French connection

It is undeniable that before Manish Arora hit Paris 10 years ago, there was nothing about Indian fashion that an international audience could really relate to. Before 2007, we had no global design identity compared to the signature aesthetics of designers from London, Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo. But when Arora debuted in the world’s fashion capital a mere decade after launching his label, he made everybody sit up and take notice. Within the year, he had Kate Moss on the cover of Interview magazine wearing his elaborate studded mask, and Raquel Zimmermann fronted V Magazine in an embellished, appliquéd Manish Arora dress.

Since then the spry 45-year-old designer has not only garnered more magazine covers than he cares to count, but has become a regular and eagerly awaited name at Paris Fashion Week (PFW). He has also forged unique global collaborations with brands like Reebok, M.A.C, Disney, Swatch, and most recently, Swarovski. “My work lends itself to many kinds of expressions, not just clothes,” he says. In fact, he was the subject of a 2010 case study by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore. “Beware, trespassers will be collaborated,” reads the last line of the document.

There is an enduring universality to his work that has translated into international success that no other Indian designer has achieved, yet. His carousel dress from Spring 2009, worn by Katy Perry, has become iconic, as has his butterfly dress from Fall 2009. In 2007, just before he started showing in Paris, he was part of the Victoria &Albert Museum’s Fashion in Motion show held in London. And in March this year, he celebrated his 10th anniversary at PFW with a show at the Grand Palais.

“I haven’t had the time to even think about it,” says Arora when I ask him to look back on this glittering decade. But you know it’s a lie. Today, his retail network spans over 80 outlets worldwide, not including his flagship stores in Delhi and Paris, and the one dedicated to his Indian by Manish Arora line—produced in collaboration with traditional-wear behemoth Biba—in Mumbai. He was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth II in London earlier this year, and was knighted as a Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur by the French government last year. He even plans to open three stores in China by the end of this year. This doesn’t happen to a person who’s not constantly thinking about his work—and I tell him as much.

“Yes, that’s true,” he admits. “Not many people know this, because I have this image, you see, of partying and staying up late—but I wake up between 6.30 to 7am, and I am at work before anyone else…by 8.30 or 9. I like to get my work done—and I don’t like working till late.” This, he says, was one of the best lessons he learnt in Paris. Apart from that, he says that showing in the French capital taught him how to plan a collection to suit his various markets in China, Japan and the Middle-East. “When I started showing internationally, was when I became disciplined,” he says.

Today, that discipline plays a leading part in the designer’s life. “Before I went to London [he showed in the British capital from 2005 to 2007] and Paris, I thought being a designer was all about becoming a successful rockstar, partying, and going to work late. Not anymore.” He credits his stint as creative director of the legendary label Paco Rabanne, which lasted from 2011 to 2012, as a turning point. It was there that he discovered the workings of a great fashion house, and brought that learning to bear on his own workplace. “I learnt that being a designer is a job, just like being a lawyer or a doctor. You have responsibilities and deadlines, and people depend on you.”

On the PFW calendar, Arora’s show is usually sandwiched between established names like Balenciaga, Chloé, Balmain, Carven, Rick Owens and Isabel Marant, each distinctive by their design aesthetic. That Arora stands out even from this august crowd is a testament not only to his ingenuity, but also the committed way in which he celebrates the craftsmanship of his home country. “In India, we have the world’s best textiles and embellishments. Nobody can do these better than us. And it’s my mission to use these techniques in a modern way—to make them more accessible to a global fashion consumer,” he says.

To that end, he is now working actively to #BringBackKashmiriSilk, a project he unveiled on his Instagram on Independence Day. “The younger generation, my friends’ fashion-conscious cool kids who will become the style setters of the future, don’t know what a kani shawl is. It’s too obscure and traditional for them,” he says. “I want to play with the motifs and colours and make it easy for them to wear our textiles and embellishments.”

Arora has also announced the launch of his first perfume in partnership with UK-based Designer Parfums. Named Ready to Love by Manish Arora, it’s set to hit stores next year. “I have more energy than ever before, and there’s lots to do,” he says. If he keeps going at this rate, just imagine what the next 10 years will bring. 

Photographs: Farrokh Chothia Styling: Gautam Kalra 

Hair and makeup: Luna Lakhar Dutt ( Kalyani Chawla, Mithu Sen, Ameet Sikka and Namrata Joshipura) makeup: Kajee Rai ( Noyonika Chatterjee, Sapna Kumar, Aparna Chandra, Sonam Kalra), Kiran (Koel Purie, Nandita Basu, Priya Paul and Payal Pratap); hair: Karna Rai, Amee Thomas and Dablu Kumar; assisted by: Kaveri Sharma and Garima Gupta (styling); location courtesy: The Leela Palace, New Delhi

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