Once upon a time when the lanky, introspective prince from Jodhpur known for his distinctive bandhgalas with their paisley neckbands sat down to put his thoughts on paper, he didn’t know where his words would take him.
He persevered and little did he know that in the process, he would also write his destiny. Fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore writes extensively on fashion, social concerns and contemporary issues of modern India, as much as he designs.
It is during those precious uninterrupted moments that he finds the world to be his oyster, radiating influences on his imagination, eventually inspiring a vision that translates into the design work he does, not only in fashion but in other hemispheres of design too. These include creating wristwatches, writing, designing packaging for a well known liquor brand and crafting exquisite bed linen.
Like Rathore who was the first to deviate from the path of fashion design to other areas of the creative business—chocolates launched by Shivalik—there are many other uber designers who have moved into uncharted waters of parallel creativity—J J Valaya the curator and photographer, Tarun Tahiliani the interior designer, Bhumika Grover the fitness expert, Sunil Mehra the artist, Rohit Bal the restaurateur, Deepika Govind, creator of luxury furnishings, Adarsh Gill the silver furniture designer, Raakesh Agarvwal the bathroom interior designer, Ritu Kumar who recently ventured into perfumes and many others who are exploring different disciplines after scoring success in the world of couture.
It’s like acquiring a new identity. Having been designing for years, they have now chartered into businesses they had once upon a time, only given a fleeting thought. “I’m glad I got down to doing it. Mainstream fashion is great but this is invigorating. Our company is now a comprehensive ‘Design House’ providing design strategies for corporations, private clients and social welfare NGOs. From uniform design for hotels like Vivanta; jewellery design, for example such as the tie-up with Zoya a few years back, and exclusive product designs like the unique gun case, have helped us add value to the social landscape. Our R&D team has financed itself with projects like the Black Label design. There is a lot of business out there and the budgets in the product design segment are substantial, so I thought, why not,” says Rathore who is cousin of Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur.
If budgets drive one designer, the body of work (literally in her case), speaks for itself. Delhi-based designer Bhumika Grover loves being a fitness instructor. Fashion happened much later. After a rigorous training course with Reebok in 1999, she started taking aerobics classes four times a week. “Both professions are creative and therefore, keep me happy. These are my best friends really and I work on them in accordance with honesty and sincerity,” says the designer who once refused to give any discounts to a top Bollywood actor for she feels her garments are uber exclusive and worth every penny of the price.
What’s worked well for Tahiliani, on the other hand, is having no rules at all.
“I am ready and excited to explore anything and everything besides designing fashion apparel. The runway will always be my first love but I want my company to become a complete design house and expand into bags, shoes, accessories, gold jewelry and watches,” he says, adding, “Interior design has been a natural progression. I started with Ensemble in 1987, followed by all our stores and then my houses. Having worked in collaboration with architects like Shachi Atree in Delhi and Suraj Morajkar in Goa, it helped me get a fair idea about the interior design segment. Since I love design per say, interior design is just an extension of my creative philosophy,” he says.
Just like his clothes that are culturally rooted and have traditional embroidery in their detailing, you will see the same philosophy in his ‘interiors work’ that are modern in form and structure, but have elements of intrinsic Indian craftsmanship such as jali work, mother of pearl inlays in floors and carved panels covered in silver leaf. “The only divide when it comes to designing for fashion and designing interiors is that clothes take the shape of the body but the body inhabits the interiors. We must respect that,” says Tahiliani. The zen of design is reflected in his introspective creativity.
Multiple identity has thematically challenged many creative minds and the avatars of Vishnu appeal to apparel designer and painter Sunil Mehra. In both spheres, the inspiration remains the same—Lord Krishna and his many forms, stories, symbols and the places of worship dedicated to him, in particular Vrindavan. Over the years, on every Holi and Janamasthmi, he has been presenting a new concept, a new story; a novel theme around the life of Lord Krishna. “There’s much more to life than branded clothes, luxury cars and luxury living. I have loved designing all these years but art has given my life a deeper meaning,” says Mehra who like every year, this year too, presents his exhibition titled ‘The Birth of Love’, depicting the love between Lord Krishna and Radha. “The only thing I have attached myself to in this materialistic world is Krishna and I intend to remains emotionally involved with his work,” says the man who dislikes being called a pujari just because he is deeply connected with Krishna. Incidentally, he gave this interview from Vrindavan where he had gone for his weekly darshan.
