Rahul MishraImage: Madhu Kapparath
simple black shirt, a black thread around the neck and an earnest smile —it all makes fashion designer Rahul Mishra look like the boy next door. But Mishra is anything but. He is the only Indian designer to have shown at the extremely prestigious Haute Couture Week–Paris four times. He did more business this quarter than in the same quarter before the pandemic in 2019. Known for his global contemporary take on traditional Indian crafts, he is a firm believer in taking things slow and says ready-to-wear fashion is unhealthy for both the fashion industry and the planet.
Over an hour-long Zoom conversation with Forbes India, the National Institute of Design alumnus spoke about everything from the inspiration behind his recent haute couture collection—The Shape of Air—shown at the Paris Haute Couture Week (July 5 to July 8, 2021) where he showcased his collection as a fashion film shot in India, to what India can do to put its haute couture on the world map. Q. What does it take to show at the Paris Haute Couture Week, one of the most prestigious fashion events in the world?
One of the episodes captured in the documentary film McQueen (2018), a film on the life of British designer Alexander McQueen, is about McQueen’s struggle with depression after one of his collections did not get great reviews in Paris.
It [The Paris Fashion Week] is a very difficult space to work in as it wants the highest quality work. You are constantly watched, and your past work is never enough. Your present collection is the only thing that matters. Even if you falter once, things can get quite challenging.
I am 16 seasons old at the Paris Fashion Week. Before showing haute couture, I showed ready-to- wear for 12 seasons. And before that I showed quite a lot in India.
After my debut in 2009 at the Wills India Fashion Week, I was being considered [by Didier Grumbach, chairman of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode] for a showing in Paris. But I took five years to get ready before I decided to show at such a huge, global platform. I needed to have a lot of experience of multiple showcases before I went to Paris. I did not want to be like Abhimanyu in Mahabharata
—not prepared for the big war, which led to loss of life and his talent.
I only contacted the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (the regulatory body of Paris Fashion Week) in 2014, after winning The International Woolmark Prize (an award that recognises the best talents in global fashion) and after I knew that international audiences were liking my work as all my collections were sold out at some of the best fashion boutiques in the world. Q. What was the inspiration behind your latest Paris haute couture collection ‘The Shape of Air’?
In Paris, every designer pushes his/her limit
. Nobody comes in their comfort zone and that is what makes it very exciting. It’s so intense that creative directors of the biggest fashion houses lose their jobs if the collection is not up to the mark.
For me, every collection is a new journey and a new challenge that teaches me many different things
. Whenever we try something new, we fail multiple times. We struggled for almost a month to get the first garment of the 21-piece collection right.
I had travelled to Santorini with my daughter in 2019 and was looking at the island as a city planner. I saw its different elements, like the dome, staircase, windows, in isolation and then assembled the pieces the way I saw the city. Like Lego. Santorini is not like Paris or Milan. The buildings here are very soft. It feels as if air has shaped them, and the sky has given colour to its domes and windows.
I wanted to create Santorini the way it had made an impression on my soul. Monet [artist Claude Monet] had once said that he doesn’t paint sceneries but the air around the domes and the bridges, which is very difficult to do. Similarly, I wanted to create air and the fluidity of water and other elements of nature in my clothes.
I believe there are three kinds of inspirations. When you look at Monet’s Sunflowers on Pinterest, it is tertiary. It is Pinterest’s version of Monet’s painting. When you look at the actual painting, it is secondary inspiration. It is how Monet saw the sunflower. And when you see an actual sunflower, when there is nothing in between you and the sunflower, it creates a lasting impression on your soul. That is primary inspiration.
Talking about the painting Monet had said that the sunflower was his own. Similarly, this collection was about making Santorini my own. And realising this was difficult. There were no references, no lookbooks so we failed multiple times.
Our first garment was fully ready only on June 15, just two weeks before the shoot. Back then, I had told The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode that I might be able to show just five pieces at the haute couture week.
We were also hit by the second wave of the pandemic
and things were tough. But in the end, it all worked out and we ended up creating 21 pieces for the showcase.
Despite the great response we received for The Shape of Air collection, it was far from the goal I had in my mind. If we had had more time, we could have done a lot more.
This season I had wanted to continue last season’s narrative on global warming. But that would have required the use of a lot of technology and the time was not right. Q. What were the challenges in putting together the collection in the middle of a pandemic?
