Gaurav Gupta | Strictly ballroom


Gaurav Gupta | Strictly ballroom

Next week, at designer Gaurav Gupta’s show at the India Couture Week in New Delhi, a spectacle will emerge from the spoils of a “debauched royalty”.

The phrase is Gupta’s attempt to define his couture collection. It’s just another part of “all that jazz”, his way of describing his technique-obsessed clothes, surreal ramp shows, the birds that soar in his dreams and nightmares and become motifs in his clothes, the outlandish rings he wears, the oscillating emotional radar that defines him, or why he is a crazy papa to his 400 and more staff. “I am not attracted to anything simple,” says Gupta, who laughs easily and loudly.

Let’s try again. The new collection will include a glamorous line-up of gowns, some with capes, long and short dresses, sari-gowns, and draped saris styled with unusual jackets. “I am going away from the neon shade card to deeper, darker colours and I feel an increasing affinity for bugle beads,” says Gupta, struggling to bring his inner dialogue out into the open. He slips off his rings—a lion head, a silver shark and a shimmering, uncut blue stone pendant converted into a ring—and places them in front of him. “Couture is a dialogue between the world and oneself,” he says.

Lightfall, his couture line from last year—starkly sexy and riveting in diaphanous gold and silver, with sculptural floral motifs, lace and net, beautiful black, fuchsia and deep orange—drove up his annual turnover by more than 100%. The resultant spurt in work caused some panic among his staff; overall, it has been a breathless year for Gupta.

His couture won market and industry acceptance, with incessant requests from Ludhiana to Raipur and Mumbai, Los Angeles and Cannes, for his slinky, gossamer, shimmering gowns. “Lightfall gave me the confidence that I could take couture to another level, that I can make extreme fantasy costumes. I am an extremist,” he says, adding that his customer base has widened simultaneously—across age groups, including middle-aged women as well; and in tier 2 cities like Nagpur and Raipur. Gupta insists that he is a cocktail or sangeet designer, a ball-gown magician, a red-carpet Rasputin, not a traditional couturier who dresses up the bride for her wedding day.

If his Lakmé Fashion Week prêt collection in March, in collaboration with international jewellery designer Mawi, stamped that distinction, his couture has walked almost every red carpet this year: Deepika Padukone at the Filmfare Awards; Shruti Haasan at the Screen Awards; English model and socialite Victoria Hervey at the Golden Globes and Cannes; Israeli model and TV presenter Hofit Golan at Cannes; American recording artist Skylar Grey at the Grammy’s concert; and Kalki Koechlin at Iifa, or the International Indian Film Academy Awards, in Tampa Bay, US, to recall a few. Coming on top of hundreds of local orders, Gupta says this prompted him to restructure and streamline his business, hire like a maniac, fill gaps that he didn’t realize could emerge, and expand, expand, expand. Phew.

Born and raised in New Delhi in a family that deals with steel, 35-year-old Gupta studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) before going to London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to “unlearn”. Even before working with avant-garde British designer Hussein Chalayan to learn technique and form, or being influenced by non-conformist designers like Thierry MuglerAlexander McQueenVivienne Westwood and the Japanese Rei Kawakubo, Gupta admits to being obsessive, competitive, crazy and fascinated by complexity. “Till then, I had never looked at India but my graduation collection was all about India in an upside-down way,” he says, showing me a digital album. If you trace back his rebellious “new, new couture”, the signs were evident then. Ikat is woven to make a child’s costume; a jacket is broken down into pieces with the embroidery falling out (like a bomb had burst inside and the embroidery stretched because of the explosion, he says); strips of Banarasi brocade are used to hand-knit a piece; there is three-dimensional Chikankari; the sleeves look like they are melting on the garment. “It’s very Dali-esque,” quips Gupta.

Spanish painter Salvador Dali’s abstract art is useful in comprehending Gupta’s fashion sensibility. A mind that tells him to build a staircase leading up to nowhere in his office-workshop at Noida, leave the cemented walls unfinished, unpainted, place black and bald mannequins ready to take flight instead of striking coquettish poses in his studio, suspend puppets wearing his prêt from the ceiling of his flagship store at New Delhi’s DLF Emporio mall and shave half of his own head, keeping the other half in a grisly buzz cut.

We met thrice for this story. Each time, Gupta’s dressing style took up at least 15 minutes of our conversation, delaying orders for the tall cold coffees that he likes with his vegetarian sandwiches and fries. The first time, he arrived in a black, ankle-length, striking frock jacket with a white shirt-pant inside, and everyone at the restaurant had eyes only for him. “It’s my cardinal’s coat,” said Gupta, reminding me that cardinals only wore white. The next time, he wore black harem pants with a black T-shirt, Roman sandals, aviators and three crazy rings, one that was a watch dial. His black leather bag was an enormous hold-all; I could have curled up inside. The third time, it was another pair of anti-fit draped pants. Gupta, who says he loves to shop anywhere in the world but likes to design his own garments, considers a pair of latex wings from the label Comme des Garçons his funkiest new fashion purchase. His closet at home is a décor case study too.

In 2005, when Gupta returned to India after receiving a special award called the “future of couture” from the mayor of Rome at the Alta Roma Alta Moda (Rome Fashion Week), where he showed his Saint Martins’ graduation collection, he felt frustrated with the fashion scene here. He named his label Atpug Varuag—his name spelt in reverse—and carried the baggage of too much opinion. “I was extreme, juvenile and a snob,” he admits, even though fashion magazines called him the “It” designer.

“Soon, I realized you can’t dismiss the Indian market. I was making tunics and bottoms for stores like Kimaya and Ensemble, but not the kind that could attract most Sindhi and Marwari fashion customers,” he says, explaining how he began to give his own twist to Indian fashion. The edgy military dresses and jackets of his first collection made way for sexy, draped ensembles, semi-pleated Graecian saris, and lehnga and sari gowns. He challenged static designs, creating sari blouses that mixed net and satin with three-dimensional embellishments and made constructed lehngas. “I can see the Raja Ravi Varma woman in one corner of my head but I try to make a Gaurav Gupta garment for her. Lehngas and anarkalis are our LBDs, let’s make them look like it,” he says, explaining his draped tunics, “forward kurta-sets”, the shoulder pads he uses for gowns and blouses, Victorian cuffs on sleeves of garments, or attached dupattas on kurtas.

In 2012, American pop culture magazine Nylon featured red-haired rock star Shirley Manson on its cover wearing an outfit designed by Gupta. He was the only designer from India featured in the “Fashion Is Great”, part of the “Great Britain” series of videos commissioned by the British government during the 2012 Olympics on influential people from all over the world connected to the UK. And Atpug Varuag became Gaurav Gupta, both the label and the designer.

Later this year, he will launch a menswear line, and will soon announce a strong online presence. “I am bored all the time, like a baby with too many emotions. To keep stimulating myself, I need to branch out into never-before territory,” he says.

He could try flying.–Strictly-ballroom.html