Spirituality as immanence in talent is now new. Take Rohit Bal, perhaps India’s most flamboyant and creative designer. Talk to the diminutive blonde-haired maestro about ‘attachment’ and he cringes. “I am in a phase of my life where ‘detachment’ is the catch word. Been there done that. It’s time to give now,” he says. Bal, who runs a very successful fashion label, Rohit Bal Designs Pvt Ltd, has diversified into restaurants, carpets, hotels and jewellery. When he signed up with the Danish multinational carpet company Ege, to create The Indian Carpet Story, he also took his design etiquette to the floor. The carpets exhibited the familiar Bal elan that cleared the floor for bigger and better things like progressing to restaurants, interiors and jewellery. He designed the popular restaurant Cibo in Delhi and has tied up with diamond moguls Kirtilals to launch a new collection called Jewelled Garden-the Lotus Collection. Whether it is Ravi Bajaj who introduced his wine bar, Soak, in South Delhi or Bal’s restaurant chain, Veda, these are other expressions of their expansive imaginations. “Working on interiors is an interesting beat. There is so much more you can experiment with. I am working on a large home furnishing project that includes soft furnishings, textiles and other materials. I am also working on a number of interiors projects that include doing up private homes. Very soon, I plan to collaborate with an international wedding design company for luxury weddings,” says Bal who is constantly on the go. In fact, when we spoke to him about this story, he insisted on fulfilling professional commitments before he talked about himself. “I work like a crazy man. That’s all I know. I am a happy workaholic and will hopefully die one,” he says.
In the world of interiors, specialisation is a philosophy by itself. Bathrooms of the wealthy require as much attention to detail as a bedroom or drawing room. “When I decided to design bathrooms, it was outside my comfort zone. I had very little idea about what I was getting myself into until I really did,” says designer Raakesh Agarvwal who has recently tied up with an international architecture firm to design niche bathroom interiors. “This is no regular stuff. I am talking about huge budgets, impeccable taste, precision in execution and state-of-the-art equipment, complete with wine and champagne racks, refrigerator, TV—the works. It will certainly make you spend more time in the bathroom,” he says, adding that it’s still too soon to share details. Even though he was recovering from the seasonal fever, with a temperature of 102 degrees, Agarvwal hoisted himself from the bed to sit for the interview. Promises according to him, are meant to be honoured.
Then there are those who explore Indian-ness as their muse. Bangalore-based Deepika Govind, best known for her experiments with modern designs and Indian traditional weaves is one of them. Like Rathore, Tahiliani and Bal, she has been quietly making an impact in the field of soft furnishings. In 2007, eight years into her role as a fashion designer, her husband Ashish Vohra roped her in to do the soft furnishings for a small-scale luxury hotel, JuSTa, in Bangalore. The challenge introduced her to a new area inhabited by creative people of a different kind– architects, artists, artisans, even paint experts.
“People loved what we did and I took over the project, getting involved in everything—colour of wood, the veneers, the external facade, light fixtures and so on. I became more open to pop expressions and graphics. Then came the transition from classic themes to retro, Zen and contemporary accents to suit each property. There were Tibetan influences with vibrant rose and mint green colours and the fabrics used in each project were high-end and unique, bearing characteristics like missing weaves and slubs, typical of handwoven textiles,” she says. Deepika soon realised that unlike the fleeting nature of fashion, durability was a necessity in this field.
“The drapes and accessories had to last out hundreds of visitors. I realised that it was difficult to remove stains from fabrics like cotton, viscose and satin, so they had to be treated but the journey of leaning was fun,” she says. Her upcoming project—the Turtle Bay Beach Resort in Mangalore is keeping her occupied at the moment, for which she has worked with an architect from Sri Lanka and has introduced cut-out lampshades and transparent fabrics, all minimal or organic or locality-specific. She has designed soft furnishings for four private homes, besides other projects. She is actively exploring accessories and luxe items like shawls and jewellery and will be launching an organic perfume named Mugamera soon.
Patience is a great virtue according to veteran designer Adarsh Gill, but she confesses she doesn’t have much of it, especially if she doesn’t get what she wants. “I am a perfectionist and in whatever I do, I make sure there is no stone left unturned,” she says. Always having been fascinated by silver, she plunged into the furniture industry when a friends encouraged her to do so. “I had some silver furniture in my residence and my friends thought I could do a good job designing more, rather than just collecting them. In 2006, I started creating silver furniture,” she says. And has never looked back since. Her tastefully done up home in Lutyen’s Delhi reflects this passion: exquisitely wrought silver chairs, sofas and even a large dining table that can seat 12 guests, adorned with tall silver candle stands are works of art.
