“Do you serve asparagus soup?” he asks the server at the coffee shop of The Imperial hotel in Delhi, ignoring the menu. Some would remark that style interviews conducted in five-star hotels, seated at tables adorned with freshly cut roses and laden with fine foods and delicate beverages, get an unfair advantage in the way they instantly assume a stylish tone. But then, this was supposed to be a business meeting with Darshan Mehta, 55, to discuss the challenges of global luxury brands in India, which turned into a style interview. It started with his shirt—a sparkling white-collared linen by French brand Vilebrequin. It lent Mehta, the president and chief executive of Reliance Brands—the company that has brought brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Paul & Shark, Kenneth Cole, Muji, Diesel and Brooks Brothers, among others, to India—both ease and formality. It suited his grey hair and beard, and his talent for storytelling punctuated with sharp insights about consumer mindsets. This was Friday dressing you could wear on Monday.
Then it turned out that Mehta owns (many) more than 100 pairs of jeans. He can create a veritable archive that ranges from ubiquitous brands to premium denims. From light blue washes to those that mirror the gradations of the indigo colour, from 7 For All Mankind to Rag & Bone and True Religion. The wide-ranging conversation that started in Delhi found its way to his closet in his Mumbai home. Mehta, whose dynamic career graph includes handling lifestyle accounts for companies such as Baccarose and Lakmé at Grey Advertising India (formerly Trikaya Grey), working with American apparel brand Gant and being CEO of Arvind Brands Ltd in the past talks about his love for whimsical socks and why high-quality tailoring is a dying craft in India. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Were you always a keen dresser ?
I always had an aesthetic slant and would even notice the finer nuances of typefaces and fonts. Also, I have always been keen about the science of art. But undoubtedly the exposure I got through my jobs over time took me headlong into clothing sensibilities. Whether it was walking down the streets of New York on my first trip abroad as a 30-year-old observing the impact of visual merchandizing, or participating in invigorating discussions with Amsterdam showrooms and Japanese buying teams, or discussing quality with Swedish brands, it has indeed had an influence over my personal taste.
What repels you in men’s style?
Oh, a number of things. Anything that appears to be working too hard to create style. Style to camouflage age; I absolutely hate the thought of men colouring their hair. I am repelled by style intended to shout “money”. Ill-fitting and synthetic clothes don’t appeal to me either. Actually, it is a long list and I am trying not to sound too snooty.
Do you think a carefully chosen wardrobe is a useful business tool?
Absolutely. A well-groomed and well put together ensemble is always appealing and thus a powerful business tool. Throw in natural charm, an easily worn smile and well-placed humour, and it’s a killer machine.
How much importance do you give to tailoring?
Given that I have a body type that easily and naturally fits in with ready-to-wear clothes, I find tailoring a risk and I also don’t have the temperamental patience for it. Having said this, tailored Jodhpur pants by Raghavendra Rathore and a beautifully washed denim sherwani by Rajesh Pratap Singh find their pride of place in my wardrobe.
However, there are enough men whom I meet during my work and leisure time whose body types make them clear candidates for tailored clothing.
High-quality tailoring for men in India is a dying craft. Not only in terms of the artisans of the craft, but also access to high-quality machines, interlinings, quality of fusing, etc.
In the brand meetings you have all over the world, what are the impressions you take back from the best-dressed people in the room—men or women?
It’s their ability to hold interesting conversations. Their panache, the air of ease with which a seemingly carelessly thrown together ensemble is carried off. Their natural charm that puts the other person at ease. Also, they’re unfailingly well- groomed, which means no body odour or overgrown nails.
How much of a “brand person” are you? Any favourite style brands?
I shop all the time. Items and brands that hold centre stage in my wardrobe are often ones I have discovered accidentally. Finsbury shoes in Paris, Brian Dales clothing in Bassano, Nudie Jeans in Stockholm, and Scotch & Soda in Dubai (later discovered it’s a Dutch brand).
Among my favourites are Tods, Onitsuka Tiger, Finsbury, Bruno Magli for footwear; John Varvatos, CP Company, Scotch & Soda, Brian Dales, Diesel (mostly Black Gold), Dsquared2, Pink for ready-to-wear; Zegna; Rajesh Pratap jackets, bundies, sherwani; Panerai for watches; and Phillip Lim, Paul Smith, Bottega Veneta for bags. Whew!
Are you fussed about differentiating formal from informal dressing?
I am not. Globally, I don’t think two categories of men’s dressing called formal and informal exist anymore. There could be specific dress codes for events—black-tie event or ethnic dressing for instance. That apart, it’s actually about mix and match. More often than not, my dressing for work or leisure is an indication of my mind state—good sleep or not, how relaxed I am, etc. It’s like I am playing a different “part” every day. Given that in terms of my body type, I would pass off as dainty, some of my favourite styles while dressing would be—refined, gritty, mix-and-match with a touch of eccentric, a touch of dandy and sometimes the classic with a twist.
What are your thoughts about white and black for men?
Black is ubiquitous worldwide, but then, there are few things like the white shirt. For men, black is actually a very difficult colour to wear. One should be very careful, and an “all black” dressing is an absolute no-no. The nearest I have come to is a refined and clean black polo or a nice black pin-tucked shirt. White on the other hand is very different. A man can never have enough white shirts. I am always, at least, one correct white shirt away in my wardrobe and thus always on the lookout. The white shirt with just the right collar, no pocket or placket and a little bit of stretch is timeless.
Are you a collector—dinner jackets, shirts, shoes?
My shoe wardrobe could easily compete with a woman’s. Like wine, well-looked-after shoes grow in grace and style with age, and my favourite pairs are at least 10 years old. I have a few interesting jackets—not really dinner jackets. One of my biggest disappointments living in Mumbai is the weather. I would have loved to have lived in cooler climate, which would give me an opportunity to wear layered clothing—scarves, jumpers and pullovers. I am a big fan of layered clothing. And I collect jeans.
Did you just say you “collect” jeans? You have like a hundred pairs?
Oh, (embarrassedly) many more than hundred. You name it, I have them. I can create my own archive, across brands, fits, washes. I started seriously buying jeans when the concept of premium was just beginning to fade in, in the 1990s, and haven’t stopped since.