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Designer Rahul Mishra is taking traditional Indian craftsmanship to a global audience

By David Abraham  June 18th, 2014

When ELLE asked me to interview designer Rahul Mishra, I thought I hadn’t heard right. I mean, I do have rather more experience answering questions than asking them. But Rahul and I shared a design school experience at the National Institute of Design (though he was vastly junior) – and several unfinished conversations over the past few seasons, snatched in the aisles between our booths at Wills India Fashion Week.

We meet on an especially warm Delhi evening, to chat over dinner. There are our experiences at NID to talk about, his design philosophy, and that subject no designer can resist – contemporary fashion design vis-à-vis tradition and craft in India. Then, of course, there’s the matter of him being the first Indian winner of the prestigious international Woolmark Award this year, making him one of the most talked-about young Indian designers. The award spotlights some of the best design talent from the fashion capitals of the world, and winning it has put him firmly in the footsteps of European fashion legends like Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, both Woolmark winners from earlier times.

His sophisticated, award-winning collection, created in wool, cleverly demonstrated how the intricacy of traditional Indian craftsmanship could be used to design the clean, contemporary fashion collection that won over the international Woolmark jury this year. But Mishra knows that commercial success is just as important as artistic recognition. That’s the other thing about him: his clear-sightedness, refreshingly practical assessments and realistic expectations. “I want to create collections that are built from strong, well-crafted and desirable separates, and to tempt a new customer into owning and enjoying at least one Rahul Mishra piece to start with,” he says. “And that, hopefully, will lead them to take the next step of buying and adding more pieces from my collections to their wardrobes.”

It seems to be working. His collection is now being sold around the world in stores such as Colette in Paris, 10 Corso Como in Milan and Joyce in Hong Kong, arguably among the most influential fashion retailers in the world. And Mishra now has plans to stage his next fashion show for the Spring/ Summer 2015, in either Paris or Milan, an important step for his young brand. It’s safe to say that showing his work in one of the world’s fashion capitals will only build on his recent success.

While he’s savouring said success, he’s hard at work on his next collection with fellow NID designer Divya, whom he met and married while they were still students. She plays a major role in the business they run together. “She’s my sounding board,” he says. “I have to convince her of the viability of a new concept before working any further on it.” He tells me about the music they always listen to together while they work on new ideas and designs, and it’s evident that family is important as Rahul reminisces about his childhood, telling of growing up in a joint family in Kanpur, and sharing the fact that the couples’ parents and siblings are frequently with them in the new home they now share in Noida.

But, back to his new collection, which he is developing with weavers in Benares and Chanderi. “I am continuing my development of lightweight, summer friendly fabrics using wool blended with silk,” he says. Rahul is clear that his next collection will continue the evolution of concepts from his previous collections, to develop a consistent design narrative. What can we expect from the new collection? “Early European chintzes are a new inspiration that I’m working on, even as I continue to work on influences such as MC Escher and progressive graphics,” he says. “And since the fabric techniques will often be complex and finely detailed, I’m working on shapes that are clean and simple, which will play with layering and transparency to create strong separates.”

Looking at the past to create a modern design voice, Rahul Mishra has become an important participant in the ongoing development of contemporary Indian fashion and design. It was at NID that Rahul received his first exposure to the world of traditional Indian craft, and it introduced him to his future design collaborators – the highly-skilled Indian weavers and craftspeople with whom Rahul’s collaborations in the innovations of yarn, dyeing, weaving and ornamentation have helped articulate his aesthetic. In fact, after a fashion scholarship took him to Milan for further studies, he returned to India to the same craftspeople, to begin sampling and developing his early design concepts, and later, his collections. It is with their sophisticated skills, he says, that he developed the fabrics for his award-winning Woolmark collection. A collection that is now taking the fabric woven on a simple, traditional Indian loom to the hippest stores in London, Paris and New York.

Photographs: Hormis Antony Tharakan; Styling: Arushi Parakh; Make-up and Hair: Anand Kaira;Models: Preeti Dhata, Chandni Nasir, Anousha Chauhan/ Karma Models, Carol Humtsoe; Location Courtesy Galeryske, New Delhi 

From left: Organza embroidered dress, organza embroidered jacket, all Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Jamdani dress, Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Cotton peplum jacket, Jamdani and jersey dress, all Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Wool embroidered dress, Rahul Mishra. Leather sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra

When ELLE asked me to interview designer Rahul Mishra, I thought I hadn’t heard right. I mean, I do have rather more experience answering questions than asking them. But Rahul and I shared a design school experience at the National Institute of Design (though he was vastly junior) – and several unfinished conversations over the past few seasons, snatched in the aisles between our booths at Wills India Fashion Week.

