HT Brunch cover story: Why Rahul Mishra is the designer of the new decade…

Paris Haute Couture Week invited Rahul Mishra, a designer known to give traditional Indian crafts a global contemporary feel, to showcase his collection on Thursday. Is this the birth of India’s first homegrown international high fashion label?

With only 13 years in the business, you can hardly call designer Rahul Mishra a ‘fashion stalwart.’ Yet, the young man from Malhausi village near Kanpur has a track record that leaves many senior designers gasping with envy. In 2014, he was the first Indian designer to win the International Woolmark Prize (IWP), one of fashion’s most prestigious awards (previous winners include Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld). And now, in these early days of 2020, he is the first Indian to be invited to showcase his work at the Paris Haute Couture Spring Summer 2020 Week – the pinnacle of international high fashion – where he joined the likes of Valentino, Balmain and Ralph and Russo.

Yet, though international fashion critic Suzy Menkes called him ‘a national treasure’ when he won the IWP, Rahul still calls Tarun Tahiliani and Rohit Bal “Ji” or “Sir.” This reflects how he, in many ways, is still an outsider within his industry.

Village school

Rahul is not the designer you will meet at high society soirees. He does not court celebrities. His muse is simply craft. But that is his strength. “Growing up the way I did is what made me,” he says. “It helps me connect with craftsmen from villages.”

It all started when 16-year-old Rahul, the son of a doctor who worked in government services, began getting the feeling that he really should be an artist. Like many boys from the middle class, it had long been taken for granted that he would join the Indian Administration Services. But he always had a creative side, drawing pictures long before he could read the alphabet. “As a 10-year-old, I was studying hard to become an IAS officer. Now I am surprised to know that a vibrant career full of global recognition and a life of such profound purpose awaited me,” he says.

Graduating in science, Rahul realised that his creative side needed to be explored and he applied for a post graduate programme at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. The only course he qualified for was apparel design and merchandising. “However, fashion still wasn’t a term that I associated myself with at that point,” he recalls.

As a student, he was selected to show at Lakmé Fashion Week’s Gen Next Show. Using the Kerala mundu handloom fabric, he designed reversible garments that could be worn every day, thus establishing his design aesthetic – traditional craft meeting contemporary minimalism. Though he received rave reviews, he opted not to show for the next few seasons. Instead he enrolled at Milan’s Istituto Marangoni to study fashion and hone his skills. (Today he is an ambassador for the school.)

On his return, he showed collections, always taking Indian traditions forward: Orissa ikat, jamdani, bandhani with mashru, chikankari and bhagalpuri weaves have all featured is his collections. This was much before #MakeInIndia began trending in Indian fashion and long before sustainability and slow fashion became the buzzwords.

Going global

Rahul is always open to criticism, and when he has been called out for being too repetitive, he has taken it in his stride. “A lot of credit for our success goes to honest critique,” he says. “As for deciding what to take or discard, I’d say that one just knows what makes sense to their brand and what doesn’t. It’s very intuitive.”

Take it steady and slow is his mantra, but Rahul always knew he wanted to take the India story international. When he first applied for the International Woolmark Prize in 2012, he lost in the regional round to Pankaj and Nidhi. But he took this as a lesson. “I remember realising that I knew very little about Woolmark; the colours didn’t seem right and there was a lot that I thought I needed to still work on.” In 2014, he created six garments in wool punctuated with Indian surface ornamentation and won.

Rahul was able to win perhaps because his wife, Divya Bhatt Mishra, a fellow NID graduate, had joined his label and helmed all production matters, leaving Rahul to focus on creative direction. “I was an under-confident child; I could never participate in public speaking activities. Divya had helped me grow out of this and shine,” says Rahul. This is why, at many shows, Rahul takes his final bow with her. He believes his work-life balance is also one of the secrets of his success. “This is an industry where you are expected to go out and network, leaving your personal life in the backseat. But what are you going to do with success if you do not have health and family?” he asks. “I enjoy being surrounded by people and would love to be at every event, but it is not a sustainable way of life.”

Unfortunately this means that though Rahul has dressed many films stars in India, he’s never had a major red carpet moment or been selected as the finale designer at Indian fashion weeks, or been on the cover of Vogue India. But his attention is on the art of fashion, which is why he has never used a Bollywood showstopper. “The idea that a show cannot happen without a showstopper is paralysing to me,” he says. What makes him proud is the fact that his label today employs 1,500 artisans around India and that he has two flagships stores in the country. “Even on Instagram we aren’t looking at having one million followers. We want followers who believe in the craft of fashion.”

Paris calling

By sticking to his ethos, Rahul has created another milestone for Indian fashion: he has been selected by France’s Chambre Synicale de la Haute Couture to make his Haute Couture debut on Thursday. His Paris Couture Week collection draws inspirations from a recent snorkelling trip in the Maldives and also from the movie Madagascar. “My four-year-old daughter is extremely drawn to the movie and we have watched it together over 30 times,” says Rahul. And of course, the use of Indian artistries in a contemporary way are at the core of the collection.

Fashion more than any other industry enjoys a rag to riches story, and Rahul is on his way to the big league. “Global luxury brands work with our artisans already. It is just time for Indian talent to showcase our heritage for the world on the right platforms,” he says.

Paris Haute Couture Week propelled the Middle East’s Elie Saab and China’s Guo Pei into the global eye. Maybe a physics graduate from Kanpur will give India its first homegrown international high fashion label.

Join the conversation using #DesignerOfTheNewDecade

(Author bio: Dubai-based fashion journalist Sujata Assomull is also an author and an advocate of mindful fashion. She was the founding editor of Harper’s Bazaar India.)

From HT Brunch, January 26, 2020

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