When designer Suket Dhir bagged the International Woolmark Prize (IWP) 2015-16 in the menswear category, Stuart McCullough, managing director of The Woolmark Company, called it a victory for “romance”. The Delhi-based designer’s winning collection showcased classic tailoring with a perceptible fluidity and healthy lashings of old-world charm and nostalgia.
Inspired by his childhood spent in Banga, Punjab, and his grandfather’s sartorial elegance, Dhir drew upon the personal and personable. It’s that emotion, the art of storytelling and a subtle something he likes to call “nazakat”, which drive the 39-year-old’s vision for his eponymous label. What started out as an organic menswear label retailing from Good Earth in 2010 is, eight years later, a prestigious IWP winner, albeit an understated and low-key one. Yet Dhir’s ideology remains the same — creating slow fashion with “care”, tailored precision and subtle nuances.
At his studio in Lado Sarai, Delhi, the National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate is like an artist in self-study. “I started doing menswear because it was much easier to design for myself. The philosophy of my brand is that I will make what I can wear. It is, as a result, effortless and you get a more soulful product,” he says.
So, when it came to designing his first-ever womenswear line, he turned to his eternal muse – his wife and co-founder of the brand, Svetlana, who has been wearing his designs for years. “We’ve essentially taken what I’ve been making for her and formalised it into a capsule collection now. It’s quintessential menswear for girls. We’re calling it ‘He for She’,” says Dhir.
Before we label it androgynous or unisex, he is quick to clarify: “It’s actually classic menswear done in women’s sizes. So, even the proportions are menswear proportions. Usually, when you make a blazer for women, you’ll find it’s short, has the shape and curve of the form. I’ve specifically and consciously stayed away from that aesthetic. We’ve just stuck with the classic menswear silhouettes we’re good at,” he says.
So, think cashmere sherwanis, velvet bandhgalas, printed khadi blazers, brocade pant-suits and jumpsuits, pashmina night-suits, and reversible ikat bombers, but all touched by Dhir’s keen eye for detail. And his quintessential nazakat. “I don’t think in term of binaries. My menswear does have a hint of that feminine element… And here my muse is Svetlana, so it celebrates sensuality and there is a certain amount of sexiness to the collection,” says Dhir.
Hidden accents, like his trademark double side seam on shirts, and different coloured button-holes aside, he surprises with vibrantly printed silken linings, contrast plackets and cuffs and one-of-a-kind in-house prints. In one of his starring prints Dhir reimagines miniatures from the Pahari School — “they have more ‘raas’ and movement — in modern-day avatars, playing golf, riding Segways and taking selfies. In another, his favourite artist Rene Margritte’s Son of Man is given a beard and a mango and transformed into ‘Son of Man(go)’.
That it took him two years to develop the miniature print and give shape to this collection speaks volumes about his style of working. For Dhir, the product is king and he believes he is a purist of a product, rather than a technique.
So, while he weaves his own fabrics, he’s not afraid to marry the mill made with the handwoven. In this collection too, mill made cashmere, merino blends, velvets and duchess satins co-exist with pashmina from Nepal and Kashmir, handloom brocades from Banaras, hand-spun 32-count khadi and signature handloom ikats. “Mill fabrics can’t be replicated on the hand loom because of their toughness and sturdiness. There are certain techniques, motifs, yarn quality that can only be achieved on the hand loom. So, my whole effort was to ensure that we do not pit power loom against the hand loom. The idea was to bring about a synergy between the two,” explains Dhir.
By designing the collection as a line of separates, the designer hopes people will get more wear out of them. “If you wear anything only once, it goes against the philosophy of the brand. I approach sustainability from a longevity point of view — something you’ll wear over and over again and treasure as a collectible,” says Dhir.
For now, he is busy creating a capsule collection in collaboration with Kolkata-based Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala, using her pashmina sari yardage to make womenswear. Summer will see a Jamdani collection hitting racks. Ask him about the radio silence after the IWP victory and he says, “I’ve been doing things that have taken me long to develop. After Woolmark, we stepped back and went from being an unorganised two-member team to being an organisation. We now have a team in place and we are in a beautiful zone,” he says.