Among your many talents, what do you value the most?
My understanding of architecture and space, the ability to take groups of objects and rearrange them into a harmonious whole, sense of colour and drape. “Architecture is literature in stone,” India Jane Birley, the artist, had once said to me.
What frustrates you the most ?
It might all look very practical—my business and brand—but I didn’t have clarity of thought for a long time. I am almost 100% right-brained and was driven by the beauty of design. I had the first-mover advantage in Indian fashion but I clearly did not run it with business-like clarity in the initial stages. Now my 28-year-old son Anand, who works with me, points out those gaps. I did not spend any time marketing my brand myself, which is very important. I loved design but was rudderless as I had not had time to spend learning the ropes. My first show, Mughal, for London high society in 1995 was when I finally started putting my work out there. But later, after being at FIT, I began looking at the structured drape, because I wanted to create saris for women who no longer just stayed at home, as in the past. Also, I became conscious that my name as a designer has got to stand for something that is instantly definable.
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Do you think Indian women dress sexily?
Well, society is very different from how it was earlier and you find women who are very sexily dressed in the Western way but I think (they) were more sexily dressed earlier. Women need to learn to style themselves, be more comfortable with themselves in a way that transgresses what’s overtly Indian and overtly Western. It is time to invent for oneself, you can no longer take a style verbatim and just wear it.
You have had a flamboyant reputation in fashion. Would you call yourself a good boy or a bad boy?
You know, someone once commented about me that I had no idea what struggle meant. That would be true to some extent and yes, we were spoilt. When I was growing up, it was a socialist phase for India—when having money was considered a bad thing. Now I am getting balanced about these views. Of course, I love the good life, I am a shaukeen. People think I am wealthier than I actually am because I can make things look beautiful but I don’t like fake projection. I have become a hawk when it comes to choosing what I want to put in my stores, what I design and sell. I have changed; I push the idea of India Modern. Bad boy or good is after all someone’s perception of something. I would say I am neither.
It is often said that you cannot survive in Indian fashion unless you make bridal wear. Do you agree?
I do think that the growth is much more if you do bridal work. That’s how India is, for whatever sociological reasons, that’s when people spend. Indian designers who do not make bridal wear have to then find their biggest markets abroad. There are many emerging Indian women’s brands now but they mostly do knock-offs and use awful synthetic fabrics. The men’s sector has been better defined in corporate wear, with fake foreign-sounding names, but we are in neither of these markets.
You often say that fashion magazines are irrelevant except for the urban elite but we find you often featured in them.
I do think they are for a small elitist minority and that’s largely because they are first obligated to their major advertisers, who are the foreign luxury brands. I just returned two weeks ago from a trunk show in Kolkata, looking at what sold to the well-to-do women there, for instance—fabulous kurtas—the kind I never see in fashion magazines. It is not enough to sit in Delhi or south Mumbai and create content for a country like India. Barring a wedding issue, if you have feature after feature from Paris, it is difficult to penetrate the world of millions of Indians who read and live a regular life.
But you make such expensive couture yourself—is that relevant to the India you talk about?
I am trying very hard to offer the level of finesse that is easy to find in garments worthy of double-digit lakhs as well as the everyday ready-to-wear. From the same studio, we do offer better-priced garments which may not be bridal, but can definitely go into a bride’s trousseau and can be (worn) anywhere. In one of my recent shows, we sent out bridal lehngas with silk shirts. I think there is clear growth if one makes well-priced couture, especially because of this trend of destination weddings. Apart from couture, we have a flourishing and wearable ready-to-wear line, which for some reason the fashion media does not pick up on. This is the number driver. Kurtas to scarves to draped dhoti pants which are priced below Rs10,000. And draped brocade lehngas that even a bride could wear are for a lakh-plus. The super expensive couture is for a very small fraction of a fraction who may want something completely exclusive to them.
What do you think about young talent in the fashion industry? Who are your favourites?
Well, for one, they have learnt to cut much better, but I see signature styles less and less. The failing, I feel, is with designer stores that stock derivative fashion without worrying about originality. Among my favourites are Arjun Saluja, who is very good; then there is Amit Aggarwal, a former associate-learner of mine. I also like the work of Rina Singh for Eka, Urvashi Kaur, the structured saris that Rashmi Varma has created and the elegance of Anamika Khanna.
You’ve spoken of the need for silence in the last few years. What triggered it?
There was a phase when I was disconnected from myself. It is, I suppose, mid-life crisis. I went to the Isha Yoga Centre and many other retreats to spend time with myself. Let’s say that I sought the refuge of spiritual therapists, even sitting in silence for five days at a stretch, going over the smallest things that may have otherwise escaped me. I am no longer driven by the life of glamour, of incessant socializing over obligatory conversation. I love the silence at work and after. It creates a better balance. The race with myself or with others seems to be over now.