Why Bollywood can't get enough of jewellery designer Suhani Pittie
by Nishat Fatima
It’s 8.30 in the morning and Suhani Pittie is bright, cheerful and, in sharp contrast to me, awake. She’s been that way since 7am when hair and make-up started. We’re at the over-200-year-old Pittie haveli in Begum Bazar, Hyderabad and the designer is picking her ensemble for the shot, which comprises a vintage lehenga, a T-shirt, booties and one blue denim jacket for a pop of colour. There’s no other way to describe it, it’s all so very ‘Grunge Begum’. The inspiration for that very successful 2010 collection is all around us. It’s from this haveli that Pittie started her brand (“Pure fluke.”). This year, it completed 10 years—and that is anything but a fluke. If you’ve followed her journey from the beginning, as I have, it’s tempting to reach about for trailing phrases like “just yesterday…”, “so young...”, “time flies…”. Of course, as the 23-year-old bride of entrepreneur Stouvant Pittie, the designer was fully grown by the time she moved to Hyderabad from Kolkata, and had already run one business, a gemology training institute. Pittie, now 35, is now operating on a much larger canvas, and preoccupied with things like corporatisation, venture funding and creating a legacy. She has no doubt she will, and nor do you.
The Suhani Pittie story reads like one of those daydreams you spin for yourself. The youngest of three siblings (the oldest is designer Anamika Khanna), she launched her business almost on a lark. One day she made a piece of jewellery by threading a bit of old beaten silver with black string as a gift for someone in the family. Soon, she had a half-dozen requests for it. Faced with embarking on what was essentially a completely new field of work (she studied gemology), Pittie thought, well why not. She created a 30-piece collection, set up a table at Bridal Asia in November 2004, and Tina Tahiliani Parikh of Ensemble bought the lot. Suhani Pittie registered as a company the next year.
It was a heady start. “I knew nothing. I spent my first day googling ‘Where do I buy silver? How do I melt silver?’ I was just beating metal and giving silver a beautiful finish. And because one of my karigars knew beading, I would bead whatever I could.” Over the years, Pittie has worked with brass, Perspex and wood, steel, copper, thermocol, fabric and synthetic pearls. She’s created new materials, like an allergen-free German silver. But she realised early on that her trademark was the silver, which she’s been able to replicate by plating copper with silver too.
To club Pittie in with other Indian jewellery brands would undermine the niche she occupies. Before her, jewellery was either fine or junk. Accessory designers were few and far between and jewellery designers, even rarer. To give you an idea of how much has changed since: when Pittie started, there were no accessories shows at Lakmé Fashion Week. Her work, when it finally arrived on the scene, was a tour de force that combined design integrity and emotion—so it stayed, season after season. It wasn’t just the Indian audiences that took note, either; in 2007, she was commissioned to supply pieces to the store at the Museum of Art and Design, New York and in 2012, the World Gold Council named her among the top ten most inventive and ingenious jewellery designers in the world.
“Women were enjoying [the jewellery] because it was giving them a new dialogue.” This exchange is important to Pittie and to whom she identifies as the Suhani Pittie woman. “It’s anybody who is spirited enough to enjoy a product for the dialogue it sparks and the beauty of it. Someone who has the courage to not be a trend victim and likes things for liking them—not because their choice is being validated by me or anyone else.” And that woman comes in many forms, from the risk-taking Sonam Kapoor, who has worn Pittie to Cannes five years in a row, to the more stately Madhuri Dixit and glamazon Deepika Padukone.
The momentum that launched Suhani Pittie into the spotlight has not flagged one bit. In the last two years—including the eight months she spent on a wheelchair after breaking both ankles playing football—she has professionalised her company, turning it into a fully fledged corporate entity with a board of directors and departments handling HR, marketing and digital operations. Her website now ships worldwide and her factory can finally compete in the big leagues. She says, “Three years ago, if international stores wanted 7,000 to 10,000 pieces delivered in two weeks, I would have had to decline them. But I can manage it now.”
Pittie, who works long days, is highly driven and equally focused. “I have taken the last one-and-a-half years to draw up the plan for where I want to be in the next 10 years, and I’ve been able to partner with a lot of people who have the same goals and believe in what I do.” She designs new pieces every day, has created a password-operated B2B website for the stores she supplies to, besides the online store she runs, and is on top of every aspect of the business. She doesn’t believe in taking holidays, Sundays are torture, and her last vacation was in 2009. “If you’ve found your calling and your voice, you cannot sit back, relax and say this is the maximum I can do.”
Pittie is not just planning the future of her brand. She wants to start a vocational training school, and is interested in working in the fields of renewable energy and health too. Business ideas are buzzing about her brain pretty much non-stop. “I believe a great business is a way to build a great economy. You have so many people whose livelihood depends on how successful you are; your growth is their growth. And that’s the kind of tremendous pressure I want.”
I’ve caught her a few days before her show at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2016-17, and she’s wrested the time out of that craziness for the shoot and interview. She wears a few pieces from the collection, which was inspired by the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and West Asia. She’s used silver-plated copper and fabric to fashion ‘bandages’; the cuffs cover her arm from wrist to elbow. One necklace is so delicate, it looks like it could fall apart at any minute. The themes of distress and disintegration run through these pieces.
“Working on the refugee crisis story, I’m reading about it and feeling it all the time. I’ve cried watching the video [which goes with the show]. And that’s the thing about being in a creative field— you never leave your emotional baggage aside.” This deep emotion is the spine of Pittie’s designs. You can hear it in her voice as she talks about working with metal. “It takes three seconds for the liquefied silver to flow down as molten red lava, touch another surface and start solidifying. It’s very metaphorical, the disintegration and the coming together.” It’s the philosophy that keeps her pushing ahead at work, too: “Tomorrow has to be 1,000 times better than today so I can turn around and say, yesterday was bullshit, man.”
Her plans for next year seem to be on track to make that happen. She counts them off on her fingers: “[Vocational] school, precious jewellery, venture funding, my fifth factory. I want to get a factory that can accommodate our growth for the next five years.” Going back to that list: “Concentrate online. Go international. Work on our flagship store.”
And all this, sitting in Hyderabad—not exactly the hub of fashion. Pittie counts this as both a blessing and a burden. “You’re away from all the tamasha and you do what you think is right, but sometimes you also don’t meet a lot of people. I get a lot of flak for not being visible. But I think people will find me.” She’s married into a 400-year-old family, and credits the city for a lot of what she is. The Old City draws her with its Attar Bazaar, Laad Bazaar and the Badshahi Ashurkhana. Then there’s the beautiful family haveli. And the mix of people who work in her factory, she says, is one you wouldn’t find in most other cities. “You can still work 20-hour days in Hyderabad and build a fast-paced, ambitious Bombay-like community here.” Pittie strikes you as the kind of person who frequently ticks ‘All of the above’ when life hands her a choice. It’s how she’s built an identity that’s old and new, soulful and savvy, rooted and yet somehow in constant flight.
Photographs: Nishat Fatima. Hair and make-up: Sachin Dakoji