This is how the era of the Indian 'fashion designer' began
by Varun Rana
It is possible to have more than one beginning. Indian fashion has had at least two, and its history can’t be strung together like memory-pearls in a single strand. The story starts with Rohit Khosla, whose intangible legacy, even though he has been gone for 22 years now, continues to impact Indian fashion. Then comes the formation of India’s first governing fashion body, which wrought order from utter chaos. Within these larger narratives are interspersed instances of warmth, solidarity and some hilarity, all of which make Indian fashion a unique space to be and work in.
The man, the phenomenon
In the beginning, there was Rohit Khosla. Back in India from a fashion course at Kingston Polytechnic in London in 1986, he descended on an unformed Indian fashion landscape that relied solely on tailors and talented boutique-owning aunties who could throw prints together. Ritu Kumar had already cornered the wedding market for affluent Punjabis, and later became the designer of choice for international beauty pageant contestants who went on to win the Miss Universe (Lara Dutta), Miss World (Aishwarya Rai, Yukta Mookhey, Priyanka Chopra) and Miss Asia Pacific (Dia Mirza) titles, among others. But it was Khosla who first brought ready-to-wear fashion to India’s parched shores.
As soon as he launched his eponymous label in 1987, he delved deep into the textiles and fabrics of India for inspiration. He was the first to cut voluminous kurtas in crinkled cottons, and used jute rope as embroidery. He had artist Gopika Nath paint on lengths of tussar silk, and geometrified Gujarati mirrorwork like nobody ever had. But more than that, what he did was galvanise an entire industry that really had nothing going for it; in the India of the ’80s, fashion wasn’t a profession. “In our Punjabi family where designers and tailors were thought to be the same, Rohit paved the way,” Suneet Varma, who is Khosla’s cousin, once told me.
It wasn’t just Varma who benefited from Khosla’s appearance. Rohit Bal, who has no formal fashion training, would have been content to continue in his family’s garment export business, were it not for Khosla.
JJ Valaya interned under him, and Ranna Gill, Sonam Dubal and Aparna Chandra assisted him in his initial years. Rina Dhaka started her fashion line at Khosla’s atelier because he encouraged her to make clothes and she didn’t have tailors. “We would hang out at Rohit’s studio and talk about fabrics, and he would push me to try new things,” she says.
In fact, it was at the first fashion show that Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla and American designer Neil Bieff put together, that Bal was asked (“He actually just told me to do it, and that was that,” says Bal) to create a line of menswear. “That’s how he inspired you; he made you do things you didn’t think were possible,” adds Bal, whose men’s collection sold out on the spot.
(Madhu Sapre, Mehr Jesia And Noyonika Chatterjee In Rohit Khosla F/W 1992-93)
Khosla’s talent, though, was too great to be contained simply in the making of clothes. He was also India’s first stylist. Mehr Jesia, Shyamoli Varma, Noyonika Chatterjee and Madhu Sapre came alive in shoots he created with photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta. He transformed Garden Vareli’s printed polyester saris into covetable drapes fit for Delhi’s society queens who had just begun appearing on the newly launched party pages. At soirées thrown by the likes of Bina Ramani, mother of designer Malini Ramani and hostess extraordinaire (phrases like “she taught Delhi how to party” and “the capital’s Parmeshwar Godrej” are thrown around), Khosla and Bal would style themselves outrageously and wreak visual havoc among the genteel.
“I was very shy, but Rohit drew me out. He would insist that I dress up and go out with him,” says Bal. And it didn’t take them long to become the most photographed pair of fashion boys in the city.
(Ensemble’s first fashion show in 1987)
A chance meeting between Khosla and Tarun led to the launch of India’s first multi-designer store, Ensemble, in 1987. Tarun remembers the time well: “There were only two stores that sold designer clothes at the time,” he says. “One was Ravissant and the other was Bina Modi’s Obsession, both selling their own designs. And people would buy their designer wear at exhibitions in art galleries where they’d try the garments on over what they were already wearing.” Sal Tahiliani, Tarun’s wife, who was modelling at the time, met Khosla at a casting call for a Vimal campaign. “The shoot was in Jaipur, and as we sat down to dinner afterwards, we started talking about how there were no options for people to buy good clothes. Tina and I had already had this talk, so when Rohit showed enthusiasm, it really began to take shape.”
Not only was Khosla a designer and a stylist, he was also a mentor and pioneer in every sense of the word. “There is no question that Indian fashion wouldn’t be where it is today had it not been for him,” says Bal. To this day, he credits his success as a designer to Khosla.
