A few summers ago, Rahul Mishra—India’s first designer to win the International Woolmark Prize in 2014 and a regular on the Paris Fashion Week calendar since then—found himself in a hillside garden blooming with hydrangeas, overgrown with heart-shaped, dew-speckled mallow. He was holidaying with his family, and had set aside the morning to paint the flowers with his daughter, Aarna. And from that one morning flowed the inspiration for his Spring 2019 collection. “Seeing my daughter grow,” he says, “is making me re-live my childhood again. The way she looks at things gives me new perspectives every day.”
By himself, though, Mishra is no stranger to new perspectives. Growing up in a village in rural Uttar Pradesh, he discovered his love for design while studying for his Physics degree from Kanpur University, and that led him to the famed National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. While there, he earned a scholarship at the Istituto Marangoni in Milan (he now sits on the India board of his alma mater, with a branch in Mumbai and more planned for the future), and launched his label in 2008. If anything, he has seen what few others have in the course of longer careers. And it is in his designs that this journey becomes visible.
A look at any of his collections bears testimony: Motifs and memories come together, and he mixes them with the crafts he so deftly champions in all his collections. For example, his Spring 2019 show in Paris featured checkered fabrics that recalled the ubiquitous ‘lungis’ worn across rural India, but made luxurious because they were handwoven in silk on the looms of West Bengal. For an added touch of nostalgia, he opted for the delicate Lucknawi ‘daraz’ technique, where women karigars slit and hand-hem layered fabrics to create a variety of patterns, all white-on-white. It is this mixing of his past recollections and traditional Indian techniques that makes his clothes some of the most luxurious available on ready-to-wear shelves in the market. “Had it been executed in Paris,” sighs Vogue.com’s Amy Verner about his Paris show, “it would have constituted couture.”
“Luxury is a function of time period and availability,” says Mishra when asked why he chooses things and crafts that take a longer time to achieve. “In the early 20th century, Maharani Gayatri Devi’s printed chiffons seemed more luxurious than a Kanjeevaram because so few could access it, and because it was the height of technological innovation at the time. Today, the focus is returning to hand-crafted luxury because mass-produced clothing is available to everyone at such cheap rates.” To Mishra, then, the raw material is as important as the final garment, and this is why it is easy to connect his ready-to-wear with the idea of luxurious haute couture. His recent showing championing khadi held at Delhi’s historic Red Fort for the Ministry of Textiles also bears witness to his obsession with near-couture techniques and fabrics (for what is more haute than hand-spun, handwoven khadi?)
Interestingly, it’s couture that Mishra had been showing in India till October last year, keeping his twice-yearly RTW collections for the Paris calendar since his 2014 Woolmark win. And after almost half a decade, he returned to the ramp at FDCI-organised Lotus Makeup India Fashion Week in New Delhi last year, and to a deafening applause. This year, Rahul Mishra debuts at Paris Couture Week and is the first Indian designer to be welcomed as guest member by the committee of the Chamber Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
In terms of technique, there isn’t much difference between Mishra’s RTW and couture apart from the number of man-hours and personalised attention it takes for the garment to come into being. And it may be because of how he approaches the making of each garment that carries the Rahul Mishra label. “There are two stages,” he says. “The first is pre-birth, where the most amount of time is dedicated to the basics, like the fabrics being woven by hand. The second is the garment’s life after it has emerged, fully formed. Once it is made, the real questions that emerges are ‘how long will this garment retain its magic?’ ‘How long will it last?’ ‘How long will it continue to be precious?’”
These are the questions that Mishra aims to answer through meaningful, sustainable design. And that is what true luxury means to him. “What is looking more unique, more interesting, and has more of a story to tell, is something that existed way before industrialisation. And that is something which we have in abundance in our country,” he says. “All over the world, people are looking at things that aren’t so easily available as this almost new idea of luxury. Anyone can buy clothes—good clothes—today. But the real need is for all of us to buy clothes that continue being good after being worn repeatedly.” This, to Mishra, is clothes that mean something to you when you buy them, as well as clothes that take on memories as you wear them over time. And as a designer whose work revolves so much around the idea of nostalgia, it is something Mishra is adept at doing.
Director & Producer: Nanki Jassal
DoP, editing, and images: Raoul Tandon
DoP: Saurabh Mukherjee
Featured image: Rahul Mishra Instagram