STO­RIES IN STITCHES

Hav­ing de­buted his first haute cou­ture col­lec­tion in Jan­uary, Rahul Mishra has much to teach us about cre­at­ing more sus­tain­able, peo­ple-cen­tric fashion ecosys­tems, writes

The National - News - Luxury - - CON­TENTS - Francesca Fearon

In­dian de­signer Rahul Mishra has much to teach the in­dus­try about cre­at­ing sus­tain­able fash­ion ecosys­tems

It is 48 hours be­fore the catwalk show, and in a small stu­dio tucked away in Paris’s his­toric Marais dis­trict, Rahul Mishra, 39, is jug­gling my ques­tions, model fit­tings and queries about hair, make-up and some pretty size­able di­a­mond jew­ellery from the bustling team around him. The de­signer has one eye on me and one on the model try­ing on tuxedo pants and an ivory dress con­structed from free-float­ing fern-like em­broi­deries – a de­sign of great com­plex­ity and del­i­cacy. Sur­round­ing us are rails of rav­ish­ingly pretty dresses em­broi­dered with dreamy land­scapes and naive an­i­mals that re­mind me of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s Jun­gle Book. Mishra is in the fi­nal countdown to his de­but haute cou­ture col­lec­tion.

The Delhi-based de­signer has pre­sented his readyto-wear col­lec­tions on Paris’s cat­walks for the past five years, since win­ning the In­ter­na­tional Wool­mark Prize in 2014, at­tract­ing sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion from in­flu­en­tial ed­i­tors and buy­ers for the way he cham­pi­ons the ex­quis­ite hand­i­cra s of his home­land. Then, last De­cem­ber, it was an­nounced that he had been in­vited by the Fédéra­tion de la Haute Cou­ture et de la Mode (for­merly the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale) as a guest mem­ber for the haute cou­ture col­lec­tions in Jan­uary. He is the first In­dian de­signer to be wel­comed on the sched­ule along­side in­dus­try gi­ants such as Chanel and Dior.

“I was very hon­oured that mon­sieur Mo­rand [ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dent of the Fédéra­tion] ex­plained how ev­ery­one sup­ported me and that it was a unan­i­mous de­ci­sion,” says Mishra. “I value that.”

With his floppy curls and easy smile, the de­signer is a strik­ingly hum­ble per­son­al­ity in a sys­tem known for pro­duc­ing big egos. And this tall, cour­te­ous gen­tle­man has a col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit. The rea­son he won the Wool­mark Prize and has since been em­braced by the Paris fash­ion fra­ter­nity is, apart from his ob­vi­ous tal­ent, his phi­los­o­phy. His goals are so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity: to cre­ate fash­ion that ben­e­fits gi ed ar­ti­sans in the vil­lages around In­dia, di­ver­si­fy­ing away from the big em­broi­dery ate­liers of Delhi and Mum­bai, which are known to sup­ply many pres­ti­gious names in ready-to-wear – even if these lux­ury brands brush that fact un­der the car­pet.

Haute cou­ture is famed for its em­broi­deries from the Lesage and Mon­tex ate­liers (now un­der the pa­tron­age of Chanel), but in In­dia, this is a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion. Mishra’s drive in work­ing with lo­cal hand

weavers and em­broi­der­ers is to de­sign clothes that “cre­ate jobs that help peo­ple in their own vil­lages”. He takes work to them rather than per­suad­ing them to mi­grate to the city, be­liev­ing that if vil­lages are stronger, “you have a stronger na­tion”.

He says fash­ion, in terms of the en­vi­ron­ment, “is the en­emy of sus­tain­abil­ity, be­cause fash­ion keeps changing. What de­sign­ers are cre­at­ing is some­thing that’s made by ma­chine, that might not be em­ploy­ing a hu­man; whereas cou­ture, which is made by hand, will cre­ate value for the 1,000 peo­ple who are sup­ported by what we cre­ate.” He is de­liv­er­ing so­cial sus­tain­abil­ity as well as pro­mot­ing the sto­ried her­itage of In­dian cra s.

Haute cou­ture sup­ports this pace of cre­ativ­ity: it is bet­ter to pro­duce these cus­tom-made cre­ations for clients in In­dia (there are two flag­ship stores in Delhi), Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East, who are drawn to this kind of cra sman­ship and want to in­vest in it. It is more en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble to de­sign and make some­thing that a client has or­dered, rather than pro­duc­ing some­thing in bulk in the hope of find­ing cus­tomers to buy it. Mass pro­duc­tion is pol­lut­ing the world, in Mishra’s view. “If you cre­ate at a hu­man pace, it can be sus­tain­able, as the slower pace gives Mother Earth time to re­place its re­sources – a mech­a­nised pace be­comes un­sus­tain­able.”

