Rahul Mishra’s designs strike a perfect balance between being innately Indian and fiercely global. If there’s anything equally fascinating as his creations, it is his journey from Malhausi to Paris and beyond.
Rahul Mishra wears sustainability on his sleeves but has long forsaken the soft bubble of comfort, where he could harp on his past laurels to exploit the ‘hit formula’. It was easier for him to slip into a cocoon of familiarity after winning the International Woolmark Prize in 2014, held on the sidelines of Milan Fashion Week, the first Indian designer to do so. It may surprise some of us but Mishra would not like to be known as just a handloom guy or the designer who works with wool. He is here to push the envelope convincingly when it comes to techniques, designs and silhouettes. For him, every new collection begins with a zero.
He likes to wipe his slate clean before working on a new collection. “A sense of thoughtlessness is imperative. It’s like the silence before a storm,” the NID-Ahmedabad alumnus says. This helps him keep each collection different from the other. What begins with thoughtlessness turns into a two-month-long sketching (while listening to his then favourite song on a loop), garment visualising, clothes making spree which ends with the humdrum of a show. A melancholic vacuum grips him after a show is over. “And then there is this strange discontent of my own collection that creeps in,” he admits. What keeps him excited though is the prospect of creating something new. He fluidly moves from one fabric blend to the other to add to the freshness. “I like silk-organza a lot but cotton-voil, Chanderi silk and wool too play along well with my designs,” he says.
What he sticks to though is his protective stance towards his constant collaborators…the kaarigars. “I like the idea of having a social audit that could keep a check on the craftspeople and their financial and emotional health,” he remarks. He does not wait for such a system to be put into place. He does so on his own, keeping check on over 200 weavers, embroiders, and other kaarigars who have worked with him since the inception of his eponymous label in 2008. He does not ask them to leave their villages, their familiar environment, even if it means he has to constantly be on the move — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal — to get his work done. “The intangible part is more powerful, much more beautiful for me,” he says, adding that it is important for him that the people he works with are content. His dream of employing a million people — which he shared with the judges at the Woolmark event — is well under way.
Sustainability, according to Rahul, is a moving target. “We cannot think in a vacuum. A larger picture has to be kept in mind and an all-inclusive system has to be put in place for weavers.” For Rahul, sustainability does not mean working with organic fabrics or employing a few weavers for personal gain. He is of the opinion that accountability should come before sustainability. There are no shortcuts, and a perfect model is a myth. A new kind of industrial revolution is needed, he says. Rahul detests handloom becoming the big ticket to success without weavers getting anything in return. “Let us treat our kaarigars as entrepreneurs, not employees,” he says. One day, he wants to write a book on sustainable fashion, the flip side of it and a no-frills approach to make things fall in line.
His idea of sustainability is as unique as the blends he creates. Sample this. The capsule collection he entered for the Woolmark Prize—the event is in its 60th year—the Lotus Effect, was a shift from what was associated with designs from India. Hexagons and lotus motifs were embroidered using the woolen zardozi technique on a hand-woven blend of Chanderi silk and 85 per cent Merino wool. Global appeal was never lost on him as he took inspiration from monochromatic works of Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. This was, however, not the first time that he had a fresh take on a traditional weave. For his more recent Spring/Summer 2017 line, ‘The Rainforest’ showcased at Paris, he led traditional artisans who brought to life 3D embroidery on natural textiles like cotton-voile and organdy to celebrate post-impressionist French painter Henri Rousseau’s artworks. The surface texturing on hand woven textiles brought forth stories of nature, craft, art and the fight for
For his debut at Lakmé Fashion Week in 2006, Rahul turned Kerala handloom mundu upside down, or shall we say inside out. Quite literally. In 2009, he created reversible fabrics blending Kerala cotton with Benarasi silk. The collection was a dream and also a dream-come-true for the designer, for it earned him a scholarship at Istituto Marangoni in Milan, making him the first non-European designer to receive it.
Following an international debut at Paris Fashion Week in 2015, he is now a regular on its calendar, showcasing (and retailing) across the globe. Given a choice, he would prefer experiencing a great design breakthrough over a standing ovation at a show. “A design breakthrough becomes a part of the history. Standing ovation might qualify as news.” What makes him so grounded, we think, is his student-like approach towards his work.
“Craft is like an institution. You can learn so much if you stay focused,” Rahul says. Speak to him for an hour and he can put a lot of things into perspective. In one swift sentence, he explained to me the negative impact of growing too much cotton too fast, the diminishing cycle farming and a complete lack of empathy towards agrarian clusters. Rahul comes across more mature than his age. All of 37, he is a Gandhian at heart, which we assume is the reason behind it. The blue-eyed boy of the fashion fraternity holds on to his self-effacing side, something ingrained in him by his humble upbringing in Malhausi, a sleepy village in Uttar Pradesh. Ask him what he misses the most about it and he promptly replies, ‘the slow pace of life’.
For now, there is no slowing down for Rahul Mishra as he readies himself for the next season of Paris Fashion Week, 2017 edition of FDCI India Couture Week, and many collaborations that keep him from taking a much-needed vacation with his wife Divya and his eighteen month old daughter Aarna.
If not a designer, Rahul Mishra would have been...
Fashion capitals closest to
Paris and Milan
On my vacation wishlist...Driving through hills
On my playlist now...
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
What excites me...
Films, art, sports
Wife Divya, daughter Aarna, parents and close friends
On a regular day, I dress up in...
Linen or cotton shirt teamed with trousers and Adidas trainers