You are today one of the most accomplished and celebrated fashion designers in India. When did it first occur to you that you wanted to pursue this profession?
A. From styling stars to creating my own label, my 26-year-long journey has been all about telling stories in the language of fashion. I think my fascination with colours and fabrics began at the age of six. As a child, I would advise my mother on what to wear. Growing up, I was absolutely enamoured with Indian cinema, its colours, music and the fantasy. Encouraged by my mother, I would catch all the Hindi films in theatres. Post-school, I started modelling, and saving up money from these assignments I took a trip to Singapore and Bangkok. It was a memorable trip and I experienced luxurious textiles, textures, colours and just beautiful things. I am not a reader, I am an observer; and these early experiences really laid the foundation for it all. Given this, my last 26 years have been one never-ending learning curve.
Q. When did you start designing for films?
A. Looking back, I think that I couldn’t have had a better training ground to feed my passion for fashion through movies as I love Indian cinema. I have always wanted to bring about a change in the sartorial aspect of film business. However, I was never educated in design or had the money to bring out a collection. I touched Indian cinema at a time when no designer was willing to touch it. I had been in love with movies and in return, it has given me everything. I started with a song for Juhi Chawla in Swarg and was later introduced to Sri Devi, Shilpa Shirodkar and Sunny Deol. Sridevi has been a great influence on me. She taught me a lot about the craft of costuming. In 1999, Yash [Chopra] and Avanti Birla advised me to start an Indian fashion store with them. After two years of our association, I joined Sheetal Design Studio where I got exposed to large infrastructure and large production. I finally started my own label in 2005 and it has been 11 years for the Manish Malhotra Label since.
Q. You are also credited for introducing the trend of celebrity showstoppers at fashion shows. How did the idea occur to you?
A. My first show took place in Taj Chambers long back — in 1999. This is when I had just stepped into the mainstream of fashion and had newly opened a store with Yash and Avanti Birla. It was an extremely emotional moment for me and I remember asking Urmila Matondkar to walk at my show purely out of the emotional sentiment we shared with the recent history of her makeover and tremendous success of Rangeela. Later, I launched my own label in 2005. By then, this had become my stamp and a showstopper became a regular trend at my shows. Today we see it becoming the most common thing for actors to walk the fashion ramp and a lot of designers are paying them to do so. However, I feel blessed and humbled to have made such wonderful friends in the industry who always show their love and support for me and walk at my shows whenever I ask them to.
Q. How would you describe your designs? Do you have a characteristic style of making clothes?
A. My style has always been opulent, modern and unapologetically glamorous. I have always been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with people who carry my outfits in their own distinct way with effortless grace. I love how they bring their own tinge of elegance to even the slightly subtle pieces. My label stands for evolving in time and embracing modernity while not letting go of your heritage and wearing your traditional weaves with pride. The Manish Malhotra aesthetic accentuates the wearer’s personality and this is the foundation of every collection that we create.
Q. Do you think fashion in some way is a mirror held up to society?
A. Fashion industry works on the principle of “change is constant”. If I may say so, fashion changes as per the changing trends of trade and economy. In today’s age and time, it is something way beyond just clothing and styling. I feel fashion has slowly emerged as a medium that not only portrays a society but also reflects the choices of an individual. It helps people display their attitude, define their personality and communicate their beliefs and ideas in a silent yet very powerful manner.
Q. You are the first Indian designer to have created a virtual-reality show in partnership with Etihad Airways. What led to this project?
A. Lakmé Fashion Week-IMG Reliance team proposed the idea of a virtual-reality show to me and I was beyond thrilled to venture into the world of technology. Even after 26 years, it is always special marking the firsts — from partnering with Etihad Airways for the first time, to being the first Indian designer to create a virtual-reality show. Why launch a label if there is no innovation or new stories to tell? Also, I love Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and how both these cities have evolved and progressed so much over the years. Whenever I go back, I realise that nothing is impossible to achieve and this pushes me to work harder. This is one of the major reasons I decided to partner with Etihad Airways. It has been exceptionally fun yet exciting to work on a concept that has never been done in India before.
“India has such a rich legacy of luxury, and not just with the way the royalty used to live. The beauty of India lies in the sheer diversity of its cultures and lifestyles. Look at how many different ways we drape a five-yard fabric! I feel quite strongly about the revival of our sartorial traditions.”
Q. Could you elaborate a little more on this project?
A. It’s been a privilege for me to launch the immersive virtual-reality experience in association with Etihad Airways at its state-of- the-art Innovation Centre to allow our viewers to share in the excitement of attending my Lakmé Fashion Week Festive Collection showcase. The show has been filmed using this pioneering technology at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai last August. With over 75 models on the runway, viewers were able to immerse themselves in the show and feel like they were encapsulated in the experience with 360-degree screens all around.