It was challenging but as industries were allowed to stay open in Noida with one-third of staff, we continued to work. And luckily for us, none of my family or staff members, to my knowledge, suffered from Covid-19 as we had followed very strict safety norms since the beginning of the pandemic.
From May 15 onwards, we were completely focused on the collection. Despite a large team, there were many nervous moments. The scheduled shoot day on June 29 was postponed by a day as three outfits were not ready. The last outfit was delivered at the shoot location at 7 pm on June 30. But we made it and it’s all thanks to my team.
Since 2013, I have been encouraging people to reverse migrate and have been giving work to karigars in different villages across the country. As Covid’s impact was localised, some of the far away villages were less impacted than other areas. So, decentralisation
of processes is very important and karigars should be enabled to work from home so they don’t have to go through the ordeal of migration.Image: Courtesy Rahul MishraQ. How has the pandemic affected your business and sales?
I have 150 people working in my atelier and 700 to 800 artisans across India. We have not laid off anyone. In fact, we did more business in the first quarter this year than in the same quarter in 2019, before the pandemic. All my staff got a 10 percent to 15 percent raise before retail stores opened after the second wave.
Online business and growth of international presence helped us
. Although the stores were shut, orders didn’t stop and we continued to provide personalised services across the globe.
The Shape of Air collection helped secure jobs and gave us the hope that the future is bright. It was important for me to shoot its film in India and spend that money, which runs into crores, here instead of abroad. The camera crew, the models were all working for the first time after the second wave. We drew a lot of resilience and hope from the film. The tension of uncertainty can only be eased if we continue working.
Focusing on the China market is another strategy that has been working for us. More than 50 percent of global luxury sales happen in China. Aamir Khan’s film Lagaan (2001) made Rs1,700 crore in China, a lot, lot more than what it made elsewhere. That is the power of the Chinese market
, and we have a great run there with requests for sourcing and styling top celebs. Sales have been good as well. Q. What is the biggest haute couture trend today?
The showcase of the strength of human resilience is the biggest trend in couture fashion today. The colours, shapes and presentations all had this as its underlying theme.
This year’s collections at the Paris Haute Couture Week were more realistic than poetic and fragile, and not the kinds that belong to the utopian world, which is not the case right now. We can’t live in a bubble anymore.
When it comes to bridalwear, not just in India but across the globe, brides are getting more experimentative and want different colours, fabrics
and not those typical red lehengas. Brides buying couture right now are extremely global and know what they want.
Ten years ago, the mother-in-law would decide what a bride would wear. In most cases, she would be overweighed with heavy outfits and jewellery, looking like a chandelier. That time is over. Today’s brides come with a mood board and that is so exciting for a designer. One bride told me to make something special for her for her barefoot wedding at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. I learn a lot from these girls. Q. Where does Indian couture stand today?
It is important for us to not just focus on a fashion showcase but also on the supply chain, brand ethos, personalisation services and tailoring. When I started couture, 30 to 40 percent of my pieces would come back to the atelier for alteration. This can’t happen with global clients. So, one must constantly work on bettering the tailoring as well. Last year, our alteration problems were less than one per cent. We must realise that if we are competing with global brands such as Dior (Christian Dior)
and Chanel, we must do better.I had once created a wedding dress for a member of Qatari royalty who told me Dior had sent two people along with the garment to ensure it fits her perfectly.
Our garments must also not just look great but also feel great. We must also be ready to meet any kind of demand. The same Qatari woman wanted me to create an outfit for her with French knots and a 10-ft long trail. French knots are heavy, but I had to ensure the outfit is as light as possible.
All brands must push boundaries all the time and be curious and hungry.Q. What are the other projects you are working on?
I have been teaching myself architecture by studying and analysing great architects’ works. I am building an entire home for myself in collaboration with a major business house wherein I will not just be the architect but also design the décor, furniture and everything else except the electrical appliances. The house will be a passive house, which means it will be completely sustainable
I am also waiting to get possession of my new factory in Noida. Q. What is the future of the Indian fashion industry?
The industry is growing, but we must grow in occasion wear and not ready-to-wear. The latter is not good for anyone, neither the industry nor the planet. There must be an occasion when you need to wear and buy a special outfit. That is the Indian model and that should lead global fashion. Wear that special creation and pass it on as an heirloom.
Fast fashion brands are sitting on trillions of unsold pieces. Rather than becoming a mechanical industry
that churns out new clothes one after the other and then dumps them when the trend ends, we need to slow down and contemplate our ways of working.