Cuts and Thrust

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On the design arcs of Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, two of India’s top fashion designers

For about two minutes after Manish Malhotra’s show, which inaugurated the recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2013 at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai, people remained seated, as if hoping for something more. That something more meant a showstopper, usually a celebrity who walks the ramp in the designer’s clothes to conclude a show. But there was none. So far, this was unheard of at a Malhotra show. He is the favourite designer of celebrities and is often responsible for the Kareenas, Karishmas and Kajols walking the ramp.

The media seemed impressed by Malhotra’s bold choice to go without a celebrity, but the public at large seemed palpably disappointed. After all, before the show started, many of Malhotra’s celebrity supporters had trooped in to keep the shutterbugs and aam janta happy. There was Karishma Kapoor, director Ayan Mukherjee, Jacqueline Fernandes, Shabana Azmi, Lara Dutta and Neha Dhupia. Everyone was waiting for the drama to start. But in the end there was no showstopper.

Manja from Kai Po Che! played in the background as models walked on the ramp, divided down the middle by a curtain of fabric strands. White and orange lanterns hanging from the ceiling lit up the room. Again, Malhotra surprised, this time with the clothes the models wore. Those expecting to see Malhotra’s trademark blingy chiffon saris will have to wait for his next show. The clothes were muted and in earthy colours, and the sensibility, though rich and luxurious, not over the top. It was here that the audience’s reactions differed. The media cooed appreciatively, but people were heard remarking, “It’s so not Manish.” Women who had come to see a signature Manish Malhotra show, with all the usual pomp and Bollywood masala thrown in, seemed disappointed. One of them whispered to her neighbour, “Why is it so simple?”

But trendy the show was. There were cool Sharara pants, and the Rajasthani Koti top got a new life. Sheer kurtas teamed with pants, velvet blouses and intricate ghaghras were part of this wearable collection inspired by the Kutch and Rajasthan area. When Open spoke to Malhotra after the show about why this collection was different from all the rest in his career, he said, “It was a conscious decision to do something unexpected. The collection was very folk inspired, primary influences being from Rajasthan and Kutch. I played with mirror work embellishments for the first time. The collection also featured custom- created zari work from Kashmir. It’s like a dash of colour on a beige canvas, which, to me, is mesmerising.

‘Minimalist look’ is the catchphrase this season and that is what I am trying to dictate through my vision.”

As for not having a showstopper, Malhotra seemed unperturbed. “I always try bringing that surprise element to my shows. This time I thought it would be interesting to just let the world focus on my vision and the show than anything else.” He said his celebrity friends will, however, always support him as they relate to his designs. Asked about his target audience, he says, “A Manish Malhotra client is anyone who is rooted in tradition yet modern in thought and presentation. With this collection I am trying to reach out to women and men who are not just young but also youthful in thought and presentation.”

It seems Malhotra has realised that his survival lies in re-invention, especially since there is another claimant to his ‘celebrity favourite’ tag— Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

Malhotra has been designing for almost two decades, while Mukherjee first made his mark with his debut collection at the India Fashion Week in 2001.

Malhotra has always been a Bollywood darling—he created Urmila Matondkar’s look for Rangeela, a milestone in her career, and has since designed for stars ranging from Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra to Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt in several movies, including recent releases Student of the Year and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani. His shows are full of glitz and glamour and he has always given the sari a sexy twist—with sheer fabrics and plenty of sequins.

But Mukherjee is just as popular in Bollywood now. He started off as the designer who did luxurious Indian wear with a twist, often using prints and materials not traditionally considered luxurious. He impressed with his innovation. For example, he made it trendy to wear check print saris with embellished borders and ornate full sleeve blouses. Vidya Balan, Mukherjee’s latest muse, wore his designs earlier this year to the Cannes film festival—although he did get some flak for the ghunghat outfit Balan wore. He has become the go-to guy for the thinking Indian woman as his clothes easily blend modernity and tradition.

He is the only Indian designer to have shown at all leading international fashion weeks, including Milan, New York and London. In 2008, Suzy Menkes of the New York Times had this to say about his show: ‘The collection from Sabyasachi Mukherjee was also a shining moment for the fashion season. The designer’s style is the essence of the proverbial melting pot with its meld of sportswear—a jump suit or a brief skirt—and romantic layers. Each outfit had an imaginative effect, such as block prints, embellished borders or conceptual decoration. Even the classic sari was given a twist by using a rough checked fabric, or with a decorative top under the drapes or with a bird embroidered at the back.’ Mukherjee has designed for movies such as Guzaarish and Paa. Along with Balan, Rani Mukherjee and Reese Witherspoon admire his designs.