(Rohit Bal’s first men’s collection)
But as with many a good thing, Khosla’s time at the helm of Indian fashion didn’t last long. Even though he continued to work till the very end, a fatal illness had taken over and finally claimed his life in 1994. “There isn’t a single day that passes without me thinking about him,” says Bal, who, by this time, had been established as a name to watch out for. Tarun had returned from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York (he felt his business degree from Wharton wasn’t enough), and established his label, Ahilian, as well as Ensemble with his sister, Tina. And Valaya’s couture label had grown fast in its first two years. Varma, who had also begun his label in 1987, was doing well, too. These, then, were the designers who stepped in to fill the gaping vacuum left by Khosla’s untimely and unfortunate demise.
The cool school
Meanwhile, the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), set up in 1986 under the Ministry of Textiles, was operating out of temporary digs at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium. And from its first batches issued today’s stalwarts—Valaya, Ritu Beri, Ashish Soni, Rajesh Pratap Singh (his wife, designer Payal Pratap, is also from the same batch), Manish Arora (who was Singh’s flatmate), Gitanjali Kashyap and Namrata Joshipura, among others.
This enormous buzz, with students graduating from NIFT and Khosla exploding on the scene like a supernova, served as the conjoint Big Bang of fashion in India. Sure, Bhanu Athaiya had already won her Oscar for Gandhi in ’82. But in socialist India where Doordarshan televised nothing more than the highlights of the Academy Awards, if at all, a foreign prize for movie-costume design could hardly galvanise a scattered industry half a planet away. “Everybody wanted to either start their own label as soon as they got out of college, or work with Rohit Khosla,” remembers professor Asha Baxi, former NIFT dean and longtime head of the fashion design department. She has literally taught more than half the notable designers in the country, and remembers the excitement that prevailed throughout the ’90s.
Over time, new names like Puja Nayyar, Abhishek Gupta and Raghavendra Rathore (who worked under Oscar de la Renta in New York) started making a space for themselves. Joshipura, who had gone to study at FIT New York after assisting Varma for two years, had returned to India by 1996. Along with Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, who had also launched their labels Cue (womenswear) and H20 (menswear) around the same time, she cornered the western prêt market. Arora, who had assisted Bal after graduating from NIFT, also came into his own towards the early 2000s. Meanwhile, NIFT graduates Raakesh Agarvwal and Gautam Rakha of Rabani & Rakha had trained under Tarun, and launched their couture labels to great success. Atsu Sekhose and Amit Aggarwal, a single batch apart at NIFT, had also flourished under Tarun, and soon began their independent careers as well.
The millennium turns
That, however, wasn’t Indian fashion’s second beginning. It was the year 1998, which passed with little to say for itself in fashion terms. However, it did see the birth of a non-profit body that would change the game: the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). Its first president was designer Gitanjali Kashyap’s husband, Sumeet Nair, who, after a short stint, gave way to Vinod Kaul, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate with over three decades of experience in the textile and retail industry. It was under Kaul that the FDCI instituted a biannual fashion week, then known as the Lakmé India Fashion Week.
The very first one, held in August 2002, featured a total of 35 designers, and took place at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi. At the time, I was a fashion design student at NIFT, and our batch was volunteered by the institute to work as ushers and backstage helpers at the event. This was history in the making and we were part of it. I remember that designers Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna had made slick black cotton shirts for all volunteers, with hidden plackets and mother-of-pearl buttons—and I wore mine for many years afterwards. As this was the first organised fashion week in the country, no expense was spared. Jawed Habib appropriated a space next to the Taj lobby, where everyone got free haircuts and makeovers. Swarovski (the lifeblood of Indian haute couture; Varma was once detained at Delhi’s international airport because they thought he was smuggling in diamonds) distributed stick-on crystal tattoos. Lakmé chairman at the time, Anil Chopra, sported one on his cheek (a pink butterfly, if memory serves). And in the midst of it all, I, not knowing better, tried to stop Vijay Mallya from carrying his goblet of wine into the main show area. His bodyguard gently swatted me aside.
The year 2002 was also when Beri became the first Indian designer to head a French fashion house, Jean-Louis Scherrer, a feat that Arora would accomplish about a decade later in 2011 with Paco Rabanne. Though both designers were out of these positions within a year, they helped put India visibly on the fashion map. Today, Beri is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (conferred in 2010), while Arora holds France’s highest civilian award, the Legion d’Honneur, given to him earlier this year.
