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Fashion designer Satya Paul (HT)
Fashion designer Satya Paul (HT)

Satya Paul, designer who created the ‘contemporary’ sari, dies at 79

Satya Paul, founder of the iconic eponymous clothing brand, crated sari in bold patterns and colours that broke away from the traditional aesthetic

Fashion designer Satya Paul, founder of the iconic eponymous clothing brand, died in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu on 6 January. He was 79.

In a Facebook post, his son Puneet Nanda confirmed that the designer had suffered a stroke in December last year and had been hospitalised. “We finally got clearance from doctors to take him back to Isha Yoga Center, his home since 2015," Nanda wrote. “As per his wish, he gently passed on with blessings of the Master [Jaggi Vasudev]."

Paul, known for reinventing the sari, opened his first store in the prime location of south Delhi’s South Extension area in April 1985. What made him famous was the “contemporary sari"—figure hugging and digitally printed. Buildings, large flowers, bold stripes, scripts—the Satya Paul sari designs came in patterns, colours and contrasts that broke away from the traditional aesthetic. Even the eponymous label’s scarves, ties, which were introduced in the late 1980s and 1990s, were considered modern or “progressive".

“Owning a Satya Paul sari was the thing back then. It was the only designer brand selling saris at the time," recalled Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, who knew the self-taught designer before he became “the Satya Paul of the fashion industry". Paul started in the restaurant business, working with his father in Sarojini Nagar, then opened a clothing store and export business, and slowly moved up the chain to luxury fashion designer. By the mid-1980s, he had established Satya Paul as a premier design label. “He was among the very few Indians who were selling at top shops in the UK and France. He was a big hit in Japan; no Indian had reached Japan by then," said Sethi, who was a buying agent in the mid-1980s and would meet Paul regularly either at the latter’s South Extension store or farmhouse in Chhattarpur.

In time, Paul’s oeuvre expanded from saris to kurtis, ready-to-wear clothing, scarves, bags, and even ties and cufflinks for men, all patterned in his unique style. Over the decades, companies he was involved with brought a number of luxury brands from Jimmy Choo and Coach to Emporio Armani and Tumi to India. In 2018, Reliance Brands upped its stake in the company that owned the fashion label Satya Paul, becoming the majority shareholder.

Paul’s draw was not just the eclectic designs. It was also Satya Paul, the charismatic marketeer. Sethi says: “His presentations to the customers were just impeccable… he would sell his products as if he was selling the most precious stones. And it all came from his belief in his craft, his ‘spiritual’ approach to work, his constant instant search for spirituality."

Even in his Facebook post on 7 January, Nanda, talked about his father’s “seeker" nature. He wrote: “Most people are not aware, more than as a designer or entrepreneur, he has been steadfastly a seeker… We are sad only a bit, mostly rejoicing him, his life and now his passing with such a blessing."

Rajesh Pratap Singh, who met Paul in early 1990s while he was a design student and is now the creative director of Satya Paul, owned by Reliance Brands Ltd, said it was this search for spirituality that reflected in Paul’s path-breaking work. “Most of our conversations were about spirituality, not so much about design. He was a free-spirited man. He broke the rules, didn’t follow conventions—it was all an expression of spirituality."

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