Art inspires fashion and the flamboyant pony-tailed J J Valaya is a true artist of multiple facets. Twenty years back, he pioneered a line that almost did not exist in India – contemporary fashion. He was part of the trailblazing team of modern Indian fashion designers, the originals who started it all. Collection after collection, the magic of creativity continuing to amaze him and he decided to take the next step. Valaya introduced The Home of the Traveler (THT), an enthralling exploration of the world and everything it has to offer. A blend of art, culture and history, each piece in the collection has an alluring story. “When you own a piece of history, you own a story. With a magical mix of cultures, colours, textures, materials and designs from across the world, each artifact is handpicked and curated by my brother TJ and me. It symbolises refinement, cultivated for connoisseurs who seek beauty and art in the spaces they inhabit. Exploring and discovering the world, there is always a little street, a corner that has something new, a hidden piece of art, a treasure, waiting to be found,’’ says the designer who loves movies, dabbling with fine art photography besides travelling and spending time with his daughters. JJ spent months in a little cottage in Scotland with his camera and the result was shown at exhibitions in Indian cities.
If JJ sees the world through his viewfinder, Chennai-based designer Rehane Yavar Dhala sees it as her canvas. She loves to paint with oils and charcoal—mostly human forms, particularly faces. An aspiring poet, who enjoys penning down verse, they are said to be deep and reflective in expression. Some even say it’s a little too dark but whatever it is, she for sure loves every bit of it. ‘‘We are living in gloomy times. When I came to India from Italy a few years back, I was brimming with excitement to be home. Today, I am reflecting on whether I made the right decision. Just look at how things are playing out. The economy, corruption, crime against women and children, inadequacy of politicians, lack of awareness, low literacy, poverty, pathetic sanitation and traffic situation and the overall sense of callousness—everything makes me question whether India is really shining? At this rate, we’ll spiral into anarchy if we don’t take a U-turn this very moment and put things back into their place,” she says. With 80 poems on paper, she expects a book to be out soon so she must be doing something right. Rehane also looks forward to launching a fashion school in Chennai next month. “I want it to be an affordable institution. I know everyone in the fashion industry, from choreographers to make-up artists to music mixers. Placements at the school will be guaranteed,” she says.
Suneet Varma, on the other hand, has a lot to share as his associations with some of the strongest international brands has made him a designer whose forte goes beyond an uni-dimensional profile. He is the only international designer to team up with the luxury brand Judith Leiber. ‘Suneet Varma for Judith Leiber’ minaudieres are now retailed across the world at Judith Leiber boutiques in Los Angeles, Miami, Paris, Tokyo along with Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Suneet’s signature bags and clutches are arm candy for the Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker and Hollywood celebs like Mariah Carey and Jenifer Lopez. His association with BMW in 2007 led to many BMW Foundation projects. He is the brainchild behind the ‘Fashion Appreciation’ project for which he undertook a 15 city India tour with BMW. ‘‘Designing interiors for the BMW 7 Series was another project I had fun with. The basic aesthetic sense remains the same. Creativity takes new forms,’’ he says.
If cars and bags are Suneet’s shtick, the prima donna of Indian fashion Ritu Kumar decided to bottle her experiences by launching her signature perfume, A Tree of Life. “It was an interesting experience that I thought would be nice to share with the world,” she says adding, that her life has been an open book and she will continue keep it so in the future. “I will always try to share my experiences with my patrons as I know they will be happy to share my happiness,” she says.
Manav Gangwani, on the other hand, always wants to keep you guessing about what he’s going to do next. That’s what keeps the enigma alive, according to him. ‘‘I am an over ambitious person and I feel the day you are content, your growth stops.” Gangwani is one of the directors of The Infinite Luxury Group, an organization that believes in hand picking international brands for India across the retail and hospitality segment. “As India’s luxury market is mounting rapidly and has great potential, we wanted to create a success model that thrives on building customer relationships across a brand mix that satisfies the desires of the Indian consumer. What is in store for me next, will be disclosed nearer the time. I like to surprise people so I love keeping this mysterious aura about myself. I am a shepherd and not the sheep,” he says.