It seemed fitting, then, that the week should have started with Malhotra’s show and ended with Mukherjee’s— both successful designers, whose sensibilities have influenced the mass market.

A popular topic in the press room was how sari traders in markets like Delhi’s Karol Bagh sell Malhotra/Mukherjee knock-offs just days after their shows. And though there is no talk of a rivalry, they seem to be subtly influencing each other. If Malhotra went off the glam route this time, Mukherjee played to the galleries with pomp and grandeur.

On the last day, the air was full of anticipation, but also apprehension. Mukherjee was collaborating with Lakme for an Absolute Royal collection (inspired by the queens of the bygone era). Mukherjee was showing at Lakme after a gap of five years, and it was a strictly by-invitation affair. His usual front row celebrities were missing—no Rani Mukerjee or Vidya Balan in attendance.

Rohit Bal, actress Shraddha Kumar and Milind Soman were some of the known faces who attended. The show area was decorated like a queen’s boudoir, with chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Models wore striped blouses with silk saris and Gatsby-inspired dresses with lots of bling. As one journalist remarked, “I may not be that person, but, boy, do I want to be that person on the ramp.”

When we asked Mukherjee how this collection challenged him, as he is usually good at making luxury look effortless, he grinned, “I have played with royalty all my career. I knew I was doing the finale and the fangs were all out. And then I got to know that the theme was Absolute Royal. The pressure was about how I’d reinvent something I’ve done all my life. So I thought I’d take symbols of royalty and transform them into something modern, [using] even boho with elements of punk, still keeping the sophistication necessary for a royal collection.” He added candidly, “I am not a designer who likes to be edgy, because that’s not the DNA of my brand. But since this was a finale, I decided to be slightly more schizophrenic.”

He was even more candid speaking about how he doesn’t care if the press thinks he is sometimes repetitive. “I don’t want to succumb to the pressures of the press. I think repetition is iconic. I think having a signature style is always a good thing. It’s like chicken soup; you may try your sushi, but you will come back to chicken soup. The longevity of a brand depends on its repetition—brands like Burberry, Hermes, they all have signature styles. I have a 25-year vision for my brand and I don’t want to corrupt that.”

Talking about the popularity of his brand with celebrities, Mukherjee said he doesn’t think ‘commercialism’ is a bad word, and besides “why do we need to ‘over-intellectualise’ it all? I see it as a compliment that celebs love my designs. In a country as large as India, you have to latch on to either cinema or cricket. It would be unintelligent to shun these.

Over the years, the vision of my brand has changed. I have realised that it would be completely irresponsible of me to not to play to the gallery… I have so many people working for me.” As Kimi Dangor, fashion consultant for The Indian Express, says: “Every designer develops a signature style, just like an artist. One wouldn’t expect Van Gogh to suddenly paint like Paul Gauguin. Similarly, designers develop a language. It’s how they innovate within those parameters. If there was no signature style, there would be no Little Black Dress.”

A line of criticism common to both designers is that they are repetitive. But that is where similarities end. Fashion writer Bandana Tewari says, “They both deal with the wedding market, and a bride may want to look coquettish in a Manish design one day and an intellectual firebrand in Sabya the next. She has the option to do that now as both these designers cater to her. Maybe they are not influenced directly, but when you are in the same fashion community, and you know you are all showing at the same fashion week, it’s bound to happen. They are growing as well. I don’t see that as a problem at all.”

Tewari also feels Mukherjee is getting better at his craft. “All his clothing is handcrafted, so it doesn’t get repeated. He gets copied so often. Everyone looks to him to deliver something different. Whereas whatever Manish touches turns into gold. He has established his design credo so strongly that we felt this show was a departure. But we have to let him move sideways and grow.”

Fashion columnist Shefalee Vasudev adds an important point: “There was a time when Sabya said he wanted to change the way India dresses. He wanted to take pink, tack and bling away from Bollywood. He has not become pink, tack and bling, but there has been a conversion of sorts. The Lakme show was populist, but his recent couture show in Delhi was artistic. There seems to be some shadowboxing going on with his inner self.”

The beginning and end of this fashion week show where the industry stands right now—somewhere between innovation and tradition. What will last is still to be seen. “Manish is trying to mute the commercial side of him and be artistic, while Sabya is trying to go the other way,” says Vasudev. “They both have to figure out where the pendulum rests.”