Blue blood: Manish Malhotra


Blue blood: Manish Malhotra

The designer brings Bollywood together for a conversation on gender equality

By Aishwarya Subramanyam  March 5th, 2015

"I’m so happy we are doing this on Sunday!” squeals Manish Malhotra, beaming at a room full of grumpy people. He’s just finished his morning yoga and arrived at the ELLE shoot all in black, wearing (kind of fabulous) fringed Louis Vuitton creepers and backpack, and with his astonishingly thick hair standing straight up on his head. He’s practically bouncing off the walls with non-stop energy, and making us feel a bit ill. But it’s infectious. By the time we have zipped to his favourite Chinese restaurant (“Indian-Chinese, no, Punjabi Chinese!”) for lunch, I find myself thinking, hey, this isn’t a bad way to spend Sunday after all! It is worrying.

This year, Malhotra celebrates 25 years of being a stylist and costume designer in Indian films, as well as 10 years of his eponymous label. He’s 48, but doesn’t look anywhere near it. He is either always working, or thinking about work, or talking about work (“Work is my life.”) Apart from his seasonal collections and couture, as well as shows for charity (like the Cancer Patients Aid Association), he works simultaneously — and tirelessly — on separate lines that use Kashmiri embroidery, chunky mirrorwork and delicate chikankari. The last is a social initiative employing women from the Mijwan village in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh for their wonderful skill with the craft, and something he is really proud of.

This month, Malhotra presents his Blue Runway collection at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, in association with WEvolve, a global campaign that counts among its partners the World Bank, UN Women and ELLE India, and is focused on challenging social and gender norms that lead to gender-based violence.

“At WEvolve, we believe that young people are key agents of change. Because attitudes and behaviours that lead to gender equality begin to develop at a very young age, early adolescence presents a window of opportunity to intervene before individuals solidify their ideas about gender roles and norms,” says Maria Correia, a global expert on gender issues who works with the World Bank. The initiative is garnering support from the Bollywood fraternity, and looking to international celebrities to contribute in making the conversation impossible to ignore.

“The statistics are shocking,” says Malhotra. No human being has the right to hurt another, and women are most at risk. I want to do what I can. The women we employ in Azamgarh work at home while taking care of their kids; they are financially independent. They are more than just mothers, wives, daughters and daughters-in-law. When men realise that women are entirely capable of surviving without their support, it shifts the power balance. After all, abuse also comes from dependency.”

Lakmé Fashion Week is home ground for Malhotra, a “Bombay boy”, and he believes that the show will allow a moment’s pause in the middle of fashion madness. Between spoonfuls of chicken manchow soup, he talks about how the colour blue has worked so well for him, ever since he introduced it into his bridal line at Delhi Couture Week in 2013. It was a grand setting, with the opulence of velvets and silks with silver and gold threadwork, a set straight from the 1930s and an audience that was in thrall. Plus, you know, Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. “Deepika wore that blue antique constructional lehenga with the architectural embroidery. That was the moment. Blue has been such a huge success for me. I used it again in S/S 2014, with ivory work, and people still come to me asking for those pieces,” he says, happily.

The Blue Runway show on March 18 is going to be an offsite presentation, in a space that will allow him the grand scale he so loves. “I like set design, I like music, I almost feel like a director making a film. But the show is not necessarily about all blue clothes, we are also introducing yellow — I think 2015 is going to be a lot about bright, happy yellow. I want to add in salmon, powder pink and coral, too. We’re using this lovely old-world threadwork almost like Parsi gara; I can’t wait for you to see it. Fabrics are soft and flowing: georgettes and cottons, rather than silk and structure. It’s going to be occasion wear, part of my diffusion line, so it will be easy and relaxed, and I want to do more skirts, rather than lehengas”

Malhotra is, of course, a very, very successful designer. His label, which is independent and doesn’t have investors, boasted a turnover of over Rs 100 crore last year, his shows often feature a Bollywood actor or actress as a showstopper — a much-debated practice he started decades ago, sort of an Anna Wintour move of bringing celebrities into the world of fashion. “The success also brings a handicap with it,” he says frankly. “There is a certain expectation from your clientele. They like you and buy your clothes for a reason, and they want you to keep giving them something they recognise. I can’t go off the rails. I have 550 people working with me, who depend on me, and that’s not even counting the workers in Mijwan or Kashmir. There is a certain responsibility I have towards my company, my people. So the challenge is to do what I do best, but reinvent in whatever way I can.”

The thing about Malhotra is that he knows exactly who he is and what he wants, is refreshingly honest about it, and doesn’t give much of a damn about the haters. “I’ve never really been bogged down by criticism. Critics and my fellow designers have said that my clothes sell because actors wear them, then they said they’re too blingy, then they said they’re too colourful, then they said they are just styled, they are not fashion. I’ve heard it all. I don’t react.” 

