In August, I asked ELLE India editor Supriya Dravid to pick an outfit for a story I was working on for HT Brunch, and she chose a Rahul Mishra foliage trench with footwear from his collection. This outfit, I must add, was a story in itself. An intricately handwoven dress with attention to detail that only reflects great taste, and you don’t need anything to add to it. That’s a Rahul Mishra outfit — always complete in itself. Making it to the Haute Couture Week, where so far only 16 labels are listed, makes this one of the most powerful moves in the fashion industry. Mishra has earned his way into this supremely controlled, extremely high-level couture calendar. He’s obviously on the top of the world, but this is just the beginning of gruelling hard work, and Mishra believes he is ready to climb higher. “I will share this with you — I didn’t see it coming so soon and I wasn’t prepared. I always got “haute couture” reviews from publications while showcasing at Paris Fashion Week. There was a lot of opinion in my favour. It was really exciting and defining for us and in this new decade, nothing could have been a better start for us. This is going to be the most experimental and exquisite work I’ve ever done,” Mishra says. Mishra, for someone as talented and all kinds of A-lister, is the most accessible designer you’ll ever come across.
He’s one of those “let my work speak for me” people, and his work is all about keeping it grounded. Winning the Woolmark Prize in 2014 was his confidence booster. “I was offered to showcase in Paris after my first ever showcase in Delhi, but I didn’t want to jump guns. I got back to that offer after winning the Woolmark Prize,” he smiles. Mishra recalls preparing for his first show at Paris Fashion Week. “My wife, Divya, is usually very composed and keeps emotions in check. At my first show, she started crying.” Now, 11 seasons later, he’s still that thrilled about his work. “Now I’m just taking my work to a newer level, and this feels like a college graduation all over again. It’s a debut,” he quips.
So how does he plan to bring his Indian heritage to the forefront on such a big international platform? “Heritage is often the knowledge that exists in Indian craftsmanship. My idea is to bring Indian techniques and modernise them. It’s not about presenting something ethnic that just stems from the country. When people look at the clothes, they should know that the technique, the design, is from India, and they can still wear it anywhere on the globe. At the same time, it needs to be original. Couture is about blurring boundaries between art, emotion and passion. Every designer’s dream is to present these values in their clothes. It’s about original expression of ideas —couture is not necessarily only bridal,” he states.
The exchange of any knowledge on fashion cannot be done without checking in on sustainability once in a while. As a country, we’re heavily using “buy less”, “slow fashion” and “sustainable fashion”, but are those just big, selling words? “Sustainability, according to me, is a way of life. In fashion, recycling or using biodegradable yarn is sustainable. But what people don’t understand is the root cause. Fast fashion will say they use sustainable fabric. Simply put, anything that’s produced at human pace and consumed at human pace is always going to be sustainable. Fast fashion will not be able to sustain going entirely organic, even if they want to, because there are not enough resources. In India, if you ask anyone what’s sustainable, they will say cotton. In France, they will say polyester. And both of them are right. We have to look at production and consumption at a human pace to understand what is sustainable, and that’s also why I am moving away from ready-to-wear, because in couture, you create only when it’s needed.”
A big believer of handweaving, Mishra takes one month to consume five metres of fabric. Talking business, he reveals that his company has grown by 50 per cent, but his production hasn’t gone up. “It means employment becomes more, production is less, and slow fashion wins,” he chuckles. Mishra’s menswear collection also deeply reflects his personal style, and you can spot from afar that it’s a Rahul Mishra collection. The same textiles and aesthetic has been applied to his menswear pieces, with florals still being a massive signature motif for his work. Chikankari on sherwani, pastel colours with a twist, jackets with heavy embroidery, have all made people sit up and take note. How does he see the fashion intellect of the quintessential Indian man change?
“It’s a very colonial approach to think flowers are not meant for men. Our ancestors, kings, sultans all wore intense prints. We’re finally breaking out of the “men wear only black and white” idea. For menswear too, I want to stick to a very knit couture idea. Menswear is now experimental and the confidence has changed. Even in 2000 or 2001, men wearing pink was a welcome change, and dominantly, beautiful prints in history were worn by men. This is not gender fluidity, let me tell you. Fashion, especially Indian fashion, has always been gender fluid,” he explains.
Mishra doesn’t think of his clothes as menswear and womenswear. He doesn’t differentiate between his fabrics or silhouettes for his collections for menswear and womenswear. He’s a chanderi fan. His inspiration comes from travel, he heavily believes in observing his surroundings and learning from there. “There are three kinds of inspiration: it’s tertiary when you are Pinteresting and looking at others’ ideas, secondary inspiration is when you visit museums and libraries and see interpretations and want to recreate those, and primary inspiration is being directly in touch, like when I travel and the interpretation is my own. Inspiration can happen just in a lawn too, among flowers,” he says.
Talking about his favourite fabrics, Mishra specifies, “Organza on womenswear, has worked really well, and it looks great for bundis for men. It’s about how you tailor it, and what the application is. I don’t even think about Indian and western,” he says. “If I had to pick something I’d like to see in menswear,” he goes on, “is to see more men introduce bundis, kurtas, and bandhgalas in the corporate space. It can be formal and stylish as well, worn in colours that are suited for the workplace. Womenswear has that fluidity, and menswear should have it too,” he says.
Indian heritage and textile has its own story, so what are India’s heritage hand-me-downs that we need to value? “I think we need to value our craftsmen. Our heritage is not just in museums. Doing hand embroidery is not something that should be presented in Paris alone. Hand embroidery is being transported to big brands across the globe. People know this about India, and what we need to value are the human resources here. We want to pay less for handmade, more for machinery. This is a disservice we do,” he simply states, and signs off.