Landmark birthdays are always a time to celebrate, but also a time to reflect and retrospect. Suneet Varma is doing both as his fashion label completes 25 years this month. The merrymaking starts this weekend as he holds his Spring couture show, “The Eternal Lightness of Being: To Love, To Hold, To Kiss”, at Delhi’s DLF Emporio mall, coupled with a photo retrospective of his work. “We have never thrown away one contact sheet or negative,” says the 47-year-old designer who’s known for being meticulous and very, very particular.
‘Always proper’ would be the right way to describe Varma when it comes to his style, and even his personality. In the day, one is likely to see him in denims and a simple shirt or a well-cut kurta and churidar. In the evenings, it’s always a sophisticated suit, normally a pinstripe, with an unusual shirt in a muted colour with a tie. Varma is a complete dandy—you can see it in every detail from his shoes, socks, to his never-out-of-place hair.
By the end of the year, he would have also penned his first coffee-table book, Threadbare, which will not only be about Varma and his work, but also about fashion in India.
Mr Nice Guy: Suneet Varma working on his collection at his factory in Noida. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Varma has seen the industry from many angles—as a designer, stylist, a former brand ambassador for Moët & Chandon, and for the last three years, as a collaborator with American luxury house Judith Leiber. Suneet Varma Judith Leiber bags and minaudières have been India-inspired arm candy for actors Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, Hilary Swank and singer Mariah Carey. In 2011, he was appointed creative director to the soon-to-open Dusit Devarana Hotels in Delhi, Jaipur and Rishikesh. By end-June, he is set to open the country’s first Armani Junior at DLF Emporio mall—he is one of the promoters of the company, Unique Eye Luxury, which is bringing the luxury children’s clothing brand to India. He is also working with German automobile company BMW to design the interiors for its new 7 Series. Added to all this is his own couture line—which has grown into an about Rs30-crore business (the turnover for 2011-12).
At 25, Suneet Varma is one of India’s “older” fashion labels. Close friend and fashion insider Harmeet Bajaj says: “He was one of the forerunners, one of the first few people to do regular shows and thematic collections. In that way, he was a pioneer.”
Though Varma’s bag of projects and collaborations are more diverse than those of most other designers, many of his peers have also worked on multiple design-related projects. Tarun Tahiliani has a tie-up with florists Ferns ‘N’ Petals and Timex Watches, while Manish Arora has worked with numerous other brands, including Reebok, Swatch and Good Earth. This has been the way to survive and expand in India, where fashion is such a nascent industry.
Pradeep Hirani, the man behind multi-brand store Kimaya, says: “Suneet has always stuck to his core—couture, and selected projects that work with his design aesthetic. Some designers take any project that comes along. Suneet has chosen wisely.”
Trained at the London College of Fashion, Varma began his career in India in the 1980s in Ahmedabad, working with the Lalbhais (of Arvind Mills) on a denim project when they had tied up with fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. This sparked his love for textile, and it’s this love he is turning to for his latest couture offering. “I am feeling good,” he says, as he gets the music ready for the show.
Feroze Gujral photographed in 1989 by Prabuddha Dasgupta. CourtesyL Suneet Varma
That the collection has a romantic feel is not a surprise—this is Varma’s signature—but his other trademark, embellishment, is missing. “This collection is a departure for us; 90% of it has no embroidery. It is all based on textile and style.”
“As a couture designer, you are usually inspired by the past,” but currently Varma is in the mood to look forward. Of course, he is a bit nervous but, “after 25 years, you can take both the bouquets and the brickbats. I know now the main thing is to have a reaction out of people. If there is no reaction, there is a problem.”
Without waiting for the reaction, however, he has already planned a date for his second couture show in late November. It’s the first time he is planning two couture shows in one year. One of the few designers who is not fashion-week-friendly, he says, “That is simply because I do not have a ready-to-wear line.” Though he did launch Le Spice, a ready-to-wear line that had over 30 points of sale, around seven years ago, he did not “have the guts to continue both couture and ready-to-wear” after his spanking new and invest ment-heavy 3,000 sq. ft Le Spice ready-to-wear store on 2 Mehrauli-Gurgaon (MG) Road had to be shut down because the mall housing it was bulldozed.
Known for his love of femininity, Suneet Varma’s label conjures up images of lace, Swarovski crystals, chiffon, fishtail and corsetry. While it is a confection too sweet for some, his romantic take has a dedicated fan following.
Delhi-based fashionista and stylist Pernia Qureshi says: “Indian girls typically like to look pretty and girlie. Not many like to go for androgyny and edgier looks. He knows how to make a girl look delicate.” She feels he knows how to use lace better than other designers and this is his USP.
“I love the idea of a woman being in love,” says Varma, who is a sucker for love stories. Perhaps this is why he has always been open about his love life. He talks easily about playing godfather to his former partner’s child and recounts an incident when, on a flight, a stylish woman asked him if he was married. “No, I am gay,” he told her. It turned out that the woman’s son was gay, and thanks to his advice, she now has a closer relationship with her son. “If you lie about things, then a relationship will never work. You have to be honest, so why pretend to be something you are not?” says Varma.
Varma agrees that gay men often make for better fashion designers than their straight counterparts. “There is something to the fact that gay men understand women and their bodies better.”
Priscilla photographed by Vibhash Tiwari in 2009. CourtesyL Suneet Varma
While Varma acknowledges that there is a lot of not-so-friendly (read bitchy) behaviour in the industry, he has a reputation as the Mr Nice Guy of fashion. “I have witnessed things but I have steered clear of that,” he says. He has walked the ramp for both Rohit Bal and J.J. Valaya, and almost never misses the shows of his former assistant Nandita Basu, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Pankaj and Nidhi. “When I die I don’t want to be known for whom I dressed, but with whom I made relationships,” says the designer.
Perhaps a lot of Varma’s success with collaborations is due to his understanding of bonhomie. As Bajaj says, “I believe he always has had organization, management and public relations skills…. Today it takes a lot more than creative talent to be a success.” Hirani believes one of Varma’s biggest assets is he always stayed away from fashion politics.
Given the profile of his collaborations and the volume of his work, it is not surprising there are rumours that Varma is in the reckoning for a covetable investment from a private equity fund sponsored by a luxury conglomerate. “There is nothing conclusive,” Varma says, neither confirming nor dismissing the rumour. “I think many designers have been approached.”
Meanwhile, his book has been something of a work-in-progress since he first thought of doing it about 15 years ago. He is happy he waited. “This industry has grown so much in 25 years. Look at Manish Arora, who, with 15 years in the business, heads an international fashion house (Paco Rabanne).”
Varma seems to have his creative hands in many pies but he believes there is still a lot more to come, and 2012 is set to be a landmark year in more ways than one. If he manages to do all the projects he has lined up successfully, he would have proved that Suneet Varma is not just a designer but a true fashion house.
Sujata Assomull Sippy is the former editor of Harper’s Bazaar India.
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