Rohit Bal’s deftness at intricate detailing and surface texturing has made him a perennial standard-bearer for fluid design sensibility.
I sat in Rohit Bal’s flagship store in south Delhi, waiting for him to wrap up a meeting with a client. Expansive interiors with muted lights and cleverly placed artifacts seem to drown out the frenzied buzz that I was witnessing, plunked in a plush couch. It’s the crazy wedding season. Even as Rohit Bal seems to be working his way towards me, he is magically whisked away by someone or the other.
There are two sides to Rohit Bal. The one that the world sees him as, doing his famous jig, on the ramp. But it is the other, calmer (somewhat surprising for someone who doesn’t know him too well) side is what makes him a success story for over three decades in the fashion industry. The original fashion icon also happens to be one of the first menswear designers to challenge the set norms. He is also among the first few to take on plagiarism head on.
You tell him he is a legend and he might just laugh it off. Warmth comes naturally to him. As we begin our conversation, he did not hold himself to tell me that he likes the flatforms I was wearing. As he walked me down after the interview, I knew I have encountered the lesser-known, real Rohit Bal. Excerpts from the interview.
You are loved for your clothes. Why do so many other things — wedding, interiors, products?
It’s a natural progression for me. I want to translate fashion, my profession into other fields as well. I treat weddings like my shows. When you go to a Rohit Bal wedding, it should seem as if you are attending a Rohit Bal show. Instead of dresses, there are drapes; instead of seating arrangement, there are lounges. It all juxtaposes and comes together as an amalgamation of different forms of creativity to build one complete entity.
Ashish Soni once told me that people might see you as flamboyant, but you are a true genius.
That’s sweet of him to say that. People can form their opinions and say what they feel about me. I am who I am. Whatever perception people have of me is entirely up to them. I just concentrate on what I have to do. I live my life my way, and that, sometimes, upsets people because they want to live my life too. But it’s not easy being me (laughs). I am an open book and how people want to read me is entirely up to them. I will continue to be who I am without any pretence. Pretenders cannot be achievers.
Do you think designers today are overexposed due to social media?
The term fashion designer in itself is a little misconstrued now. Everyone wants to call themselves a designer. There is a huge difference in making clothes and selling them, and being a designer. A designer has a different creative wavelength.
Do you see the spark dying from the fashion world?
I rarely meet leaders now. It is mostly people blindly following others or what’s in trends. But in the fashion industry, it takes a lot to be a more than a flash in the pan. There are a very few people, who have stayed on top of their game for last several decades. Now, that’s what I would call incredible achievement, for a country like ours, with billions of people.
At one of the dinners that you hosted recently you said something about copywriting your designs.
We have already done that. Every single piece from my collections will be patented. We would be sending documents to anyone who we feel are anywhere near plagiarising.
A few legal notices and everyone will know that it is a dangerous territory to tread. I also hope others follow suit and make copyright a norm. My designs have been plagued by blatant copying. This is why we had to take this step. I do timeless classics, the kind of fashion that does not go out of style. So, something from one season can be worn in the next season too. It, thus, becomes all the more important to get the designs patented. It will stop the copycats from making cheap versions of it. I also have the buyer to blame. They love an ensemble but with a slashed price tag. If the buying stops, plagiarism will stop too.
How much of imitation is flattery?
Till the time it doesn’t start affecting your business. Flattery is not going to pay my bills. You can’t give people a cheque and write flattery on it (laughs). When it affects your business, as it did to us, flattery becomes a downright crime. The sad part is that most unusual suspects engage themselves in selling rip offs.
The fashion industry has changed over the years. What is that you miss the most?
I miss the fact that fashion was an art form. Now it’s a ruthless business. Fashion, once, had its own dimension of fantasy; it’s a harsh reality now. I miss the fun elements.
The designer community was close knit then, isn’t it?
Absolutely! We helped each other in every way we could. For a lot of us, we still do. Unlike anywhere else in the world, where fashion designers don’t see eye to eye, we have many close friends in the fraternity, who are there for each other, attending each other’s shows whenever we can. There, of course, is a sense of healthy competition, but the feeling of warmth is stronger.
Did you always want to be a designer?
I think so. Although, I do remember a time when I wanted to be a doctor (laughs). What I knew was that I want to be in a creative field. Design is my forte, but I think I could have been a writer.
Do you write now?
I am in the process of writing a book. I have a contract with Penguin, but I have been able to manage to write just five chapters in three years. I will eventually finish it, because there are a lot of things that I want to share with the world.
Tell us more about the book that you are writing?
There are actually two books. The first one is a coffee table book based on textiles that will showcase different crafts of India. The other one is semi-biographical, intertwining between fashion and my life. But, I have spent so much time in the fashion industry that getting the chronology right has become tiresome.
The kind of childhood we have determines our life course. Do you believe in it?
Yes, I do. I had a blessed childhood. Growing up in Kashmir, in a wonderful family, surrounded by interminable beauty, was glorious. We grew up in a liberal atmosphere with a creative father, who gave each one of us the freedom to follow what we want. It was like growing up in a fantasy world... life was not at a frantic pace, no hectic work schedules. I was protected and pampered, being the youngest of the five siblings. We walked through chinaar trees, eating pears and strawberries. Life was like a picnic hamper.
Do you think all of this seeped into your design?
Absolutely! My designs are about the beauty I grew up around, whether or not I knew it was happening. I was right in the middle of beautiful craft, unbelievable talent, amazing kaarigars... carpets, carved wooden walls, intricate furniture, there was no end to how much beauty Kashmiris produced. The beauty that got engrained in me also gave me some kind of inner calm that most people don’t see. It has given me the ability to deal with all kinds of things later in my life. I would never let Kashmir be taken out of me.
What has been your most important takeaway from working with the kaarigars?
I have one word for it... humility. Working with kaarigars with unbelievable devotion and uncanny talent, has made me humble. They are the true artists. I have always had a great a rapport with my kaarigars, some of them working with me over last 20 years. But it’s important to take care of their families too.
You started with menswear.
Yes. My first collection happened, thanks to my dear friend, Rohit Khosla’s persistent push. I was designing for an export house before that. There was a show in Delhi and Rohit wanted me to do a menswear line. I created one outfit matching the womenswear line for each designer showcasing at the show. I remember selling everything before it even reached the exhibition area. I took inspiration from the grandeur of traditional India. I, then, joined Ensemble, as its only menswear designer. For the first three years of my life, I did only menswear. It was only after a lot of cajoling, I stepped into womenswear.
And there was no looking back after that. What’s keeping you busy these days?
Many things! After the fashion week frenzy, we did a show for the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation at the palace, the residence of the Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur. The collection was my interpretation of Rajasthani costumes. It’s also the wedding season, a season of madness. Apart from usual groom and brides fittings, there are wedding to design. Sometimes, I wish there were 28 hours in a day (laughs).