Ashish Soni on his 25 years in fashion
As Ashish Soni celebrates 25 years in fashion, the wizard of the white shirt tells Varun Rana 20 things about him that you never knew
Ashish Soni has been a constant star on the horizon of Indian fashion. Small beginnings, profound milestones and even the moments that he’d best leave forgotten, all mark his quarter century in the business. “I have so many stories to tell,” he says. And here are only 20 of them. Now you know.
He was the first Indian designer to show at New York Fashion Week (NYFW), and his debut show got rave reviews. Not least of which came from fashion critic Suzy Menkes who, writing for the International Herald Tribune at the time, called him “one of New York’s new discoveries”. A young British model made her NYFW debut at Soni’s first show in the city. “Her name,” he reveals, “was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.”
“I was ready to move to New York,” remembers Soni, but the market collapsed. The Lehman Brothers’ scandal broke out, and Soni’s plans were put off. “I had 63 points of sale across America by then,” he says, adding that he doesn’t regret staying back in India. “Today, I’m happy that I’ve made a brand here by sticking to the kind of clothes I do.”
Strained by the market and the demand for traditional clothing, Soni tried his hand at ethnic Indian womenswear too. “I did make lehengas and saris, but they didn’t come naturally to me. I don’t even want to remember that phase.”
Born in 1971, Soni moved with his parents to Zambia in ’86. They lived in a small town called Kitwe, in the Copperbelt Province known for its sprawling copper mines. His father was a mining officer there. Today, Zambia is one of the safest countries in Africa, but he remembers a time when they lived behind steel-reinforced doors and had six guard dogs for security.
When he moved to India at the age of 15, he didn’t even speak proper Hindi, let alone his mother tongue, Punjabi. But to communicate with his grandmother, with whom he had started living, he learnt Punjabi. Soni speaks it fluently today.
But Soni didn’t start his fashion career as a designer. One evening, before he had even started studying fashion, he bumped into designer Rohit Khosla at the then-popular Delhi nightclub, Ghungroo. “He introduced me to Rohit Bal, who offered me a spot in his menswear show.” He was 17, and his modelling career had just begun; it lasted through his time at NIFT.
Soni chose to study fashion at NIFT instead of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York. “At that time, the dean of NIFT was Richard Streiter, an elegant man whom I met before sitting for the entrance exams,” he remembers. Streiter asked him if he had any artistic talent, or had studied painting or anything related to the arts. When Soni said no, he asked him to not let his hopes soar.
His prospects were, in Streiter’s opinion,
Soni didn’t give up, and learnt fashion sketching from designer Suneet Varma. “I went to him and asked for help. He taught me how to sketch so well that I passed the exams with flying colours,” he says. It wasn’t all sketching though. From the 7,000 or so applicants, Soni ranked third in the entrance exam. As a student, he was bad at History of Art, as was his close friend and classmate, JJ Valaya. “We used to cheat in the exams. Once, we ended up getting more marks than the girl we copied
our answers from!”
Soni styled Shah Rukh Khan’s first commercial ad campaign. This was for Mayur Suitings, and was shot by Atul Kasbekar and launched in print just before the release of SRK’s hit movie Dilwale the following year.
Ace photographer Bharat Sikka’s first fashion shoot was for Soni’s fledgling label, on a camera he borrowed from the designer. “I had a small unit that occupied two rooms on a terrace in Lajpat Nagar (Delhi), and we shot it there. When Bharat got the negatives developed, he was so excited with the results that he rushed back to my place.” But disaster struck. In his excitement, Sikka forgot the negatives and the prints in the autorickshaw he was travelling in, and his first fashion shoot was lost forever.
Soni’s fashion is not only about the white shirt. In the early years of his career, he worked closely with the Ministry of Textiles on design development projects in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. “The earnings and learnings from these projects helped me in my business,” he says.
“I cannot handle Delhi’s heat,” says Soni. And so, through the ’90s, he was the only Indian designer who would shut down his production unit for two whole months—May and June—and go on holiday.
Soni showcased his first exclusive womenswear collection at what was then called Lakmé Fashion Week, organised in Delhi by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI).
Bollywood, too, came calling for the aspiring designer. At the time, there were no casting agents, either in fashion or in film. And had he not been a designer, he may well have become a movie star. He was offered a role in a remake of Bangkok Hilton (1989), opposite none other than Sridevi. The film’s name: Gumrah (1993). And who offered him the role? “The late
Soni launched his menswear label with a collection of jeans, which he financed with the
Rs 50,000 he borrowed from his father. Manufacturing took place at a denim unit set up in Delhi by a batchmate from the Garment Manufacturing Technology department at NIFT.
His first women’s collection was an extension of his men’s line and presented as part of his main show. It sold out in two days. “We were doing see-now-buy-now years before Burberry thought about it. The reaction to my womenswear line was very heartening.”
Soni is, in his own words, “a Michelin junkie”. He takes time off each year to go on road trips around the world, following his own food map. His latest was through Europe, where he covered over 2,000km in a week across three countries.
His dream job, he says, would be to become the curator of a design museum. “It would have everything: from fashion and products to architecture and machinery,” he says. In November this year, he is planning an exhibit to commemorate his 25 years in fashion. But he’s remaining tight-lipped about this one.
Know more from his counterparts:
"Ashish’s garments are always perfectly constructed. His clean, simple aesthetic mirrors my own—I love his contemporary embroidery as well as his use of beautiful fabrics and textures”
“I love the androgynous aspect of his clothes. We have an unspoken connection on our ‘don’t try too hard’ fashion philosophy”
“He savours life’s precious moments and really lives king size, sharing whatever he has to give. Even in his madness, there is a larger sense of responsibility with whatever he is doing”
Photographs: ANUBHAV SOOD, Styling: MALINI BANERJI
Hair and make-up: Leeview Biswas; Black metal and white metal stools, BoConcept; Location courtesy: Nature Morte, New Delhi; Assisted by: Jahnvi Bansal, Garima Gupta and Mehak Anand (Styling)
From left: On Valerie Buscayret: Cotton top, thread and metal necklace; both model’s own. Polyester trousers and jacket, satin train; all Ashish N Soni. Leather heels, Christian Louboutin. On Neera Nath: Cotton shirt, cropped textured silk pantsuit; both Ashish N Soni. Leather and tulle heels, Christian Louboutin. On Ambika Anand: Embroidered polyester tunic, wool crepe trousers, wool jacket; all Ashish N Soni. Leather heels, model’s own. On Ashish Soni: Cotton T-shirt, Cos. Wool suit, Ashish N Soni. On Mini Shastri: Polyester jacquard coat, polyester trousers; both Ashish N Soni. Leather heels, metal necklace, metal cuff, leather-strap watch; all model’s own