In the ’90s, Aparna Chandra’s clothes created a stir. Not for being outrageous, ostentatious or opulent, but for their easy simplicity. Maybe the timing was off, the market wasn’t ready, so she shifted focus to styling instead. Now, more than 20 years later, Chandra’s minimalistic aesthetic has found the perfect fit with Simran Lal (of Good Earth) and Raul Rai’s new venture, Nicobar. It’s an umbrella project under which style, travel and culture are interpreted in the language of local craft; a place, in other words, for modern India to shop. Chandra, creative head of the clothing line, talks to us about her return to design, her love for white and the most special piece in the launch collection — the saviour dress.
ELLE: Quick, fill us in on everything pre-Nicobar!
APARNA CHANDRA: I started my label in 1992, and I think my last show was in 2005, the black tights and coloured organza collection. After that, I did a lot of styling work, mostly advertising and a few shows.
ELLE: So, how did Nicobar happen?
AC: First, Mrs Anita Lal called me to do some work with Good Earth, but that didn’t work out. Then she told me, “Simran [Lal] is going to call you soon about something else.” When Simran and Raul [Rai] asked if I would do Nicobar, it was an instant yes. I hadn’t [designed] in so many years and I had missed it the whole time. They are the only ones I could do this with.
ELLE: Why did you take a break from designing, though?
AC: I can design, and that is what I love, but I couldn’t do the rest of it — marketing, sales and so on. That’s the reason I shut my own label; going in to work and having to do all that wasn’t making me happy.
ELLE: What was it like, coming back to design after so many years?
AC: In the beginning, it made me very nervous, because I was like, ‘How am I going to do it? I haven’t done it in so long!’ But once I started, I felt so at home. And also, for a change I felt it was the right time for me. Earlier, my clothes were too simple, maybe? And anybody looking to spend money on fashion at that time, wanted it to show. I think times have changed, for the better.
ELLE: How would you define the essence of the clothing at Nicobar?
AC: For me, there was only one brief: beautiful clothes to wear all the time. Not just for when you are getting married or for a special occasion. Pure and organic — not organic in fibre, but organic in thought — they have to just fit into your wardrobe. It is important to have clothes that don’t overtake your personality. They have to enhance who you are. If it is too jarring, it is not for everybody. And I would like to see everybody wear Nicobar.
ELLE: What was it like working on a retail model like Nicobar's?
AC: It was a little tough for me in the beginning, because there are so many systems in place. We do numbers; we have to outsource production. And the way I used to work, you know, with my own workshop, I would explain it to the masterji, and then try it on. This is not like that, it’s a lot more systematic. I’ve had to learn a lot.
ELLE: What are your favourite pieces from the line?
AC: The sleeveless overlap top: it’s just the easiest and simplest but when I wear it, I feel special. I love the polka dot dress. And the saviour dress!
ELLE: We sense that there’s a story behind that name.
AC: Our process of working is that we hand off sheets with designs to the sourcing team. Then they
go out to factories and get the samples made. So quite a few of the samples had come in, but they
were just not getting the fabric right. If the fabric was right, then it would either look too new or too blue; something was always off. And we were all feeling really discouraged. And I thought, ‘MaybeI don’t have it any more.’ Then one day, we were all at Tulsi [the office farm] and Rajiv, our sourcing head, walked in with this dress. I went, ‘Oh my god.’ It came in the right fabric, the white was correct, it was perfect! We were all so relieved, and therefore it was called the saviour dress. And the funny thing is that the Monday we went live, my husband went online and bought me this dress! So it is really special.
ELLE: What’s next for you?
AC: Honestly, I thought I would continue styling but when I was doing that, there was so much of it that was so commercial that I didn’t enjoy it. I mean, it was great money, but now I just don’t feel like I can do it. So apart from Nicobar, I’m only going to do things I love. I cannot say that anyone has been luckier; I really am fortunate.