Cliched exclamations fill the air when an Anamika Khanna show ends. Applause is usually hearty. The designer, even when elated, hesitates to walk out more than a few metres on the ramp for her bow. Blame it on her temperament, she explains later, which takes her in and out of the shell, with the periods undefined, hinging on mood and moment.
It would be easy to call her collection “the best” (cliché, see?) among those shown at the recently concluded PCJ Delhi Couture Week without being called partisan. Good fashion has a clear sparkle; it silences dissent. Without a PR company to dress up her collection note (she has never hired a PR firm in 15 years as a designer), Khanna used the word “freedom” to explain its spirit.
Daughter of an artist mother with two artist sisters—a painter and a jewellery designer—42-year-old Khanna’s rejection of global-local catwalk trends makes her couture refreshingly contemporary. It is conceptually modern, not short, tight, shiny, black or in-your-face sexy. To describe her free-spirited recent collection, the prints appeared as if from Amazonian rainforests; the colours a kiss between an Indian dancer’s costumes and African textiles—think old gold paired with fire-roasted mustard. The detailing, texturing and accessorizing was, as if—pardon the poetry—from Arabian Nights: artisanal textures, pearly embellishments, gold and silver lighting up each other, metals minus their shine. The jewellery was made by her sister Suhani Pittie, an acclaimed name in the Indian fashion industry.
; and three looks from her collection shown at the recent PCJ
Khanna’s silhouettes, including versions of her signature “cape”, were bold without being intimidating . There were shararas and trailing coats, billowy palazzos and dhoti-pants, long jackets, flowy ensembles and sari shapes. “I have reinterpreted the Maharashtrian nine-yard sari to create fluid dhoti-pants, the belts are inspired by south Indian classical dancers and my Mohawk headgear is really a punk expression of the Indian maang tikka,” she explains.
On the whole, the collection was decorously Indian but also goth, punk and bohemian. “Luxe-bohemian”, Khanna’s own term sticks well. Everything, every costume, shoe and piece of jewellery has the luxury of couture. Even her former collections have had this style edginess—they are strongly Indian in a non-ethnic way. Her capes rule: printed, hand-embroidered, tissue with gota borders or cutwork on cotton, becoming the signature garment even for those who turn up to watch her shows. Why the cape, you ask and she smiles, mildly mysteriously before saying: “It’s a flattering silhouette, easy yet glamourous.”
“I will die if I have to ask someone to do a story on me,” she says the next day over lunch explaining her reclusiveness and why she runs away from interviews. She orders chargrilled asparagus and is wearing a churidar ensemble in nude-coloured crushed silk and strappy black sandals. Her hair is as straight as a sheet and her nailpolish nude too. No make-up. The previous evening for her show, the petite Khanna wore black dhoti-pants, a lace-embroidered soft jacket and high heels. “I have phases in my personal style, it depends on how I am reacting to a certain phase of life,” she says. Her watches are usually big and her bracelets multiple. She is flummoxed, she says, when she looks at “Delhi fashion”—an assortment of bling, big labels and a mish-mash of trends. “If this is fashion, I have a problem with it. Even wedding wear can’t only be about ghaghra-cholis. After all, women will wear what we offer. So it is for designers to push boundaries. Women easily accept when we experiment with newer silhouettes, even brides. They are ready for change. Many of our customers are thinking and evolving women—how can we assume a plateau in style?” she asks.
Khanna had no formal training in fashion. She had an inter-caste love marriage early on and became the mother of twin sons when she was barely 25. “I was a classical dancer and wanted to paint. I used to sketch very well. But a stunning book on African textiles pulled me into fashion. I used a sewing machine to juxtapose textiles and textures, both flat and uneven, chiffon and woven, without cutting anything—to create a garment that won the Damania award in 1998,” she says. Khanna’s initiation into fashion more than 15 years back was only because The ffolio store in Bangalore and Ogaan in Delhi bought what she created. “There were biggie fashion designers then like Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Suneet Varma, Tarun Tahiliani, Wendell Rodricks but no fashion weeks. I began small,” she recalls.
Khanna made sure she learnt fashion instead of relying on pure creative impulses. “I went to worshops at museum like the Victoria and Albert (V&A) in London, institutes in Paris, imbibed tips on how to make a woman looker slimmer by cutting a garment, about pattern making, how to create a cross-back, fitting armholes and shoulders and began to follow forecasts and trends…” Her biggest learning experience was the first time she showed at the Paris Fashion Week in 2007 when the lady who edited her collection threw out Khanna’s favourite pieces telling her to shed “the baggage”.
“I was obsessed with trends in colours, shapes and fits but soon outgrew them,” she says. “Now I have no point to prove anymore so my design begins with three words out of which the first is always India. Then I challenge myself to create without any obligation to the wedding market or to trends. Work is liberating for me and I design like a free soul, keen to be remembered for my empathy for my clientele,” she explains.
Her twin sons are now 18, but Khanna says they remain her priority. That is why she has just one flagship store in Kolkata besides which she sells from 12 other multi-designer stores in different cities including Aza, Evoluzione, Ogaan, Ensemble and Elahe. “I can’t afford half of my own clothes,” she jokes, agreeing that she hasn’t yet been able to create affordable lines. Anamika Khanna pret pieces cost between Rs.12,000 and Rs.25,000 while prices of her couture depend on the bespoke order.
Khanna, some would say, argues for freedom in design and thought even as she is exploring it herself. It is like consciously choosing to wear a textured coat and then touching it now and then to remember what all it is made of. It’s an intriguing dual process that keeps the designer and the design evolving with and without each other all the time.