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

She isn’t just another trendy Mumbaikar who relies on her clothes to do the talking. That is evident as Payal Khandwala, in ochre-yellow pyjamas, a brinjal-purple top and a faux leather geometric bag, perches across a table in the coffee lounge of Mumbai’s St Regis Hotel. The New Emperor, her show at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s recent Winter/ Festive 2016 edition, is still three days away, and she is attending shows by other designers.

Both nostrils pierced with tiny silver pins, hair swept up in a messy-sleek bun on her head, Khandwala, 42, could pass off as an art college student. What beams out through her stylistic prism is her pursuit of a symbiosis between a painter’s intimacy with the colour palette and the human anatomy to create audaciously colourful, contemporary fashion. Here she talks about how colour, proportion, texture and shape can influence how we look. Edited excerpts from an interview.

You argue for proportion as a key tool to achieve a distinct style . How should we choose our garments?

(My sense of) proportion, an integral part of my design process, comes from my training in art theory, the study of the human body and composition. How everything in design is relative and to achieve balance and symmetry, attention to proportions is key. For example, how much red can sit alongside a blue before your eye will read it as a purple; how neutrals can help offset colour; how the shoulder-to-waist measurement, in relation to your waist to hem, can lengthen your frame. Deciding where to concentrate volume on a garment can create an illusion of shape, slim or full. In my opinion, layering, colour-blocking, draping, pleating, comes together better when proportions are kept in mind.

A look from her Spring/Summer 2016 collection;
A look from her Spring/Summer 2016 collection;

Your Spring/Summer 2016 collection was about circles, triangles and your favourite parallelogram. How does geometry inspire silhouettes?

I used to really enjoy geometry as a child in school as it involved two things I love—drawing and logic. Also, working with my daughter on simple shapes brought back the nostalgia of a classroom, the smell of an eraser and the sound of the metal Camlin geometry box. I thought this would be a great beginning for a collection. So I converted simple two-dimensional shapes into something sculptural, more three-dimensional—a dress, a skirt, a tunic. I relied on drape, seams, slitting fabric for armholes and necklines. Often large, flat shapes of fabrics, triangles, parallelograms, squares and even circles got incorporated in the design in a way that once they were sewn together, it was impossible to identify the origin of the original shape as it floated around the body.

What do you think about the dominance of the palazzo among Indian women? Does it work for everyone?

A well-fitted pair of palazzos is a favourite for good reason. It has a relaxed shape which is forgiving for all-sized bottoms. Indian women with pear-shaped bodies and palazzos are a match made in heaven. But nothing can ruin this marriage faster than bad construction. Unless you’re very tall, high-waisted palazzos will focus on tummies and shorten the torso. A short fork length with insufficient room for an ample rear will attract attention to the crotch and interrupt the drape of an inseam. Very lightweight jerseys can ruin the fall of a palazzo, cling to the body and rest on the bumps we would rather conceal. Pick a palazzo in a medium-weight fabric, with good construction and an easy fork length that sits at actual or low waist.

An oil on canvas by Khandwala and a garment derived from it
An oil on canvas by Khandwala and a garment derived from it

How do you explain the almost audacious use, and combinations, of colour in your brand statement?

I’ve painted since I was a little girl. My earliest memories were of watching my mother and my grandmother paint, so mixing colour is in my genes. I have a degree in fine arts and painted for a decade professionally before starting this label, so my preoccupation with colour crosses over into my clothes effortlessly. Reading colour is intangible, but it can evoke such emotion in the viewer. Or in the case of clothing, in the wearer. Colour allows me to play. It keeps me connected, albeit not in an obvious way, to the part of my life that lives in my box of paints.

What’s your advice in terms of colour beyond the increasing use of black and white as a global influence?

It is great to integrate what global fashion offers; it gives us a wider audience and keep us relevant. Having said that, we must retain what is a part of our identity, which is our willingness to play with colour. We must not feel the need to be validated by the West. I think in the race to be current, Indian designers are losing their voice. It is a pity because all we will be left with is homogenous design. The innate comfort we have with colour must not be misconstrued as being too “ethnic”. We must wear colour proudly but wisely.

Given the befuddling Indian shade card, how does one figure out what shade of green, blue, yellow or red (or any hue) works for us?

Colour theory teaches you how different colours can work together, how the eye reads it or the brain computes colour. Proportions can help cheat the desired effect, much like impressionists Claude Monet and abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt did. But I keep customer personalities in mind. Some are reticent, some less experimental, so in addition to our signature jewel colours, I incorporate a palette which is less intense. Skin and hair do make a big difference, they are the canvas against which the clothes are set, so the same colours that work with pale skin and light hair don’t always look the same against darker skin and darker hair, or vice versa.

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