Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

If I wasn’t born in India, I won’t have reached where I am

Designer Manish Arora on his expressions of popular culture

Last week, Manish Arora became the first Indian fashion designer to receive the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest award bestowed by France, in recognition of his contribution to international fashion. Arora, known for his obsession with overstated colours especially gold and pink, wacky prints and unconventional embellishments, has made Paris his second home since he started showing in the French capital in 2007.

In an interview just hours before he accepted the honour at a reception at the French embassy in New Delhi, Arora said he wished he had received similar recognition from the Indian government. Dressed in a black T-shirt, brown jeggings, black and white polka-dotted shoes and pink socks, he kept tapping on an iPhone with a pink and gold cover in between answering questions. Edited excerpts:

What does the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur mean to you?

I am a bit overwhelmed, I must admit, to be the first Indian fashion designer to get the honour. I was looking up a Wikipedia list of past winners. I am the youngest. Next year, my name will be there too. I could not believe that: to be in the company of such august people. It will become a part of my identity in the time to come but, at this time, I would also say that I wish it was the Indian government that would have recognized my talent. But the French have always been the first in fashion.

What is more important, design or fashion?

I don’t think it is either. I got into fashion because I was trained in fashion. I could even have done either films or arts. The idea is to have a point of view and prove it. I chose fashion as the medium. If you see my work, it is always with a story, a plan, a mission. So it is not really about fashion or design. It is about expressing a culture, which is pop Indian culture.

What are the materials that you use and where do you source them from?

It is a complicated process. In one collection that I make, there will be fabrics from Japan, printing from Holland, knitwear and shoes from Italy, embroidery from India. So it is a really good mix. So suppose I am making 150 pieces for a collection, it is a mix of things from various countries coming together but with my vision.

What do you make in India and where exactly?

I have my own factory with more than 250 people in Noida. So whatever is possible to produce in India, we do that first. Like all the stitching is done in India. Lots of fabrics such as silk and cotton come from India. Embroidery is done only here.

What are the design elements from India that still inspire you?

The craftsmanship is all from here. That would mean handwork, embellishments, weaving, etc. I do go all across India depending on the collection. I go to Banaras (Varanasi) for fabric, for example. I go to Kolkata for their embroidery techniques. I must say I am what I am because I am an Indian and because I take my culture with me wherever in the world I go. If I was born in say, England or France, I wouldn’t have been where I am.

Who is your buyer in India?

It’s incredible, you know. There are women over 60 also buying my clothes. They are comfortable in their skin. They like to stand out in a crowd and get noticed. A lot of them are self-made. When I design my clothes, I couldn’t care less what anyone else would think of it. And I think most of my buyers are of the same thought process, basically an extension of myself.

You were showcased at the Paris Fashion Week in 2007. What has changed for you since then?

I have learnt so much. Fashion has been a business for France for over a hundred years. The show in Paris and the time after that taught me how to take fashion seriously. Like even one millimetre of difference in a dress matters. It is the proportion, the sense of aesthetics, which are very, very important. You know, it is good to be over the top but there also is a thin line between being right and being ridiculous. That’s what Paris teaches you.

Have Indian fashion weeks also evolved?

Honestly, when the fashion week started in India, there was a lot of hope and promise for it to become an international fashion event. Around 2004-05, when Suzy Menkes, (then fashion editor with the ‘International Herald Tribune’, she is now with Condé Nast International), (the late) Isabella Blow (muse of Irish-born milliner Philip Treacy), (the late) Maria Luisa (iconic designer) were all sitting at the India Fashion Week. That was its peak of being international. Today, it has literally become the India Fashion Week, limited to India. I am not saying it has become bad but it has become limited and India-centric.