And he is unapologetic. One of his favourite stories is about his wide-eyed fascination when growing up with Hindi films: the songs, the colour, the clothes. “My mother encouraged it. Every Thursday, she would give money to the domestic help to take me for a movie. I would watch one, have a Chinese meal, and then go back to watch another one.” We are now eating pan-fried fish, chicken in black bean sauce and vegetable dimsums, all of which he is attacking with gusto. He tells me he also loves Thai. But Punjabi-Chinese is best.

Malhotra used to model during college, and joined a boutique in his spare time where he started to enjoy sketching, working with a tailor, talking to clients. At 21, much to the horror of his parents, he started working with two tailors out of a spare room, taking orders. They wanted him to study, but he was late applying to NIFT and somehow, a formal education just didn’t work out. “I was a bad student in school, and in college I spent all my time modelling,” he says. “It was a struggle in the beginning because I didn’t have a fashion education. Today I am struggling because I don’t have a business education. But maybe practical knowledge was the right path for me. My education has been people and travel.”

Malhotra’s first film work was styling Juhi Chawla for Swarg (1990), but it was Rangeela (1995), for which he won a Filmfare Award for costume design, that was his breakthrough moment. He has won many awards since, but one of his earliest was an ELLE Style Award in 1999 for Most Stylish Designer of the Year. Malhotra is rattling off the names of the films he has most enjoyed working on: “Rangeela, Raja Hindustani, Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Judaai, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Dostana, Student Of The Year, Khamoshi, Satya, Jab We Met, Asoka, Chameli...” He only stops because he is fielding a fan who wants to talk to him.

Twenty-five years in Bollywood have taught Malhotra a fair few things, the foremost among them being discipline. “If there’s an issue with a garment the night before, it has to be fixed overnight because the shooting cannot be moved. So today, I don’t fear time, or the lack of it. I find it shocking when I hear things like, a designer came late for his own fittings, or he or she showed the same collection for three shows.” Sridevi, who remains a close friend, has been a big influence, and she is the one he credits with having taught him the nuances of costume design. In fact, Malhotra has kept some of the longest friendships in Bollywood. The secret, basically, is to mind your own business. “Actors are self obsessed. But I never pry into anyone’s life. I never ask, and I never tell.”

We have moved on to chicken pot rice, fish in Schezwan sauce and I’ve lost track of how much we are eating, but it’s Sunday so who cares. Malhotra is reminiscing about his most memorable shows, which include Couture 2013, his CPAA show in 2013 which was soaked with rain but went on regardless, and his Lakmé finale last season, when he used tie-dye for the first time.

Somehow, Malhotra always seems to know what works for the Indian audience, with an unerring commercial sense. “Honestly, that’s because I do not think of myself as an artist. When I create a garment that is beautiful and well made, and somebody buys it and wears it, my work is done. It’s not a piece of art, I don’t want you to look at it and praise it. I want you to acquire it and feel good about wearing it.” 

He is currently putting that endless energy into opening two new stores in the country, outside of Mumbai and Delhi, and is thrilled that the brand crossed one million likes on Facebook recently. In fact, the changing world of Indian fashion, and its attendant digital revolution, has gotten him pretty excited. “The younger designers speak a new language, and I think that’s to be applauded and celebrated; it pushes you to think differently and reinvent yourself.” It comes with a caveat, though, with declining customer loyalty thanks to the sheer number of choices available today. “There are hundreds of stylists and designers now, and there’s a lot of work out there. So many celebrities, so many films, so many people who want personal stylists to dress them. To stand out, you have to be innovative, offer great service, and the price has to be right.” He prides himself on always being there for his clientele, and for always thinking ahead. “There is an abundance in terms of design, but so few are focused on the business of fashion, which is what I think the next five years are going to be about. If even a few of the senior designers concentrated on that, the industry will achieve an international standing.”

The Manish Malhotra woman has changed over the years, too. “Brides are clear today that they are going to this designer for the sangeet and this one for the wedding dress, they know how they want their hair and make-up to be, they know how to balance the jewellery and the outfit. They might have as much knowledge about fashion, but they know what they like. They are unapologetic about bling, glamour, colour — and that’s the woman I design for.”

The fortune cookies arrive, and mine tells me I will touch the lives of many people. Okay. Malhotra reads his out loud, “You will achieve true greatness in your life.” He is not making it up.  

