Bursting at the seams: Indian designers are storming new stages
It took almost five decades for an Indian fashion designer to be invited to fashion’s grandest stage — Paris Haute Couture Week. Since 2020, three designers have shown at this invite-only event. Meanwhile, their designs, and those of others leading a bright new charge, are showing up on Megan Thee Stallion at the Oscars, Cardi B at the Grammys, singers Sam Smith and Harry Styles. They’re works of 3D wonder, aquatic extravagance, shimmer, ruffles and asymmetry. Take a look.
Indian fashion is having a moment on the world stage.
At the Oscars earlier this week, filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves received her award (for Best Documentary Short) wearing a custom gown by Rahul Mishra, from his latest couture collection celebrating nature and the cosmos. RRR star NTR Jr wore a Gaurav Gupta piece, featuring an embroidered golden tiger.
At the Grammys a month ago, rapper Cardi B wore a royal-blue sculpted gown with an asymmetrical hood by Gaurav Gupta. And singer Anoushka Shankar wore a floral gown from Rahul Mishra’s Fall 2022 couture collection for her performance.
Over the past year, Harri, a two-year-old eponymous label by a Kerala-born designer (who goes by just one name), has been worn by British Singer Sam Smith. Harago, a four-year-old label by the Jaipur-based Harsh Agarwal, has been seen on British singer Harry Styles. Vaishali Shadangule, who launched Vaishali S in 2001, was worn by American model and actor Karrueche Tran at the LA premier of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
In an even more significant development, three Indian designers have showcased collections at Paris Haute Couture Week, the ultimate stage for a fashion designer, just since 2020. No Indian had shown in the event’s 47-year history before then.
Paris Haute Couture Week is an by-invitation-only three- or four-day bi-annual event (with Spring and Fall seasons each year) that is held alongside Paris Fashion Week, to showcase work by the world’s best couturiers, with a focus on elevating handcrafted luxury clothing in dramatic ways. Regulars at Paris Haute Couture Week include Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Giambattista Valli, Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier. Being invited back consistently signifies a designer’s inclusion on the fashion world’s most elevated stage.
Rahul Mishra, 43, was the first Indian to showcase a collection at this event. He has been invited back six times since, showing most recently at the 2023 Spring season this January.
In 2021, Vaishali Shadangule, 44, became the second Indian and first Indian woman to be invited (she has not yet appeared at the calendar event again).
This January, Gaurav Gupta, 44, made his debut at Paris Haute Couture Week with the collection Shunya. When you’re at the event, it really feels like “you are holding the torch globally and changing the industry,” Gupta says. “You are changing the way people are looking at Indian fashion and the way people are looking at India altogether.”
What’s particularly interesting is that these young designers are representing to the world an all-new image of Indian fashion. The traditional excellence in textiles and handicrafts remain, but the silhouettes are bold, innovative and intricate.
“It took a long time for us to create this voice at home,” says veteran fashion journalist and author Sujata Assomull. “Now, with all the conversations about diversity and inclusivity, international fashion weeks have realised that they need to include other voices too.”
As prices soar in the luxury fashion segment, new haute couture labels are more welcome. “Twenty years ago, you could buy a pair of luxury-label shoes for ₹15,000. Now you’ll get something trivial from Steve Madden for that price. And 20 years is not enough to justify that sort of hike in pricing. So what happens then is people are looking for newer labels to come in, to still give them luxury products, at more accessible rates,” says veteran fashion journalist Namrata Zakaria, who is also founder of Baradari, a fundraising platform that aims to bridge the gap between designers and artisans.
And so it is that a new generation is rapidly emerging as successors to Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Manish Arora, and Falguni and Shane Peacock. Will success look different this time around?
“Manish Arora was the most successful designer out of India,” Zakaria says. “He had collaborations with Mac, Reebok, Swarovski and Paris Saint-Germain, among others. You could walk down Champs Elysees and see his name and face on hoardings.”
Amid business deals gone bad, and wage and vendor disputes, Arora ran into financial trouble that hit his label hard. It’s a cautionary tale about how important it is to have a strong business plan, Zakaria says. “It’s really a numbers game when you make it that big internationally.”
Just the cost of showing at Paris Haute Couture Week can run into crores, between transport, logistics, models, and the costs of the teams and designs themselves. The returns, of course, can be career-defining. “Every mega department store and mega fashion e-commerce site is there, and if they like you they will place giant orders with you. So it often works out for designers financially,” says Zakaria.