(Manish Arora with French ambassador to India François Richier)
And of course, 2002 gave us Sabyasachi Mukherjee. A collection inspired by the prostitutes of Kolkata, with models wearing madly colourful clothes and reading glasses, was the debut of the millennium. It instantly shot him to fame and got him a mention on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. I went to Kolkata to work as his assistant for about five months in late 2004, and that was when the seeds of an enormous empire were sown (no credit to me though; I was just a cog, and not a very good one as I was asked to leave by the end of the year). Sabya, at the time, had about 10 or so small units around the city, including a small one above his parents’ apartment. Each unit specialised in one job. One studio had tailors whose only job was to create lengths of patchwork from old saris that were later over-dyed (to bring a vintage feel and tonal uniformity) and matched with multi-border saris as blouse pieces. The vari-bordered saris sold like hot cakes and made his business. I do believe Sabya was the first Indian designer to treat his creative work systematically, instituting processes that worked in a factory format where lines of production were defined and run smoothly.
This, then, was the second birth cycle that marked Indian fashion’s march towards becoming an industry in its own right.
One big family
But behind these two chronological chrysalises, the story of Indian fashion is unique in so many ways. Here, friendships have shaped careers and, even today, go beyond professional boundaries. Varun Bahl and Bal, though both are couturiers and have their own wedding design companies, are close to each other. “You don’t see this in any other country,” says Bahl. “Armani may send Lagerfeld flowers after his couture shows in Paris, but Rohit is the one by my bedside if I so much as have a cold.”
Such stories are not common, but if you’ve worked here long enough, they’re plain to see. Bal never misses a Pankaj & Nidhi fashion show. After all, the two fell in love while assisting him, and he always stands beside the photographer’s pit and claps the hardest and longest. Varma does the same for Nandita Basu. Valaya recently closed the Amazon India Fashion Week with his former assistant Alpana, who collaborated with him for the show through Alpana & Neeraj, the label she shares with her husband. Not to mention the designers who have, at one time or another, helped their assistants set up their labels and advised them on important business matters. This is the beauty in the madness that is India’s fashion scene.
I remember the September of 2007 very distinctly. At what was then called the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, Bal showed a collection titled Syahi. Everything was expectedly dramatic, enormous skirts made of hundreds of metres of organza and boleros in breathtaking embroideries, all in shades of blue—syahi is Urdu for ink. But it was the finale that got the longest standing ovation I have ever seen. Dressed in tones of blue, out walked India’s entire fashion fraternity. From Ritu Kumar to Malini Ramani, Ranna Gill to Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna; about 30 in total, all came together for Bal. Over my decade of travelling to cities like Milan and Paris for fashion events, I have never seen anything like it. “Only Rohit could have pulled it off; he has such strong connections across the industry,” says Bahl.
(Rohit Bal’s ‘Syahi’ show in 2007)
Another instance would be the demolition of MG 1, the country’s first ‘designer’ mall situated on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road in the capital. It housed names like Ashish Soni, Cue by Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna and Ashima-Leena, among others. One evening in February 2006, during the demolition drive headed by
the Delhi government, the structure was bulldozed almost without notice. I was Khanna’s assistant at Cue at the time, and remember the rush with which everyone had to evacuate not only their staff, but immense quantities of stock and machinery, not to mention mannequins and display paraphernalia. We all stood outside, silent and together, looking at the destruction of India’s first designer destination that had led to the expansion of many factories and helped designers grow.
To understand Indian fashion’s story, a linear narrative is the least effective tool. There is so much I have missed writing here. Like the time Isabella Blow came to Gaurav Gupta’s studio when I was working with him. To our shock and horror, she removed her Alexander McQueen couture dress right in front of the tailors and started pulling on GG’s draped jersey gowns. Or the more recent incident when Anamika Khanna’s fashion show was threatened by a Mumbai-based political organisation. All other designers came to her aid, offering not only support, but help with setup and backstage management as the venue was changed at the last moment. I also remember the time, in 2010, when Bal suffered a heart attack. The entire industry united in grief, and breathed easy when he came out of it unscathed.
To a person like me, who has seen India’s fashion industry from the wide, wonder-filled eyes of an assistant, and later experienced it through the cynicism of my journalistic lens, it’s a complex place. But that only adds to its beauty. Where else would you find designers using traditional Benares silks and those using machine-made fabrics thriving alike? In this context, it’s a little romantic, perhaps, to find echoes of the ecosystem Khosla built 30 years ago, just by being himself. And it makes sense, then, for this industry to be finally achieving the dreams of a designer who was way ahead of his time.