Rina Dhaka started out as a designer in the 1990s, when Indian fashion was only an idea and had yet to evolve into a dynamic and competitive industry. She speaks to Ranu Joardar about contemporary fashion, its traditional roots and the future of design.
Q. You have been a part of the fashion industry since the ’90s and have exhibited at top international venues, from Paris to New York. Tell us about your journey in the world of fashion.
A. I came in at a very good time. Back then, there were no fashion schools in India; there were only polytechnics. When I entered this field, the Indian fashion scene hadn’t begun. There were people like Rohit Khosla, who was known as a reputed Indian designer; and Ritu Kumar, who was not known as a designer but as a retailer. The design industry started to emerge around the time I opened Mutiny in Delhi and Ensemble in Mumbai [Dhaka’s boutique stores in the two cities]. In those days, it was only I and my contemporaries, like Suneet [Varma], [Rohit] Bal and [Tarun] Tahilani, who were part of this industry. Then came the subsequent generations.
But it was a wonderful time as there was no fear of competition. Today, commercial concerns are at the centre of everyone’s attention. It is required for survival. Earlier, this wasn’t the case. It was only the pursuit of creativity. Even as labourers we had brilliant artisans who were happy with salaries between Rs 1,200-1,400. We used to spend weeks working on a single design.
Q. In your experience, how has the fashion industry changed over the years?
A. Back in the day, India was different. We had no Internet and no telephones. It is important to remember that even internationally, the concept of the designer is quite recent. I began my career in exports and in those days there was only high-street fashion. There was only one boutique of Chanel in Saint-Honoré [in Paris]. So the world was introduced to the concept of the designer very recently. It is not just a phenomenon that happened in the West. It happened here, too. Everywhere, the industry began to emerge at around the same time. The individual became the house.
Today, fashion is also about business. It has many aspects to it. People emphasise entrepreneurship but it is not always a requirement in my view. In today’s combative and over-saturated mode, I would not emphasise entrepreneurship. I would rather say: go work for someone. I mean, there are so many areas which need you. In a group of five there may be only one designer while the other four might have skills with which they can make a huge contribution to the industry. The industry requires expertise in all fields.
Q. Artisans are the backbone of Indian fashion. Are they getting the credit or rewards they deserve?
A. I have been in the industry since 1990. The new generations of artisans from my time—the master cutters, tailors and finishers—all have a very good educational background. Today, they are our collaborators. They are the bestsellers on Amazon and other such platforms. This is the third generation of artisans out there. And the third decade of Indian fashion… There are many artisans now and each belt has its own tradition. They have established themselves in the business. Also, people are more aware of weavers and artisans in general.
Q. In this country, Bollywood has always been seen as a trendsetter. But today, with international fashion accessible to all thanks to the Internet, can Bollywood still make a style statement impactful enough?
A. Bollywood is run by stylists. By people who control the actors. There are a handful of designers who work for them and it is really like an industry. An actor will wear your clothes if you pay their stylist too. This doesn’t apply to all, but to most of them.
Q. Have you worked with any Bollywood star or on a movie project?
A. I have. I worked with Lara [Dutta] when she requested me to help her with Blue . While working there I understood how movies are made. I recently received the Dadasaheb Phalke award, which is an award for excellence. I have also received an award in the British Parliament this year for my contribution to design. So I think I can work in films now.
Q. Are you preparing for any upcoming shows now?
A. My next show is the Gurugram Fashion Week [which begins on 30 May]. There, you will see a simple, wearable collection: with whites and creams which are very easy to wear during high summer. Then we may do Couture Week [to be held in July in Delhi], for which my collection would be the complete opposite of the one showcased in Gurugram.
Q. Do you think in India traditional fashion still rules?
A. Of course. Traditional fashion rules the Indian fashion industry. We have added our twist to traditional fashion.
Q. You recently attended a seminar at the J.D. Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, where you spoke about eco-friendly fashion and about reusing fabrics. Have you been using such fabrics in your designs?
A. We all need to take small steps towards this goal daily. This “we” includes me as well. Frankly, though I should start carrying my own mug, I still get my cappuccino in a plastic cup. However, I try not to throw my clothes for a daily wash, in order to reduce the amount of detergent that finally goes into the sea.
I am not using re-cycled fabric in my collection. Organic and sustainable fabrics are part of my collection. They are not my complete collection, just a part of it.
Q. You studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Aspiring designers today prefer going abroad for such courses. Do you think in our time schools like NIFT are still relevant?
A. NIFT is of course a very relevant institute. There is no doubt about it.
Q. So how significant a role do these institutes play in training the designers of the future?
A. Besides fashion design, they offer courses on makeup, styling, interior design and accessory design. The industry needs more skilled people. And it is at such institutes that students are taught the basics. In any industry there are deadlines and other pressures, and if people are not familiar with the basics, everything will fall like a pack of cards. So these institutes are relevant as they introduce aspiring designers to the basic technicalities of their field.