Q. Do you believe technology could be the next big thing in fashion?
A. The appetite for luxury has always been quite voracious among us Indians. However, what we lacked was access. In a world of constant evolution, social media has become such a fantastic democratic tool to bring fashion directly to a consumer. In this day and age, technology is an integral part of our lives. It’s miraculous that what you see on the runway is in your wardrobe within a few weeks. A classic example of this was the deep blue lehenga worn by Deepika Padukone at one of my Couture Fashion shows. Young brides saw it on social media and two days later we had an overwhelming amount of orders for blue lehengas. That’s the power of connecting people via social media. It’s thanks to the digital world that India is on the international fashion map. While I agree that there is a certain romance to touch and feel a fabric and it is essential to experience luxury before investing in it, e-commerce has opened so many doors for us.
Q. Could you tell us about your latest collection showcased recently in Abu Dhabi?
A. The collection spotlights Indian craftsmanship combined with modern silhouettes for a stylish, young bridal entourage. For this, we brought back our signature resham threadwork and new designs with clustered sequins and intricate hand embroidery on dramatic trails and off-shoulder capes, alongside floral motifs. Replete with avant-garde twists – there were jacket-saris; lehengas paired with sheer crop blouses and draped dupattas on contemporary anarkalis. Elaborately detailed long tunics worn over cigarette pants and majestic, flowing backless gowns effortlessly brought the classic and contemporary together.
Q. Where do you think Indian fashion is headed next?
A. Fashion aesthetics in India are increasingly becoming more global in their expression. I see the designs being more intricate, experimental and there’s greater respect for old craft, handloom and textile. Nowadays people dress according to their personality and that gives us more leeway in experimenting with different styles for different sets of audiences, in blending old-world charm with modern silhouettes. Lately, I see a lot more individuality and a great mix of style and fashion, be it western wear or couture. Today women are wearing crop tops and off-shoulder cut-out blouses with lehengas, and becoming a lot more experimental with their styling and approach. Neo-brides, too, are proudly embracing traditional outfits with Western cuts that reflect their contemporary approach to their rustic cultural heritage. Fashion is thus gradually becoming more artistic, modern and bespoke in India.
Q. While we do have numerous designers working in this area, menswear remains an untapped segment of the fashion industry. What’s your view?
A. I think the fashion industry has evolved a lot over the years through styling in movies which showcased modernity of Indian clothes and influx of great global influences. This has eventually led to a gradual and effective shift in the mindset of not only the women but also of the men in our society. They have become more adaptive and fashion-conscious and are willing to experiment beyond their comfort zone. Men are definitely more cognisant of international trends today than ever before. I see them dressing according to their personality and that gives us designers more leeway in experimenting with different styles for different sets of audiences and explore the changing preferences of today’s man. There is thus tremendous scope for growth in the fashion industry for menswear in the future.
Q. What about innovation in Indian fashion? Do you believe young designers today are more into rehashing old styles than introducing new ones?
A. In today’s fast-paced industry, reinventing goes hand-in-hand with evolution. It is essential to understand and adapt to the ever-changing taste and preference of the customers. I am not surprised at the new talent coming in — they are young, know their signature, understand their consumer. It is a wonderful energy to have and they are all doing an amazing job. It is my inherent belief that there are no shortcuts to success. Having said that, I would like to think all of us in the industry have our own niche and space when it comes to our design language, our respective retail experiences, and the consumer that we cater to. While hard work and dedication lay down the foundation for success, innovation, interaction and inspiration are key elements to what builds a designer today.
Q. Many contemporary Indian designers are rediscovering our traditional weaves and handicrafts. What’s your take on India’s fashion heritage?
A. India has such a rich legacy of luxury, and not just with the way the royalty used to live. The beauty of India lies in the sheer diversity of its cultures and lifestyles. Look at how many different ways we drape a five-yard fabric! I feel quite strongly about the revival of our sartorial traditions. While many may think fashion is a frivolous vocation, one must stop to think that we can trace the evolution of entire civilizations through the movement of textiles. And this is true even today. So, why not integrate our weaves into the framework and build crafts communities in places like Kashmir, Lucknow and Benaras. We must empower skilled artisans and elevate them to the international business of fashion. I started working with Mijwan (Mijwan Welfare Society is an NGO run by Shabana Azmi after the death of her father Late Kaifi Azmi, who was the founder of MWS) about 5 years ago and it is the most gratifying experience I’ve had. There is a sense of satisfaction when I see that, what started off as a small project with about 40 women has now grown to employ and empower 450 women. So, when the label turned 25 last year, I decided that my first show of the year 2016 would be a tribute to weaves and thus, we presented The Regal Threads using Benarasi weaves and bandhini fabric. Needless to say, this was a new direction for us — one that we are proud to have taken.