It was the 2006 World of Wearable Arts competition in New Zealand. Few would have expected two swimwear designers from India, Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja, aka Shivan and Narresh, to bowl the crowds over. But they came up with an innovative creation—a beehive bra of resin wood and fibre glass—that not only impressed the judges, but also won top honours in the Bizarre Bra category.
Since that recognition, Shivan and Narresh have focused their energy on making swimsuits and bikinis for the usually inhibited Indian woman. “Indian women have the best bodies in the world and are also the most shy about them,” says Narresh, at their new showroom in Bandra, Mumbai, “Our swimsuits aim at bringing them out of their shell. After all, it’s not the bikini, it’s the confidence that finally gets someone to look at you.”
Down from Delhi for a press conference about next month’s Lakme Fashion Week, where their show will be sponsored by the event’s official logistics partner DHL, fashion’s newest ‘it’ boys are agog with excitement. They are both dressed in streamlined cotton suits when we meet them, and Narresh sports edgy glasses in a frame that has no need of convention (one eye has a circle, the other a square). The designers have a quiet confidence that comes from knowing that they are up to something unique.
Their resort wear, especially their Sari Bikini, has got the industry buzzing. Straight lines, bold colours and chic tailoring (they use a technology that ensures that stitches don’t show on a garment) all contribute to their zing. But the main hook could be this: anyone aged 20 to 50, from a size 4 to 14, could wear their bikinis. Their ‘bold yet modest’ swimwear is crafted to celebrate the female form, not titillate onlookers.
Celebrities like Bipasha Basu and Neha Dhupia have given their stamp of approval to their bikini designs. As Narresh says, “We had this client who was a size 14 but used to travel every year to St Tropez to vacation on a yacht. She wanted to look sexy. We gave her our Sari Bikini, which is a bikini top with a sari draped over it. She loved it. We treat the human body like a canvas.”
Says Anjana Sharma, director of fashion at IMG Reliance, “They treat ‘resort’ with a completely international approach. Besides their design aesthetics, their impeccable finish and construct make them so appealing. Hurrah that today you can proudly flaunt a swimsuit with a ‘Made in India’ label.”
Shivan and Narresh, graduates of New Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift), discovered early that they worked well together. Shivan had an eye for detail while Narresh was good with colours. “At Nift, we won all the competitions we took part in, and our friends stopped taking part if we were [participants],” says Shivan, “Our teachers also told us to compete individually, as they weren’t sure we would be together after college too. But we knew we were meant to work together.”
They were fascinated by the possibilities of swimwear even then. “Once, I had this assignment for which I designed a leather interlaced bikini. I was reprimanded for that,” says Shivan with a chuckle. “And once we were working on designing uniforms for a bank, and I made mine real skimpy. That didn’t go down too well either.”
Once college was over, it was Italy for the duo. They did their Masters in Milan and Rome at the Istituto Europeo di Design—Shivan in fashion and textiles, Narresh in luxury marketing. And though they launched their first collection—Instectoid, as it was called, inspired by insects—at Cannes, they were intent on returning to India. “People who admired our work told us they were shocked to see a designer duo from India designing swimsuits. So we knew we were doing something different, and decided to come back to our roots,” says Narresh, “Even at the Mercedes Benz fashion week in Miami, people were amazed to see our collection—which they felt was not inspired by the usual swimsuit markets [of Europe or Brazil].”
“Essentially, it wasn’t tropical puke,” quips Shivan, “which is basically that same forest print on every swimsuit or bikini you see.”
But in a country where resort wear is an alien concept, wasn’t it risky to move back? “We have actually done very well,” says Narresh, “Women want to look sexy and be free to wear what they want. Mothers want to wear bikinis like their daughters. Our bikinis give them the confidence to deal with body issues.”
The duo owe their conservative streak to their upbringing in Delhi (Shivan is Punjabi, while Narresh is half Punjabi, half Pathan). “Narresh’s mom wears our designs, and my bhabhi (sister-in-law) does too. My mom, though, is [too] conservative [for any of it],” smiles Shivan.
To get a Shivan and Narresh design, you would have to shell out anything between Rs 6,000 (for the prêt line) and Rs 30,000 or more (for the limited edition). “The prêt collection is best for women trying a swimsuit for the first time,” says Narresh, “While if you want something unique, you need to opt for the limited edition—only six pieces are made every season.”
For those who can afford it, that’s not much to pay to look like a million bucks. Stylist Anita Walia, 29, discovered Shivan and Narresh at a fashion week three years ago. Since then, she has worn their Lycra Sari, with a bikini top, at places as varied as a wedding cocktail in Amritsar and a store opening in Paris. “And I have never not got a compliment,” she reports, “People in Paris love India, but even they were surprised to see this. And many of them were like, ‘Oh my God, even we can wear this.’ Shivan and Narresh are spot on with their colour blocking skills and aesthetics.”
Priyanka Kapur, 30, who always had a problem finding swimwear that covered her hips, was ecstatic on her discovery of Shivan and Narresh bikinis. “I own three of them. They are sexily cut and have Swarovski crystals on them. I wore them last when I went to Vegas. They cover up my butt and make me look hot. And though I like to cover my hips, I like it low cut at the back. Shivan and Narresh customise it to your preferences. They come with great cover-ups that flatter you even more.”
Ursula Andress, etched in popular memory as the Bond girl who emerged so unforgettably from the ocean in a white bikini in Dr No, was clear about what her swimwear did for her. “[It] made me a success,” she once said.
To Shivan and Narresh, success is about assuring every woman the nerve to wear a bikini. “At the end of the day, it’s not about fashion, it’s about confidence,” they say, “It’s about making them fall in love with themselves.”