Photographs: Colston Julian; Styling: Alisha Netalkar; Make-up: Sandhya Shekar (Pooja), Anis Selat (Manish); Hair: Sandhya Shekar (Pooja), Team Hakim's Aalim (Manish)

"I’m so happy we are doing this on Sunday!” squeals Manish Malhotra, beaming at a room full of grumpy people. He’s just finished his morning yoga and arrived at the ELLE shoot all in black, wearing (kind of fabulous) fringed Louis Vuitton creepers and backpack, and with his astonishingly thick hair standing straight up on his head. He’s practically bouncing off the walls with non-stop energy, and making us feel a bit ill. But it’s infectious. By the time we have zipped to his favourite Chinese restaurant (“Indian-Chinese, no, Punjabi Chinese!”) for lunch, I find myself thinking, hey, this isn’t a bad way to spend Sunday after all! It is worrying.

This year, Malhotra celebrates 25 years of being a stylist and costume designer in Indian films, as well as 10 years of his eponymous label. He’s 48, but doesn’t look anywhere near it. He is either always working, or thinking about work, or talking about work (“Work is my life.”) Apart from his seasonal collections and couture, as well as shows for charity (like the Cancer Patients Aid Association), he works simultaneously — and tirelessly — on separate lines that use Kashmiri embroidery, chunky mirrorwork and delicate chikankari. The last is a social initiative employing women from the Mijwan village in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh for their wonderful skill with the craft, and something he is really proud of.

This month, Malhotra presents his Blue Runway collection at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, in association with WEvolve, a global campaign that counts among its partners the World Bank, UN Women and ELLE India, and is focused on challenging social and gender norms that lead to gender-based violence.

“At WEvolve, we believe that young people are key agents of change. Because attitudes and behaviours that lead to gender equality begin to develop at a very young age, early adolescence presents a window of opportunity to intervene before individuals solidify their ideas about gender roles and norms,” says Maria Correia, a global expert on gender issues who works with the World Bank. The initiative is garnering support from the Bollywood fraternity, and looking to international celebrities to contribute in making the conversation impossible to ignore.

“The statistics are shocking,” says Malhotra. No human being has the right to hurt another, and women are most at risk. I want to do what I can. The women we employ in Azamgarh work at home while taking care of their kids; they are financially independent. They are more than just mothers, wives, daughters and daughters-in-law. When men realise that women are entirely capable of surviving without their support, it shifts the power balance. After all, abuse also comes from dependency.”

Lakmé Fashion Week is home ground for Malhotra, a “Bombay boy”, and he believes that the show will allow a moment’s pause in the middle of fashion madness. Between spoonfuls of chicken manchow soup, he talks about how the colour blue has worked so well for him, ever since he introduced it into his bridal line at Delhi Couture Week in 2013. It was a grand setting, with the opulence of velvets and silks with silver and gold threadwork, a set straight from the 1930s and an audience that was in thrall. Plus, you know, Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. “Deepika wore that blue antique constructional lehenga with the architectural embroidery. That was the moment. Blue has been such a huge success for me. I used it again in S/S 2014, with ivory work, and people still come to me asking for those pieces,” he says, happily.

The Blue Runway show on March 18 is going to be an offsite presentation, in a space that will allow him the grand scale he so loves. “I like set design, I like music, I almost feel like a director making a film. But the show is not necessarily about all blue clothes, we are also introducing yellow — I think 2015 is going to be a lot about bright, happy yellow. I want to add in salmon, powder pink and coral, too. We’re using this lovely old-world threadwork almost like Parsi gara; I can’t wait for you to see it. Fabrics are soft and flowing: georgettes and cottons, rather than silk and structure. It’s going to be occasion wear, part of my diffusion line, so it will be easy and relaxed, and I want to do more skirts, rather than lehengas”

Malhotra is, of course, a very, very successful designer. His label, which is independent and doesn’t have investors, boasted a turnover of over Rs 100 crore last year, his shows often feature a Bollywood actor or actress as a showstopper — a much-debated practice he started decades ago, sort of an Anna Wintour move of bringing celebrities into the world of fashion. “The success also brings a handicap with it,” he says frankly. “There is a certain expectation from your clientele. They like you and buy your clothes for a reason, and they want you to keep giving them something they recognise. I can’t go off the rails. I have 550 people working with me, who depend on me, and that’s not even counting the workers in Mijwan or Kashmir. There is a certain responsibility I have towards my company, my people. So the challenge is to do what I do best, but reinvent in whatever way I can.”

The thing about Malhotra is that he knows exactly who he is and what he wants, is refreshingly honest about it, and doesn’t give much of a damn about the haters. “I’ve never really been bogged down by criticism. Critics and my fellow designers have said that my clothes sell because actors wear them, then they said they’re too blingy, then they said they’re too colourful, then they said they are just styled, they are not fashion. I’ve heard it all. I don’t react.” 