At India’s own fashion weeks, meanwhile, the news is mixed. Contemporary fashion still has a way to go. At the recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week (March 9 to 12), influencers and celebrities were showstoppers; fashion took a bit of a backseat. “It is a little worrying, because what we saw there did not have much freshness,” Assomull says.
Read on for more of the good news, though, and see how the world is making room for the freshest new designers out of India.
Building worlds in 3D embroidery: Rahul Mishra
A flock of 3D-embroidered birds might arch out of a Rahul Mishra design. Sometimes an octopus slides down into the ruffles of a choppy sea. Seascapes and lush forests are crafted out of layers of hand-embroidery. Intricate outfits are made up of thousands of individual “feathers”, or just one.
The aim is to surprise, says Mishra, 43. And though each collection is different, they do have some things in common. All Mishra designs are deliberately slow; there’s 3D embroidery involved; and, for the past few years, he has been inspired by the sense of wonder with which his seven-year-old daughter Aarna sees the world.
It’s a combination that’s clearly working. In 2020, Mishra became the first Indian designer invited to show at Paris Haute Couture Week in that exclusive event’s 47-year history. He has since been invited back six more times, most recently for the Spring event this January.
Mishra takes Indian textile traditions and artisanship, which already have their place in global fashion, and twists them into new versions of themselves. The vibrancy, colour, layers and textures are tinged with surrealism.
His most recent collection, Cosmos, the one he debuted in January, is inspired by ocean life and by the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show of the same name (Cosmos: A Space Odyssey, the 2014 follow up to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from 1980). The garments are a fantasy of stardust, constellations, gold jellyfish, purple polyps and multicoloured zooanthids.
“It can take up to 8,000 man hours to create a single piece,” says Mishra, who works with more than 1,500 artisans and designers. The slowness is something he prizes. “The more artisans there are working on each piece, the more I fulfil my role as a designer,” he says.
It’s a philosophy that he adopted as a student of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, working with master weaver and Padma Shri awardee from Kerala Padmanabhan Gopinath on his first collection, for the Lakmé Fashion Week’s GenNext Show. Designing reversible clothing made out of Kerala’s cotton mundus, he lived with the community of weavers and artisans for months.
“I got to see how five metres of cloth could take one person two days to make. With my embroidery, it takes about 80 people two months to complete work on that much area. It is now as slow as possible.”
In 2020, actress and singer Zendaya, a champion of slow fashion, wore one of his looks, straight off his first couture runway show, to an event at the New York Fashion Week. Earlier this week, filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves wore a custom piece from his Cosmos collection to the Oscars, (where she won for Best Documentary Short for The Elephant Whisperers).
Rahul Mishra grew up in the village of Malhousi in UP. His father was a doctor in government service. His family also made a living off their fields. But as a designer, he says, he was born in Kerala. “The clothes have evolved, layers have been added, but the philosophy remains.” His studio is now set in Delhi, with satellite set-ups in villages in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh (UP), where most of his artisans live.
His signature style — the 3D embroidery — came to him while he was experimenting in 2012, ahead of applying for the prestigious International Woolmark Prize (past winners include Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld). He didn’t win it that year, but he did in 2014. “That changed my life as a designer,” he says. “It gave me the confidence I needed to start exploring more with hand embroidery.”
His signature style has since earned him 13 seasons at Paris Fashion Week and eventually the showings at Paris Haute Couture.
Through it all, his wife Divya Bhatt Mishra, also a designer, has been his rock. A fellow NID student three years his junior, she is an equal partner in the Rahul Mishra label. If he’s the brains behind the design, he says, she’s the brains behind everything else. “She’s in charge of design approval, managing the people, even managing me. Sometimes I can get lost, adding more detail, adding just another piece, and she’ll tell me, ‘It’s time to stop.’ Without her, I would just end up making rocket-sized outfits and living like a pauper.”
Underwater odysseys: Vaishali Shadangule
Vaishali Shadangule was battling Covid-19 when she got her invitation to the Paris Haute Couture Week’s 2021 Fall event. She knew that, if she made it, she would be only the second Indian designer (and the first Indian woman) to show on fashion’s most prestigious runway. “I wasn’t about to let that opportunity go by,” says the 44-year-old.
