The Hollywood celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe once said, “When you look like you stepped out of a catalogue, that’s never good. People shouldn’t succumb to a trend, they should interpret the trend.” Zoe knows what she’s talking about. Actresses like Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson and Jennifer Garner owe much of their red carpet allure to her. That’s because Zoe has her trend interpretation technique down pat, and the tag on the dress could well read ‘Rachel Zoe’ instead of, say, Chanel.
Here in Bollywood, the stylist has only recently become a sought-after individual. As Hindi cinema got smarter, stylists became more than just costume designers. And it was always the ones pushing boundaries who made an impact. There was Manish Malhotra, who gave Urmila Matondkar half her exuberance in Rangeela and covered the cast of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in bright designer sportswear. The cognoscenti may have looked down upon those loud logos, but the mass audience was swept away. For years, counterfeits of Shah Rukh Khan’s green-and-blue Polo Sport tee did wholesome business in India.
It was Dil Chahta Hai, however, that was a sartorial breakthrough for the male lead in popular cinema. The characters played by Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna each had different personalities and they all wore trendy, tasteful clothes, thanks to stylist Arjun Bhasin. And then Aki Narula made Indian kitsch the ‘it’ thing by dressing Rani Mukherjee in vibrant salwar kurtas in Bunty aur Babli. The stylist had arrived.
Today, as our movies get even bigger and more glamorous, there are two ladies who are busy refining the art of Bollywood styling. One is Anaita Shroff Adajania, a fashion maverick who—often successfully—predicts what you could be wearing next season. The other is Niharika Khan, who knows no trends, and whom she says her friends describe as the “Giorgio Armani of the boobs”. Anaita has recently styled Deepika Padukone, Diana Penty and Saif Ali Khan in her husband Homi Adajania’s Cocktail in what can only be called ‘2012 cool’, while Niharika won a National Award for helping Vidya Balan burst onto screens with a retro Indian sex appeal in The Dirty Picture.
Anaita Shroff Adajania keeps her phone turned on during this interview as she is waiting for a call from her peon. He is at designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s store to pick up clothes for Deepika Padukone’s Cocktail promotions. Though Anaita says she is “always busy”, she looks calm and content. After all, she gave birth to baby Zane just a month ago and she is fashion editor at Vogue India. Sitting with her feet tucked under her on an oversized sofa in her sea-facing Breach Candy apartment, talking to her elder son Zreh as he has just returned from school, Anaita says she knew exactly what to do when her husband gave her the brief for his movie. “It’s a casual movie—no weddings. It is so relevant and now,” she says. “Deepika’s character Veronica is a sexy rich girl who wears her attitude and sexuality on her sleeve. I know so many Veronicas. And though I am not friends with any Meeras, played by model Diana Penty, I know them very well. She is more conservative and shy.”
Anaita used that understanding of the characters to create their wardrobe. For example, Deepika is clad in a sparkly, sequinned skirt with a de-constructed T-shirt in the song sequence of Tumhi Ho Bandhu. Diana mostly wears jeans with conservative light cardigans as she doesn’t like to be noticed. It is such interpretations, coupled with her sense of fashion, that have given Anaita her reputation in Bollywood. She even happens to be the personal stylist for several stars, including Deepika and Hrithik Roshan. And before styling characters for movies such as Ra.One, Dhoom, Love Aaj Kal and Players, she had created distinctive looks for songs such as It’s The Time To Disco and Mahi Ve (Kal Ho Naa Ho).
“She understands my body type and keeps my personality in mind too,” says Deepika Padukone, “She possesses this talent of making a look stylised but keeping it relatable as well.”
Having worked with publications like Elle, L’Official and now Vogue for almost two decades, it’s clear that she has a keen finger on the pulse of fashion in India. “Predicting trends is all about instinct,” says Anaita, dressed in blue jeans, a black vest and a grey jacket made of men’s trouser material. “For the magazine, I need to think of fashion that is aspirational, for film, it has to be more relatable. I see fashion and inspiration in everything—even seeing you here wearing Kolhapuris with a lace top inspires me. And more often than not, my nightmares inspire me too. And my dreams,” she says with a smile.
Anaita also has a clear opinion on who she thinks will make it tomorrow. “Fashion is changing. There are so many blogs out there now—it’s more democratised. Designers can’t keep doing show after show and sustain themselves if they don’t sell anything. You have to be fashion forward. The main trick to being fashionable is to have confidence and attitude and your own unique style. The way you style yourself is your silent introduction. It says a lot.”
In an India where most fashionistas look like clones who all shopped at Zara, cultivating a unique style is evidently not a popular pursuit. But Anaita has a positive spin on that too. “In the long run, we will be a better dressed nation. For me, it’s a thrill to see people who shop at Zara, though sometimes I feel like telling them, ‘Don’t buy that, it doesn’t suit your figure.’ But they will get it right one day.”
