Men Of The Year 2016: Suket Dhir
For a designer who hasn’t even hosted a proper show in India yet, Suket Dhir’s success is as rare as it is merit-worthy. In January this year, months of toiling with weavers in the Telangana sun paid rich dividends, when he was declared the recipient of the International Woolmark Prize for 2015- 16, in the menswear category. It’s an honour that has put him in the league of iconic designers like Karl Kagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, and another Indian, Rahul Mishra, whose women’s collection bagged him the honour a couple of years ago.
For Dhir, life remains the same, despite an extensive write-up in the New York Times and the cover of the well-respected 1843 magazine — he still works out of his Lado Sarai studio in New Delhi, with wife Svetlana manning marketing and communications while their toddler, Zoraveur, frolics as they work.
But lots has changed, too. The winning collection — a tightly edited selection of 20 designs in three sizes — glorifies Merino wool as a trans-seasonal, highly wearable fabric. It has been shipped off to highend stores all over the world, where it has met with a great response. So versatile is the range that Australia is buying it in summer, Parisians are sporting it for autumn/spring and New Yorkers will pick it up from Saks Fifth Avenue for winter. Koreans and Milanese, among others, have given Dhir their thumbs up too.
Eric Jenner, director of menswear at Saks Fifth Avenue, was even part of the Woolmark Prize jury. After the event, he spoke thus of the decision to declare Dhir the winner: “We were all very emotional about it. And what allowed him to win was his emotion, his passion, and the romance. When we first saw it, it was like peeling an onion. It started slow. But then we saw the detail in the collection and understood his passion. And we all just fell in love with the collection.”
Having viewed the collection up close, I can vouch for the details Jenner speaks of. Gloriously dyed and woven silhouettes become magical pieces, with stunning ikat linings. Colourful buttonholes and hemlines are Dhir’s signature, and his garments look more magnificent the closer you look. Presented together, they are a masterclass in layering — tailored jackets to offset loose pants and shirts that can go from day to night or summer to winter effortlessly.
The look, Dhir told the jury, was inspired by his grandfather, and the collection was an homage to his own childhood. It’s a theme that the designer admits didn’t come naturally to him, for it took him a while to get over the surprise of being selected. Mentorship came in the form of Asha Baxi, a fashion consultant who was the Dean of NIFT when Dhir had studied fashion there.
While Dhir admits that Baxi played a major role (“She knocked some sense into my head and helped me come up with a concept”), she gracefully plays it down. “I just helped him to look within, find himself and be original. Initially it was difficult, but he had an amazing turnaround,” she says. “Suket’s passion and 360-degree approach are special traits. He’s also a team player.”
Most of Dhir’s prize money of AU $1,00,000 has been spent already, on hiring new people as well as delivering this collection around the world. “Usually, sampling is the more time consuming process, but in this case, the process of hand-crafting each garment took just as long. I would say it is a next-to-impossible task that we have achieved in amazing time,” he says. Going ahead, the designer promises that his focus won’t veer away from heritage Indian weaves. He will continue working with ikat, while also experimenting with new technology, waterproofing and ensuring his garments can be machine-washed.
There are no plans to sell the prize-winning collection in India, though. “There’s only a limited number of pieces we can create, given the complexity, and delivering them to international markets is the priority,” says Dhir. What about displaying his work here? He adds, “I don’t think I’m missing out on anything. We’ll get there as the menswear space in India evolves. It’s possible that I could do my first show in Paris or Milan.”