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Menswear de­signer Suket Dhir’s first col­lec­tion for women con­tem­plates the an­drog­y­nous dress­ing move­ment with­out con­form­ing to trends

Katherine Hep­burn would have loved Suket Dhir. The leg­endary Hol­ly­wood ac­tor broke deeply gen­dered cos­tume con­ven­tions in the 1930s, wear­ing man­nish trousers, blaz­ers and shirts both on­screen and off it. The Os­car win­ner was so at­tached to her uni­forms that she once fa­mously spent a day on set in her in­ner­wear when her blue jeans were con­fis­cated. Women like Hep­burn have blurred gen­der con­ven­tions through the 20th cen­tury with their sar­to­rial flair, lead­ing to the cur­rent scene when an­drog­yny is a bona fide fash­ion trend.

Dhir, known so far as a menswear de­signer and In­dia’s first re­cip­i­ent of the In­ter­na­tional Wool­mark Prize isn’t one for trends, but his first ever col­lec­tion for women sit­u­ates it­self neatly in fash­ion’s cur­rent move­ment to­wards an­drog­y­nous, gen­der-fluid sil­hou­ettes. Ti­tled He for She, the col­lec­tion is aimed at women who love bor­row­ing from men’s wardrobes. “It’s not uni­sex; it’s not an­drog­y­nous, it’s un­apolo­get­i­cally menswear for girls,” says the Delhi-based de­signer, of­fer­ing a closer look at the de­signs dis­played in his Lado Sarai stu­dio in Delhi.

Dhir, over the years, has be­come syn­ony­mous with a new vis­ual lan­guage in the In­dian menswear scene, one that weaves to­gether hand­looms and nat­u­ral fi­bres with im­pec­ca­ble, in­no­va­tive tai­lor­ing. Think airy mul­mul blaz­ers, tai­lored shirts with a wide side-seam and but­tons stitched in mul­ti­colour threads, trousers with ex­tend­able waists known as the magic belt or what Dhir calls the “ex­tra paratha” belt, bombers and jack­ets that are pret­tier on the in­side in con­trast­ing prints and colours. Then there are the best-sell­ing bul­let shirts, that Dhir calls a per­sonal favourite. “We do this shirt in 15 colours and a few prints, and it kept the la­bel afloat in our first four years,” Dhir says of the de­sign, which was orig­i­nally in­spired by the kur­tas worn by Jat men in Pun­jab.

Dhir’s colour pal­ette is wide and bold, go­ing from rich in­digo to bright sal­mon, and the de­signs in­fuse struc­tured and strait­jack­eted menswear sil­hou­ettes with move­ment and a sense of lived-in com­fort. “It’s all about pre­ci­sion and fin­ish­ing,” he says. “There’s a ver­sa­tile trans­for­ma­tion in these pieces, so you can wear these at home or step out in them. It’s not about menswear, wom­enswear, evening wear, day­wear, sum­mer or win­ter—it’s just a beau­ti­ful piece of cloth­ing you can wear when­ever you feel like it.” In­dian craft tra­di­tions un­der­score each of the de­signs, be it the hand­loom base of the gar­ments or the mo­tifs in­cor­po­rated in the prints and weaves.

These de­tails and aes­thetic trans­late into the new col­lec­tion for women, com­pris­ing 24 en­sem­bles also de­signed to be worn as sep­a­rates. Slouchy pantsuits are crafted from bro­cade, linen blaz­ers and bomber jack­ets are el­e­vated with re­versible silk lin­ing (an­other sig­na­ture car­ried over from the main menswear lines), a cash­mere and Merino wool band­hgala jacket in black is in­spired in part by a sher­wani and in part by the all-black coats worn by ac­tors in the 1990s hit The Ma­trix. There is none of the curvy tai­lor­ing that con­ven­tion­ally de­fines women’s out­er­wear and power suits; these de­signs draw pri­mar­ily from menswear, with mod­i­fi­ca­tions to suit women’s bod­ies. “For the blaz­ers, the shoul­ders have been re­duced but the length has re­mained the same (as men’s jack­ets),” says Dhir. “

There’s also an el­e­ment of sto­ry­telling in the gar­ments: in­spired by Pahari minia­ture paint­ings, the em­broi­dery reimag­ines In­dian roy­alty in a con­tem­po­rary con­text. In­stead of tra­di­tional shikar (hunt­ing) scenes, Dhir’s em­broi­dered roy­als are seen play­ing golf, rid­ing Seg­ways or tak­ing self­ies.

In keep­ing with the sea­son (the de­but col­lec­tion launched in Novem­ber), the gar­ments are aimed at win­ter. There’s a hint of fes­tive de­tail­ing, but pared down into what Dhir calls a som­bre sheen. The bro­cade is washed down for re­duced shine. “It’s a som­bre sheen, for peo­ple who want to sort of dress up that way for fes­tive oc­ca­sions,” says Dhir. “I re­late to the kind of peo­ple who want to be them­selves but some­times have noth­ing to wear for for­mal oc­ca­sions.”

Dhir’s col­lec­tion is meant for the woman who loves putting her own spin on clas­sic menswear—his wife Svet­lana. “My wife is my muse. Svet­lana likes throw­ing on men’s clothes but she can make it look fem­i­nine,” he says, adding it’s eas­ier for women to bor­row from men’s wardrobes than one might think. “I in­stinc­tively rec­om­mend cou­ples shar­ing clothes if they are the same size. It’s all about styling and in­di­vid­ual en­er­gies.” Dhir rec­om­mends un­usual pair­ing for his sep­a­rates, es­pe­cially in win­ter, not just with jeans and T-shirts, but also In­dian en­sem­bles. The light­weight bro­cade blaz­ers make a chic re­place­ment for shawls over saris while the long jack­ets and bombers can be worn as an over­layer with a sal­war-kameez.

The in­her­ent ver­sa­til­ity of these sep­a­rates, the de­signer hopes, will also ad­dress an­other chal­lenge that of­ten plagues women’s fash­ion—re­peata­bil­ity. Dhir doesn’t iden­tify with sus­tain­abil­ity as a trend, but his de­sign ethos is founded on the prin­ci­ples of slow­ness, dura­bil­ity and longevity, cre­at­ing only one col­lec­tion a year, us­ing ma­te­ri­als that have a pos­i­tive im­pact on ar­ti­sans and cre­at­ing de­signs that lasts for years in the wearer’s closet. “It’s not nor­mal de­signer lan­guage, but this is what makes us us,” he says.

As a menswear de­signer, Dhir con­fesses to never hav­ing wor­ried about whether his de­signs will out­last one wear or five. “Men wear their clothes again and again, es­pe­cially if they love it. They don’t care about re­peat­ing them whereas with girls, there’s a ‘I wore this last time, what do I wear this time’ zone,” he says. Dhir hopes his clothes will oc­cupy the mid­dle ground be­tween state­ment en­sem­bles and ev­ery­day sta­ples, with enough tai­lor­ing and de­sign de­tails to tell a new story ev­ery time. “The whole idea was to make clothes that can be icons in your closet. These are pieces that ev­ery­one praises and loves or re­mem­bers, so you don’t mind wear­ing them again and again”.

Suket Dhir at his store in Lado Sarai, Delhi.

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