We meet on an especially warm Delhi evening, to chat over dinner. There are our experiences at NID to talk about, his design philosophy, and that subject no designer can resist – contemporary fashion design vis-à-vis tradition and craft in India. Then, of course, there’s the matter of him being the first Indian winner of the prestigious international Woolmark Award this year, making him one of the most talked-about young Indian designers. The award spotlights some of the best design talent from the fashion capitals of the world, and winning it has put him firmly in the footsteps of European fashion legends like Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, both Woolmark winners from earlier times.

His sophisticated, award-winning collection, created in wool, cleverly demonstrated how the intricacy of traditional Indian craftsmanship could be used to design the clean, contemporary fashion collection that won over the international Woolmark jury this year. But Mishra knows that commercial success is just as important as artistic recognition. That’s the other thing about him: his clear-sightedness, refreshingly practical assessments and realistic expectations. “I want to create collections that are built from strong, well-crafted and desirable separates, and to tempt a new customer into owning and enjoying at least one Rahul Mishra piece to start with,” he says. “And that, hopefully, will lead them to take the next step of buying and adding more pieces from my collections to their wardrobes.”

It seems to be working. His collection is now being sold around the world in stores such as Colette in Paris, 10 Corso Como in Milan and Joyce in Hong Kong, arguably among the most influential fashion retailers in the world. And Mishra now has plans to stage his next fashion show for the Spring/ Summer 2015, in either Paris or Milan, an important step for his young brand. It’s safe to say that showing his work in one of the world’s fashion capitals will only build on his recent success.

While he’s savouring said success, he’s hard at work on his next collection with fellow NID designer Divya, whom he met and married while they were still students. She plays a major role in the business they run together. “She’s my sounding board,” he says. “I have to convince her of the viability of a new concept before working any further on it.” He tells me about the music they always listen to together while they work on new ideas and designs, and it’s evident that family is important as Rahul reminisces about his childhood, telling of growing up in a joint family in Kanpur, and sharing the fact that the couples’ parents and siblings are frequently with them in the new home they now share in Noida.

But, back to his new collection, which he is developing with weavers in Benares and Chanderi. “I am continuing my development of lightweight, summer friendly fabrics using wool blended with silk,” he says. Rahul is clear that his next collection will continue the evolution of concepts from his previous collections, to develop a consistent design narrative. What can we expect from the new collection? “Early European chintzes are a new inspiration that I’m working on, even as I continue to work on influences such as MC Escher and progressive graphics,” he says. “And since the fabric techniques will often be complex and finely detailed, I’m working on shapes that are clean and simple, which will play with layering and transparency to create strong separates.”

Looking at the past to create a modern design voice, Rahul Mishra has become an important participant in the ongoing development of contemporary Indian fashion and design. It was at NID that Rahul received his first exposure to the world of traditional Indian craft, and it introduced him to his future design collaborators – the highly-skilled Indian weavers and craftspeople with whom Rahul’s collaborations in the innovations of yarn, dyeing, weaving and ornamentation have helped articulate his aesthetic. In fact, after a fashion scholarship took him to Milan for further studies, he returned to India to the same craftspeople, to begin sampling and developing his early design concepts, and later, his collections. It is with their sophisticated skills, he says, that he developed the fabrics for his award-winning Woolmark collection. A collection that is now taking the fabric woven on a simple, traditional Indian loom to the hippest stores in London, Paris and New York.

Photographs: Hormis Antony Tharakan; Styling: Arushi Parakh; Make-up and Hair: Anand Kaira;Models: Preeti Dhata, Chandni Nasir, Anousha Chauhan/ Karma Models, Carol Humtsoe; Location Courtesy Galeryske, New Delhi 

From left: Organza embroidered dress, organza embroidered jacket, all Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Jamdani dress, Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Cotton peplum jacket, Jamdani and jersey dress, all Rahul Mishra. PVC and wood flatform sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra. Wool embroidered dress, Rahul Mishra. Leather sandals, AKA Bespoke for Rahul Mishra