Anaita declines with a laugh when you ask her to spill secrets about the stars she styles. “Noooo… I love all of them.” And then she adds, “Okay, let me tell you something that could be hard to believe. Most stars are good listeners. They are okay with your telling them, ‘This doesn’t look good on you’ or ‘You need to lose a little weight to wear that.’ I was styling Hrithik for Dhoom:2 and told him that he had to wear jeans and just a pink shirt for a shot. There was going to be a lot of breeze around him, and [as the breeze would have blown up his shirt], his whole torso would be on display. He came back to me one week later with a six-pack. He was determined to make that shot look great.”
It’s a skill that seems so deceptively simple that anyone who knows how to pair a dress with shoes might think s/he could be a stylist. “Some young people are doing great at it, even without a fashion background. But you need to be consistent. That’s the key. Styling is a lucrative job. It pays much better than what one would get at a bank, for example. You get paid by the day [for advertisements] and by projects [movies], and the money is great. But then the work pressure is intense too. You may be working from 6 am to 6 am the next day.”
Her phone begins to ring. We want to know one last thing: what are the hot trends right now? “Wear colours of the same family in an outfit—so think light blue and dark blue—and pay tribute to the 60s. Do cute dresses and wing-tipped eyes. And yes, do lace for sure—a bit of skin can be very sexy. Who doesn’t love that?”
Even in a crowded café in Bandra, where almost everyone is as hip as can be, Niharika Khan stands out. Her many piercings (one through her cheek under her left eye and another through her tongue) and the tattooed insect garden on her arm (a firefly, beetle and mosquito, among others) are just a few of the things that make her unique.
“The other day, I was in the loo at a movie hall. A girl with a lip piercing saw my piercing and said, ‘When did you get that?’ And I was like ‘Twenty years ago.’ And her mom just turned to her and said, ‘Sorry, she is much cooler than you’,” Niharika recounts, laughing.
Niharika has shown a versatile range so far. She helped rock stars get their groove back in Rock On!! and made a star like Ranbir Kapoor look like an endearing yet ordinary career man with a plan in Rocket Singh. She gave Anushka Sharma the classic Delhi girl look in Band Baaja Baraat. And then last year, she did her award-winning work on The Dirty Picture. It gave Vidya Balan’s image a complete makeover, with her gold gown held at the bust with gold pins now lodged firmly in mass memory. “I know,” Niharika says, “Everyone told me her breasts looked beautiful. But for that kind of success, you need to work in tandem with a team. Had the cameraperson shot an angle from below, maybe something would have looked off, right?”
The half-Punjabi, half-Parsee Niharika was once a PR consultant, and took a leap of faith when a friend suggested she style characters for Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chaand. “And horrors, Sudhir agreed,” she says. “I then did another period movie called Rang Rasiya. You won’t believe how much research went into those, but I was starting to love it.”
But the real test came when she got signed on for Rock On!! “I knew I had recreated stuff for the other movies, but here I had to create something relevant. I had to create a trend, a space for myself.” The gamble worked. That could be because the look she gave the characters was stylish but not contrived. “That could be because I am not showcasing a label, I am showcasing a character,” she says. “Like in Rowdy Rathore, I didn’t want to force a trend like Sonakshi’s harem pants. But it was in keeping with her character, who is from Bihar, and we added a trend to that.” Much like in Band Baaja Baraat, where Niharika gave Anushka the look of a typical Delhi girl, complete with denims, kurtis and Kolhapuris.
“I actually sourced [some of it] from the warehouses of the women who sell on Janpath,” says Niharika, “And then I begged my designer friends to sell me stuff from their old collections for less. It was all about being true to the character, and that’s the main rule of styling anyway.” Says Maneesh Sharma, director of Band Baaja Baraat, “Niharika is as mad as she is passionate. The bandwidth she possesses is amazing. She adapts herself to the film. Hers is not in-your-face, filmi styling. She listens to the brief and then takes it to a different level—and adds value to it.”
Though Niharika would love to style an out-and-out commercial movie, with all its styling traps that she finds “challenging”, she loves styling movies with characters such as “Parveen from Malad”. “So I take inspiration from people all over the city: the Malad girl, the SoBo hottie or the Bandra fashionista. I am not a fashion stylist, I am a costume designer. I design for characters.”
She is currently working on her next film, Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, based on Chetan Bhagat’s The Three Mistakes of My Life. Actor Rajkumar Yadav, who plays one of the leads, pays her a compliment that speaks of a passion for the finer aspects of her craft: “I play a middle-class Gujarati guy. And Niharika’s eye for detail is amazing. She’s particular about the kind of wallet I carry. I become my character when I wear her clothes.”