A young designer journeys from Kanpur to Milan, touching many villages on the way. Fashion designer Rahul Mishra on winning the Woolmark Prize and making off-white an Indian colour.
In 1979, the year he was born, Rahul Mishra’s village Malhausi, 80 km from Kanpur, first got electricity. He remembers a childhood spent with his parents and two sisters as a frugal, but not a harsh one — finishing homework under the light of a kerosene lamp because of frequent power cuts, attending a school where the monthly fee was Rs 7 and children sat on durries, not benches. It was the best of times, he says. “My father is a doctor but at the time, he didn’t have a job. Every family has its ups and downs,” he says.
Years later, when he became the first non-European to win a full scholarship to Istituto Marangoni, the fashion institute in Milan, Mishra says it underlined the sharp bends in his journey. “The fees at Marangoni was Rs 2 lakh a month. I didn’t have to pay because I was the scholarship kid. But this contrast, between Rs 7 a month and Rs 2 lakh, makes me who I am, makes me stronger. It shows me what I am capable of, the heights I can reach,” says the 34-year-old fashion designer.
Mishra is currently coasting on the high of being the first Asian to win the prestigious International Woolmark Prize, for a collection that The New York Times said “changed the seasons”. For it, the designer created a new fabric that was 85 per cent merino wool and 15 per cent silk. The result was a wispy, translucent cloth which glides in your hands like a summer breeze. Mishra used it to make knee-length dresses and pants in offwhite and yellow, embroidered with lotus and tree motifs. To Western eyes accustomed to conjuring up visions of fuchsia and peacock blue or Manish Arora neons as Indian fashion, Mishra’s work was a lesson in seeing anew.
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“If I had won this prize with a collection made of chiffon or fabrics picked up from the racks, I would not have been as happy. This is my philosophy and I didn’t change it to impress the West,” he says. The hard-to-impress style mavens of Milan, all on the front row — Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani, Gucci’s Frida Giannini, Style.com’s editor Tim Blanks, Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung and British model Alexa Chung — were floored by the technical expertise. Blanks called the collection “scientific fashion” and said it brought tears to his eyes. “It was a dream front row. I will never get this again,” says Mishra, when we meet him at his studio in Noida.
He is dressed simply, in black and white, shorn of the discreet boast of designer labels on his clothes, or expensive watches. “It’s all about comfort. So I wear chappals and shorts, and even shirts bought for Rs 200 or so. I am colour blind when it comes to my own fashion sense,” he says, with a laugh.
Mishra is also that rare designer who has earned acclaim and money without a PR machinery to manufacture noise about his clothes, or bombard fashion journalists with gift pouches and purple praise. He refuses to let celebrities walk his runway and distract from his clothes, or open a standalone store, because he would rather design than balance accounts. “I don’t even have a website! I am setting up one now, along with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. I have been asked to,” he says. Mishra plans to spend the money he has won (AUD $100,000, approximately Rs 55,87,000) on infrastructure.
In his village in Uttar Pradesh, Mishra grew up untouched by fashion. At the age of 10, he was sent to a boarding school in Lucknow — Maharishi Vidya Mandir — where he developed his love for doodling, creating comic strips and caricatures. He graduated in science from Kanpur University before he escaped to Delhi, unwilling to give in to his father’s wishes that he become a doctor or an engineer.
Even then, he had no sense of fashion as his destiny, nor could he differentiate, he says, between cotton and silk. “I did not want to solve equations all my life. But I was lazy and felt maybe enrolling myself in something creative would be easy,” he says. Once in Delhi, where he lived with his sister, he sat for the entrance exam of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and enrolled in the apparel design and merchandising course in 2003. “That was the only course I was eligible for,” he says. Mishra ended up extending his course by a few years. “I would attend all the classes — for filmmaking, furniture and animation. I even acted in a college film called Saawan ki Ghata. It’s on YouTube. There was so much to learn, I didn’t want to leave the campus,” he says.
Mishra also met his wife Divya at NID. It was while ragging the “arrogant first-year girl” from Kumaon that he fell in love with her.
They married in 2008. Till two years ago, Divya would model the label’s creations, while Mishra would do the photoshoot. “Now, we can afford models and a photographer,” says Divya. She too went to Marangoni in 2009 and was offered a job with Roberto Cavalli. “It’s the single greatest compliment: she refused that and came to India and joined us,” says Mishra, with a laugh. “She is my fiercest critic and is very hard to please. She keeps me grounded.” Divya is also a collaborator on many of his designs. They both work in a similar fashion, letting music set the mood for their designs. “We sketch in different diaries and listen to the same music. For this Woolmark collection, all we listened to was the soundtrack of Little Miss Sunshine by DeVotchKa,” says Divya.