And he is unapologetic. One of his favourite stories is about his wide-eyed fascination when growing up with Hindi films: the songs, the colour, the clothes. “My mother encouraged it. Every Thursday, she would give money to the domestic help to take me for a movie. I would watch one, have a Chinese meal, and then go back to watch another one.” We are now eating pan-fried fish, chicken in black bean sauce and vegetable dimsums, all of which he is attacking with gusto. He tells me he also loves Thai. But Punjabi-Chinese is best.

Malhotra used to model during college, and joined a boutique in his spare time where he started to enjoy sketching, working with a tailor, talking to clients. At 21, much to the horror of his parents, he started working with two tailors out of a spare room, taking orders. They wanted him to study, but he was late applying to NIFT and somehow, a formal education just didn’t work out. “I was a bad student in school, and in college I spent all my time modelling,” he says. “It was a struggle in the beginning because I didn’t have a fashion education. Today I am struggling because I don’t have a business education. But maybe practical knowledge was the right path for me. My education has been people and travel.”

Malhotra’s first film work was styling Juhi Chawla for Swarg (1990), but it was Rangeela (1995), for which he won a Filmfare Award for costume design, that was his breakthrough moment. He has won many awards since, but one of his earliest was an ELLE Style Award in 1999 for Most Stylish Designer of the Year. Malhotra is rattling off the names of the films he has most enjoyed working on: “Rangeela, Raja Hindustani, Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Judaai, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Dostana, Student Of The Year, Khamoshi, Satya, Jab We Met, Asoka, Chameli...” He only stops because he is fielding a fan who wants to talk to him.

Twenty-five years in Bollywood have taught Malhotra a fair few things, the foremost among them being discipline. “If there’s an issue with a garment the night before, it has to be fixed overnight because the shooting cannot be moved. So today, I don’t fear time, or the lack of it. I find it shocking when I hear things like, a designer came late for his own fittings, or he or she showed the same collection for three shows.” Sridevi, who remains a close friend, has been a big influence, and she is the one he credits with having taught him the nuances of costume design. In fact, Malhotra has kept some of the longest friendships in Bollywood. The secret, basically, is to mind your own business. “Actors are self obsessed. But I never pry into anyone’s life. I never ask, and I never tell.”

We have moved on to chicken pot rice, fish in Schezwan sauce and I’ve lost track of how much we are eating, but it’s Sunday so who cares. Malhotra is reminiscing about his most memorable shows, which include Couture 2013, his CPAA show in 2013 which was soaked with rain but went on regardless, and his Lakmé finale last season, when he used tie-dye for the first time.

Somehow, Malhotra always seems to know what works for the Indian audience, with an unerring commercial sense. “Honestly, that’s because I do not think of myself as an artist. When I create a garment that is beautiful and well made, and somebody buys it and wears it, my work is done. It’s not a piece of art, I don’t want you to look at it and praise it. I want you to acquire it and feel good about wearing it.” 

He is currently putting that endless energy into opening two new stores in the country, outside of Mumbai and Delhi, and is thrilled that the brand crossed one million likes on Facebook recently. In fact, the changing world of Indian fashion, and its attendant digital revolution, has gotten him pretty excited. “The younger designers speak a new language, and I think that’s to be applauded and celebrated; it pushes you to think differently and reinvent yourself.” It comes with a caveat, though, with declining customer loyalty thanks to the sheer number of choices available today. “There are hundreds of stylists and designers now, and there’s a lot of work out there. So many celebrities, so many films, so many people who want personal stylists to dress them. To stand out, you have to be innovative, offer great service, and the price has to be right.” He prides himself on always being there for his clientele, and for always thinking ahead. “There is an abundance in terms of design, but so few are focused on the business of fashion, which is what I think the next five years are going to be about. If even a few of the senior designers concentrated on that, the industry will achieve an international standing.”

The Manish Malhotra woman has changed over the years, too. “Brides are clear today that they are going to this designer for the sangeet and this one for the wedding dress, they know how they want their hair and make-up to be, they know how to balance the jewellery and the outfit. They might have as much knowledge about fashion, but they know what they like. They are unapologetic about bling, glamour, colour — and that’s the woman I design for.”

The fortune cookies arrive, and mine tells me I will touch the lives of many people. Okay. Malhotra reads his out loud, “You will achieve true greatness in your life.” He is not making it up.  

Photographs: Colston Julian; Styling: Alisha Netalkar; Make-up: Sandhya Shekar (Pooja), Anis Selat (Manish); Hair: Sandhya Shekar (Pooja), Team Hakim's Aalim (Manish)