As soon as she tested negative, she rallied a team of six, and they got to work on the collection she would show in July. Shwas (Sanskrit for Breath) was built using a range of fine Indian textiles, including merino wool from Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh and the region’s signature Chanderi weave (which features frequently in the designer’s work), as well as weaves from Karnataka and West Bengal. The textiles were manipulated into dramatic silhouettes that resemble gorgonian corals and underwater blooms, with waves of her signature cording guiding the eye.
“Indian designs are often overlooked, even though we have a great history of the most stunning and stylish costumes, colours and clothing,” says Shadangule. “I want to help change that.”
Hers is a true rags-to-riches tale. Shadangule ran away from her home in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, at 17, started out as an office assistant in Bhopal, found a job with a garments export house in Mumbai, worked as a fitness trainer at a gym, then as unofficial stylist to members of that gym.
As a self-taught designer, she began her career in fashion with a 100-sq-metre tailoring studio in a Mumbai suburb, where she sometimes skipped meals for days so she could continue to pay the rent. She was fuelled by frenzy; she found what she loved, and had to find a way to make it work, she says.
She started working with Chanderi because it’s what her mother wore. On her first trip to the region, she saw what the work entailed, as a weaver worked hundreds of threads together on a loom. “Weavers are not trained in math or science or geometry, yet everything about it was perfect,” she says. What’s to say she couldn’t build a fashion house?
Shadangule signed up for and completed a postgraduate diploma in fashion design in 2011. That year her label, Vaishali S, had its first runway showing, at Lakme Fashion Week. She has since shown at the New York and Milan Fashion Weeks. In 2019, Italian businessman Alessandro Giuliani, director of the Bocconi business school in Mumbai, came on board as partner.
In October 2022, Shadangule had her first big Hollywood moment. She watched online as American model and actor Karrueche Tran wore one of her creations – an assymetrical mustard dress with signature cords – to the premier of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in Los Angeles.
Parallel to her label, Shadangule has built a side business in accessories and home décor items made from Vaishali S’s scraps and waste. She takes sustainability seriously, she says, but she doesn’t see why that should be a big deal. “I don’t waste fabric. If everyone knew what went into making it, I think nobody would… What we do just draws on traditional village practices still in use across India.”
Style, deconstructed: Gaurav Gupta
Rapper Megan Thee Stallion walked the 2022 Oscars red carpet in a sculpted blue-grey gown with a pale shimmer and a train of ruffles — a custom-made Gaurav Gupta that took 1,500 man hours to make.
“It was one of my proudest moments and brought me to tears,” says the designer. In the last year alone, Gupta, 44, has had many such moments on the world stage. Cardi B wore a Gaurav Gupta in her No Love music video released in March 2022. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Venus Sculpture dress from the Cannes red carpet that year was one of his too.
Then Gupta got the nod he’d been waiting for: an invitation to show at Paris Haute Couture’s Spring 2023 event this January, making him only the third Indian designer to feature in the event’s history. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 25,” Gupta says.
His collection, Shunya, featured 35 looks, including a set of twin silver dresses worn by two models meant to represent the frozen strokes of dancing wind in some of its infinite forms.
About 10 days later, Cardi B appeared on the Grammys red carpet in an electric blue Gaurav Gupta spun together in just three days. “For me these are cultural collaborators,” says Gupta. “They are also artists, and they have been disrupting and defining culture in their own societies, which is why they support new brands and new cultures in different ways.”
Thanks also to Maison Bose, his agent in the US and Europe, his avant garde couture has become highly visible.
Each piece starts out at his atelier in Noida, where a team of 350 work to capture Gupta’s visions and take them to the world. He recently dressed Supreme Court lawyer and LGBTQ rights activist Karuna Nundy for the Time 100 Gala in 2022 (she was named one of Time’s most influential people of the year), and Iman Vellani, the first South Asian Ms Marvel, for the premier of her show in Los Angeles.
A graduate of the National Institute of Film Technology in Delhi, Gupta has also studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London where, he says, he learnt the importance of standing out. “Over there, you’re not allowed to be influenced by existing looks and designs from the past,” he says. “You are forced to dig deep and find your own language. You have to form your own universe.” His turned out to include deconstructed saris and gravity-defying sculpted gowns.
He and his brother and business manager Saurabh Gupta, 40, started out on this journey in 2005. What comes next? He never knows, Gaurav Gupta says laughing. “Strategically and logistically, I know,” he adds, referring to where they want to take the brand next. But creatively, he lets his imagination lead the way.