Stylist Mohit Rai on creating a distinct fashion identity for Bollywood celebrities
If there is one thing that the recent coverage of Cannes 2019 has proven, it is that Indian celebrities have their eyes firmly set on global style dominance. With record representation this year, the 10-day event, which over the years has become as much about fashion and style as it is about films, saw Indian actors slip in and out of designer outfits for red carpet appearances, photo calls, and press meets. Sometimes up to four outfits in a day. Couple that with an entourage of makeup artists, hairdressers, photographers, and the power of social media, and you had images and trends that were discussed and dissected on loop. And at the centre of it all sat the celebrity stylist. After all, fashion in India is never runway-centric like the west but is seen through Bollywood look-books and carefully-curated Insta stories. The celebrity becomes the runway.
The past five years have seen the meteoric rise of the celebrity stylist. Dressing stars for every public appearance, they have their fingers firmly placed on the pulse of what’s chic, cool, and au courant. Today at par with their global counterparts, several Indian Bollywood celebrity stylists have worked towards creating very defined style visions for some of the country’s biggest A-list actors. All of Deepika’s Cannes red carpet looks were thanks to Shaleena Nathani, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has been styled by Aastha Sharma for nearly four years now. Ranveer Singh’s eccentric, bold style is credited to Nitasha Gaurav, and Anushka Sharma has followed Allia Al Rufai’s dressing diktats for some time now. Sonakshi Sinha has candidly credited Mohit Rai for her style transformation.
“It’s not an easy task,” says Mohit Rai, one of the country’s top celebrity stylists who also styles Kareena Kapoor Khan, Huma Qureshi, Disha Patani, and Shilpa Shetty. There is the expectation to create looks that are different, appropriate, chic, and statement-making for every public appearance, which basically means that a celebrity stylist has to have a deep understanding of the star’s sartorial sensibilities, be in-the-know of what’s trending, and be able to translate it into something individualistic. “It is my firm belief that as a stylist, you can have an inherent style but that does not mean you can impose that style on your client. Your job is to take their individual style and personality, and elevate it.”
This is at the core of what Rai does. A graduate from National Institute of Fashion Technology, he is the person behind some of Sonakshi’s most defining red carpet looks; interestingly, he also began his personal celebrity styling journey with her. His consultancy, MR Styles, focuses on dressing stars in under-the-radar international labels, and caters to both brand (runway, catalogue, campaign), personal (wedding and celebrity), and editorial assignments. He is also the co-founder of Grain Fashion Consultancy with fellow stylist friend Sohiny Das that offers design guidance and styling for fashion labels. A graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, he started his career with editorial styling, and moved into the celebrity genre three years ago.
Working with a team of seven hand-picked and hand-trained stylists, Rai says that a typical day at the MR Styles office is largely unstructured – a mix of working on looks for several different celebrity appearances (each individual team member handles multiple projects), work for which begins weeks in advance. Loosely translated, this means briefing sessions with clients to understand the requirement, creating moodboards / ideas for the look, constant back and forth with different teams to freeze on the look(s), a round-the-clock juggle to source from different Indian and international brands, and fitting sessions at odd hours.
So, it’s not entirely a surprise that things are a little more than hectic. “The biggest thing you need to be aware of is that at any point things can descend into chaos and it can become a nightmare. There can be 100 things you’ll need to do in the next one hour. You are jumping from shoot to event to appearance, so something is bound to change”. He recalls an incident where the one look he had wanted for a star did not arrive till the last moment, and how his team worked through the night to stitch an outfit themselves so the star could wear it the next morning. Rai says he has never worked typical hours – as the project beckons, the team clears their schedule.
If you thought rubbing shoulders with Bollywood came with its share of glamour, Rai laughs and says this couldn’t be farther from the truth. “There is a lot of hard work involved in preparing a look, and the team works very hard on it. You are on call 24/7, and there is always a last-minute gig. There is nothing glamorous about it. You are doing a job, just like a doctor or a banker.”
The unstructured nature of the job comes from the genre still being relatively new in India. “As an industry, it hasn’t existed for a very long time, and today it is individuals who are trying to organise it by getting systems in place. So that comes with its own challenges. The most basic one is getting people to understand timelines, that a certain outfit will take time to create or source. Styling is often the last thing that is thought about.” Another pet peeve is people not understanding the scope of styling or educating themselves about it. “Everyone largely wants to be styled in a safe manner. Few take risks.”
But Rai says he’s been able to work around most of these issues thanks to his team that has a very defined sense of styling and a strong work ethic. Discovering new labels and brands is also key to his work, because “the kind of exposure that you get being placed on a celebrity can’t be bought. There are always stylists looking to push new designers and talents with a unique vision.”
Rai says that every day brings with it new lessons, and he tries to learn from his mistakes. “I criticise myself every day. If I don’t do that, I think I will stagnate. So from that point, I think my work has become more refined.” Another big, though recent, learning has been to take time out for himself, something that particularly hard in this line of work, given the erratic schedule.
His advice to anyone trying to get into celebrity styling? “Don’t do it unless you really enjoy the craft of it. I think dressing people is a wonderful thing, to help them discover the best version of themselves. But do it only if you have a passion for it that’s not driven by money.”
Video and images: Pranav Bhasin