Suneet Varma: Flight of fancy

Once upon a time, a beautiful little girl would wake up in her bed in a hand-painted mansion every morning in a pool of rose petals. She once asked her mother who did it, and was told that a “pari” came by. She started to believe in fairies; disbelief wasn’t so difficult to dismiss then. (What they didn’t tell her was that Pari was the name of the domestic help.) When she grew up, there were dances in a ballroom in their 40-room mansion in Peshawar. He says she was very beautiful, and fragile. She told him stories, and the boy learned to use his grandmother’s memory as a route to fantasyland. He learned to draw in his head, and imagined with the help of memory. There was a nostalgia, and celebration of a world that didn’t exist. Like a Shakespearean forest with beautiful women in their costumes, speaking about love and other things. “Romance is eternal,” he says, “It is all about what you choose to believe. About what you forget, and what you choose to remember.” He is almost never disillusioned. In life, love, and fashion. 

Suneet Varma grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories, in an old barsaati in Delhi. His father was from a textile family but taught English for a brief time, and that’s how young Varma began to marvel at words — he could create and collapse; he could build, rebuild and deconstruct. He wanted to be a sculptor, but also adored textiles. His father suggested that he merge both loves, and become a designer. The dream was born, and realised with an education at the Regent’s American College in London, followed by the London College of Fashion.

Every designer, says Varma, chooses a period to derive inspiration from. For him, it’s the 1920s in India, France and Britain — a world that excites him. There were underground movements, there was fusion. It was a heady mix of beauty and romance, love and discovery, alternative worlds and ideas. There was absinthe, and there was satire. There were hats, and there were ornamented buttons. A toast to beauty was raised everywhere. It was a time of intrigue, indulgence and emancipation.

Varma finds sparks of inspiration everywhere: sometimes in a text or a shard of poetry, as he plays storyteller and cinematographer. His imagination is vivid, but reality will always fall short, he muses. Life without illusion would be nonsense, and no use at all. What good is it if it isn’t theatrical, dramatic, full of surprises, romance — and sex? “Fashion is about clothes, and that’s definitely a polite way of talking about sex,” he says. “Fashion is about attraction, flamboyance. I believe was meant to love, create beauty and bring happiness.”

A little over a year ago, Varma married his longtime partner Rahul Arora (who now works with him) in New York. “There are only a few people who matter in my life,” he smiles. He’s a vocal supporter of gay rights, but also believes that being defined by sexuality is a form of sensationalism. “Identity is unrelated to sexuality,” he says, “It is just one of the many facets of your personality.”  He is a million other people, not just a gay man. He is a lover of women: he adores them, admires them, marvels at them. His creations celebrate their beauty, and he adorns them with magical flowers and glitter.

Even the ceiling in his store where we stand is strung with flowers and vines, straight from the enchanted forest in his mind. I see an ivory and red lehenga with flowers arranged in a kind of ordered chaos; he tells me he sees it on a dusky woman with light eyes. “There’s a mole on her face, which makes her beautiful.” It might be a jarring feature for some, but to him it’s distinctive. She’s laughing, and her suitors are spellbound by her beauty. And that’s how he sees his women. Beautiful things, empowered beings.

Even the names of his collections (which happen to be the first thought or inspiration for his designs) are feminine and fantastical:  “Swan Lake was literally that, inspired by the ballet performance and Tchaikovsky’s music. My spring line in 2012 was called the Eternal Lightness of Being: it was airy, fresh and felt very light, almost weightless. My last couture show was called The Princess of Shekhawati and was inspired by the hand-painted havelis from that region,” he muses. Shekhawati is an abandoned town in Rajasthan, a place he read about in a book and visited 10 years ago. He has returned twice, and plans to go back again. There is something about a town left in a time warp- something that continues, and amuses, and inspires. “You never know what can strike you.”

For this collection, he designed beaten gold headgear that had spikes like daggers. Paired with delicate lace and embroidery, it signified the power of women. “Accessories tell the best stories. I made a breastplate and it was inspired by the Birth of Venus, a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli.” The iconic piece was an early creation, and is particularly definitive in his body of work.

After being in the business for 27 years, Varma stresses the importance of consistency. That’s how artists do it. That’s how other senior designers have done it; he cites Rohit Bal, who often derives inspiration from his native Kashmir. “We have stayed on because we live in the world of magic realism,” he explains. “It is all about the choices you make.” It’s as if he has decided to deal with the boundaries of reality by building parallel worlds in his head. His clothes are a manifestation of his beliefs and his journeys into this fantasia. A charcoal drawing that hangs in his bedroom depicts metamorphosis: a man fused with an insect. It is a world he knows well. Of fantastical creatures, and the beauty of defiance. After all, that’s how you create personalities.

Varma confines himself so that he can create: “I keep myself in a happy place. I don’t confuse myself.” To him, designing means a tryst with insanity. He used to be hysterical about everything being exactly as he imagined, and if anything was even the slightest bit different, he would feel agitated. That’s when he saw a therapist. “She told me, ‘In that first moment when you saw it, it was beautiful.’ I believe in that now,” he says. 

He also believes in forever, and happy endings in life and love. “It’s possible,” he asserts. “I have an unshakeable faith in romance. So many people fondly send messages of appreciation — some of them want to get married again, just to be able to wear the wedding outfits once more. That, to me, is the biggest compliment.”

Admirers of his work have much to look forward to: Varma is currently working on a project with a major online retailer to develop a ready-to-wear collection. Set to launch next month, the line promises to reach a much wider audience. “We have also collaborated with the World Gold Council to design jewellery under their brand Azva,” he says.

I am distracted by a girl in the store, who is trying on a black ensemble, dotted with gold flowers. She is smiling, radiating happiness. “In that moment, it is beautiful.” The rest doesn’t matter. 

Photographs: Bikramjit Bose; Assisted by: Azra Sadr; Styling: Arushi Parakh; Make-up and hair: Chandni Singh; Model: Bhavna Suri/ Purple Thoughts

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