Haute cou­ture is prov­ing vi­able for the de­signer, as busi­ness is up 50 per cent, which gives him the free­dom to work with a mas­ter weaver in Ker­ala, for in­stance, who may take one month to weave a fiveme­tre length of cloth. This par­tic­u­lar ar­ti­san, the de­scen­dant of nine gen­er­a­tions of weavers, has been work­ing with Mishra for eight years, and in that time has moved from a hum­ble hut to a house with an ate­lier full of looms, and now has money to send his chil­dren to school and buy a car. “Fash­ion pro­vides that so­cial mo­bil­ity,” Mishra points out.

Sim­i­larly, an em­broi­derer from West Ben­gal was per­suaded to re­turn to his vil­lage, tak­ing work with him from Mishra, and build a busi­ness that em­ploys fel­low vil­lagers, cre­at­ing a cir­cu­lar econ­omy that other lo­cal busi­nesses ben­e­fit from. In about 15 years, Mishra has built a brand that now em­ploys a vast num­ber of ar­ti­sans across In­dia.

These nim­ble-fin­gered in­di­vid­u­als have del­i­cately hand-em­broi­dered flora and fauna for his new col­lec­tion; there is a whole ecosys­tem on some dresses, in­spi­ra­tion for which is drawn from the un­der­wa­ter scenery of the coral reefs in the Mal­dives, where Mishra and his fam­ily spent time on hol­i­day; or the an­i­mals inspired by the film Mada­gas­car, which he reck­ons he has watched at least 30 times with his daugh­ter, 4-year-old Aarna. “There was so much

happiness in the air around this col­lec­tion: a shared in­spi­ra­tion be­comes a com­mon dream and the ar­ti­sans put so much into this process, em­broi­der­ing ele­phants and an­i­mals that re­minded them of their child­hood.”

Some of the dresses are ex­per­i­ments in 3D em­broi­dery, such as the ivory fern dress or a jun­gle minidress and bodices with free-float­ing em­broi­dered fo­liage and whim­si­cal an­i­mals that take a moment to spot. Each piece tells a story – some de­signs took 5,000 man-hours to make, em­broi­dered sep­a­rately and as­sem­bled into gowns in his Delhi stu­dio. The pho­to­graphs are sub­se­quently sent to the vil­lages to share the vi­sion with those in­volved.

Mishra is very con­scious of the im­pact fash­ion has on the en­vi­ron­ment, re­count­ing a story about his daugh­ter, who in­no­cently be­moaned how she missed the blue sky and sun­shine when the fam­ily re­turned to the pol­luted smog of Delhi a er their hol­i­day in the Mal­dives. “It is such a sim­ple thing to want fresh air, blue sky and beau­ti­ful sun­shine, but that may be­come a lux­ury.” Think­ing of his daugh­ter, Mishra quotes the fa­mous en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist David Brower: “We don’t in­herit the earth from our an­ces­tors, we bor­row it from our chil­dren.”

The de­signer’s per­sonal story, mean­while, reads like a script from a Bol­ly­wood movie. His be­gin­nings were hum­ble –he was raised in a vil­lage in Ut­tar Pradesh and at­tended school in a struc­ture that was lit­tle more than a mud hut with a thatch roof. He went on to grad­u­ate with a de­gree in physics, but aban­doned that to study at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of De­sign in New Delhi, learn­ing about graph­ics and an­i­ma­tion be­fore set­tling on fash­ion. “I had no idea: I couldn’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween cot­ton and silk or how to sew a but­ton on. Now I am a tai­lor. I am a quick learner and as a sci­ence grad­u­ate was in­ter­ested in pat­tern-cut­ting and tai­lor­ing.”

His work was spot­ted in the In­dian cap­i­tal by Di­dier Grum­bach, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale, who in­vited him to Paris when he saw Mishra’s de­but at Delhi’s Fash­ion Week. “He said call me any time you are ready to do some­thing in Paris, but I didn’t feel ready at the time.” Win­ning the Wool­mark Prize, an ac­co­lade whose past re­cip­i­ents in­clude Karl Lager­feld and Yves Saint Lau­rent, was the boost in con­fi­dence that Mishra needed.

His clothes are con­tem­po­rary, breezily light and flat­ter­ing, fo­cus­ing mostly on long dresses and frothy cock­tail dresses, but his em­broi­dery is the point of dif­fer­ence from other names on cat­walks in the French cap­i­tal. “I look at em­broi­dery as a way of sto­ry­telling, as a way of look­ing at my per­sonal jour­ney,” says Mishra. Given the ben­e­fits it has brought to the ar­ti­sans he works with, it is a wor­thy story to tell.

Mishra’s goals are so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity: to cre­ate fash­ion that ben­e­fits the ar­ti­sans and vil­lages around In­dia

Dresses in Rahul Mishra’s spring/sum­mer 2020 col­lec­tion fea­ture free-float­ing em­broi­dered fo­liage

To cre­ate his cou­ture col­lec­tion, the de­signer worked with weavers and em­broi­der­ers from dif­fer­ent vil­lages in In­dia, cre­at­ing a cir­cu­lar econ­omy at the grass­roots level

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