NID was also the launchpad for his debut at the “genNext” show at the Mumbai Fashion Week in 2006. It was a college project, but the dresses and trousers made from Kerala handloom fabric, all of which could be worn inside out, had the industry take notice. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee called it “a dream debut”, BBC covered his show and fashion journalists found a new love. “It was surreal — everyone was talking about me. And here I had been scared to show my collection, fearing someone might copy my reversible Kerala mundu. It was the dean of NID who had sent my work to the fashion week,” he says.
Mishra followed that by a year-long stint at Marangoni, which he calls one of the three most important milestones of his life — his school in Malhausi and NID being the other two. Despite an exhilarating debut, Mishra was a newbie lost in the fashion capital, made nervous by a supremely confident fashion culture and unsure of whether he would measure up. He found himself surrounded by hundreds of billboards emblazoned with fashion’s biggest brands. “It was almost as if nothing else mattered,” he says.
But his daily walk, from his hostel to college through Milan’s biggest shopping district, chipped away at his fears. “I was intimidated by the big labels – Prada, Gucci and Dior. But I would also walk past Versace, Burberry every day… Alexander McQueen was next door. I realised that what they were doing, we could do too,” says Mishra. Once he stood in front of Japanese designer Issey Miyake’s store, looking at the clothes that were unmistakably Japanese, and yet global. It was a lightbulb moment. “I understood why he had made it big. It was because he was very rooted in Japanese culture. I had found my answer: I had to be rooted in Indian ideology and create something very universal,” says Mishra.
True to that realisation, Mishra’s studio has catalysed many experiments with Indian handlooms, weaving silk with cotton, wool with silk, to create new textures and weaves. At the upcoming Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) in Delhi, where he will show the prize-winning “The Lotus Effect” collection, he will blend bandhani with wool. “Design is the only place where science and art come together and that’s what I love the most,” he says.
The signature of his clothes is simplicity — not for him the flamboyant optics of a Kallol Datta collection – though they are products of great technical skill and intricate craftsmanship. That finish shows in his seamless garments, black and off-white dresses and trench coats, that suddenly sparkle with colour—a streak of mustard, or teal and onion pink.
Like others of this generation, such as Gaurav Jai Gupta and Aneeth Arora, Mishra supports clusters of craftspeople across the country, in an attempt to make fashion more relevant than Page3 glitter. In Mishra’s case, that is allied to his belief in a Gandhian philosophy, which he picked up at Ahmedabad through a professor who introduced him to the Mahatma’s beliefs. “From Gandhi, I learnt that I wanted to design a system where the potential of participation can be explored,” he says. The “Lotus Effect” collection, too, begins with a quote by Gandhi: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” Those words resonated with Mishra because of the struggle of his many kaarigars. “One of my embroiderers had shifted to the city for work. But he spent a lot of money on rent and his standard of living suffered. I asked him to move back to the village, I would give him work. And today he is a happier man,” says Mishra.
The designer now works mainly with craft communities in the villages of Gujarat, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. “We work with the Khatri community in Bhuj and they do bandhani work for us; the Koli family from Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh, create chanderi for us; a Muslim family in Kolkata does hand embroideries; the Ansari family in MP creates the Maheshwari weaves and so on,” says Divya. More than a 1,000 craftsmen are employed by Mishra at present. Many of the communities are accustomed to make one fabric at a time, and the designer encourages and trains them to innovate. He follows a simple policy: he never returns rejects to the craftsmen and doesn’t deduct money if a fabric doesn’t work out the way he wanted it to. “They are all happy to work with us and we keep getting requests from more families, but we need more work to employ more people,” says Divya.
The young man who moved out of a UP village and journeyed to Milan knows the perils of migration for his less-privileged textile artists. “I don’t want them to come to the cities. I take my work there, develop and safeguard their craft. After all, fashion is the greatest enemy of craft. It’s not about supporting them for one collection, it’s about teaching them everything I know,” he says. When the jury at the Woolmark Prize asked him where he sees himself 10 years from now, Mishra had said, “I want to employ a million craftspeople under the Rahul Mishra label. That’s where I want to be.”