Shahab Durazi: “I am not a recluse but I don’t want publicity”

“I am not a recluse but I don’t want publicity”

n a rare interview, couturier Shahab Durazi speaks about his reluctance to promote himself, Bollywood’s diluting influence on Indian fashion and why he stays away from fashion weeks

A piano sonata from Beethoven would waft around this boutique with grace, if there was a flag, it would be black and white, if a toast had to be raised, it would be warm chamomile, if it was a silhouette, it would be a sharply tailored tuxedo. Shahab Durazi, the Mumbai couturier, also known for his absence at fashion weeks stood up to shake hands as I gingerly made my way up the narrow wooden staircase in his small boutique in Cuffe Parade in Mumbai.

The lower level displays sample pieces from the repertoire of his work, the top is a cosy sitting room. The carpet was soft cream and spotless, the mirrors enlarged the space, the wood work was dark and sleek, while a framed Persian prayer and some couture pieces hanging on a rack along with swatches were Durazi’s backdrop as he smiled warmly under his thick moustache.

In his pastel shirt and dark trousers, the 55-year-old couturier has the gentility and nourishing vibe of a surgeon. Not a gram of flamboyance discos around.

Among the first handful of designers this country had in the eighties, Durazi launched his label in 1987. His first collection was put out in the store (at Ensemble, Mumbai) in 1988. The fashion industry was just two-years-old then.

Thirty-one years later, the designer who arrived with a line of pantsuits remains known for his exquisite and sharply tailored couture as much as for the way in which he disowns the industry’s fussy ways and obsession with celebrity dressing. No bragging on social media, no PR, no promotional strategies.

Last year, a Facebook post he put out critiquing how Bollywood actors had enslaved fashion designers and how celebrity stylists cluttered the style scene while negotiating for free clothes for their starry clients—had gone viral on social platforms. But Durazi’s sum total could not just be this skepticism.

When you connect the dots, he turns out to be a man of consistent beliefs. He has only one store in Mumbai that he deliberately calls a “boutique”. You can visit only by appointment. He doesn’t sell any prêt. Everything that he makes is bespoke; the beading and embroidery on his garments is so delicate that you would need a magnifying lens to magnify their effect. His only atelier is in Mumbai and all his artisans and tailors work from there. Wool and wool blends are his favourite and most used luxe fabrics. He is in fact, the first Indian designer to use Angora, cashmere, camel hair wool for fashion creations. His couture is priced between ₹2 lakhs to 8 lakhs. Most interestingly, he works with Western constructs of “individualism” and distinction through elimination. He approaches work by diminishing it to its form and craft instead of raising it to its embellishments.

Here he talks about his growing up years, why he distinguishes between models and actors and what could bring him back to a fashion week.

It is difficult to find an idea of your work and you particularly as a person because of the measured distance you have maintained from fashion events.

Yes, the few shows I did in the past were solo shows. Mostly I have kept away from fashion weeks. Having said that, I did do one show at the HDIL India Couture Week (ICW) in Mumbai in 2010 because they were among the few sponsors who gave me relevant inputs to make an impressionable presentation. The other reason is that the audience which comes to fashion weeks is not relevant to my work. My market is very niche: urban, modern, Western. A lot of designers from my time have moved away to Indian clothing; I am one of the few left doing the kind of work some of us started with. Mine is, in fact, in the Western couture category. To present it at Lakm é Fashion Week (LFW) or ICW would dilute my work as there is no synergy.

The skepticism or the questioning that reflects in your tone, the absence of media interviews and promotions—what is behind it?

That is just my personality, a manifestation of who I am. I have always been a private man. I don’t give too many interviews because I don’t have much to say. I don’t live in a bubble but mine is a small world. It is not even a comfort zone. I don’t really want the publicity. It is hard for people to understand that and that’s why it is often misunderstood as arrogance. I have been in the business for 33 years. I have no PR agency. I sell out of one little boutique in Mumbai. You can only survive for that long if your product is good. Also, validation of my work comes from the respect and acknowledgement from my contemporaries—senior designers like Tarun Tahiliani, JJ Valaya, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Suneet Varma. That makes me happy. Otherwise, I am happy not being in the public eye. Most designers want to be seen, heard, acknowledged, praised. But I work for myself. I have to satisfy myself even if something I create doesn’t sell.

However, I am not a recluse. I love company, spend a lot of time with close friends, love going out. But I am not comfortable in a large gathering, I cannot go to an event just to make small talk. I am not a party person; I don’t drink or smoke.

In the India of the eighties, fashion was typecast for designers hanging around with models, incestuous partying, narcissistic undertones …What choices did you make then?

I did not become a part of that circle ever. Not being that person helped me in fact. But it was interesting to see how the media acknowledged my work despite being a designer with no trappings. They thought it was a package—restraint came with good design—though that’s not how it should be understood. But it was.

And it is not like I have always been praised. Some people say I am boring, sedate, classic, that I am not a designer but a stylist. But let me put it this way: I would rather that 500 discerning people like my work than 5,000 ignorant follow it. I know that “good work” is a relative concept of course. Also, what is this thing about social media followers? A designer’s worth is measured by the number of followers he has! All this is very alien and disconcerting sometimes. I look around and see so much bad work being applauded.

What were you like in your growing up years?

I am one among five siblings, two older sisters and three brothers one of whom is my fraternal twin. As a child, I was very shy, gentle, withdrawn, choosy about friends and quite artistic.

What drew you to fashion then?

Sketching and art were an integral part of my childhood. I grew up in a culture of comics—Betty and Veronica and Tintin. I used to create caricatures, figurines, cars, animal and still life, airplanes. I was enamoured by cars and with automobile design. But while sketching, I realised that what I enjoyed the most was fashion—with its line and form. I applied to design school abroad because a majority of my friends were heading to the US for further studies. I got into Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York and loved my time there. I would roam around in New York from Soho to Manhattan, explore all boutiques from Saks Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman and the rest. Those were critical years in making me who I am. In the mid-eighties, power dressing was a big deal. My edge came from this exposure and from my technical expertise. So when I launched my first line, it was a collection of 12-13 suits in wool. It sold out.

What about the first burst of creative interventions?

In the first eight to ten years, there was a lot of hard work like for anyone else in any industry. You have to make your mark, build an identity, understand your level and language. That phase determines how you treat your work and reinvent yourself. When I launched in 1987, the industry itself was a couple of years old. There was Ensemble the store, Tarun Tahiliani, Abu-Sandeep, Sunita Kapoor’s Amaya, Anu (Anuradha) Mafatlal, Suneet Varma and a couple more. When I returned after my education at FIT, Tarun Tahiliani was one of the first people who recognised the worth of my work and pointed to my technical expertise. If we put all this in the context of fashion design today, I still see a lot of bad work. And I really think it has a lot to do with Bollywood-isation.

Do you think Bollywood’s endorsements are the biggest disservice to Indian fashion?

Undoubtedly. Bollywood has completely diluted Indian fashion. The mass hysteria that follows film stars believes that anything celebrities wear is fashion. And a handful of designers use their nexus with Bollywood to promote themselves. We have become small and narrow in our appreciation. If you see the work of designers that are being applauded today, there is rehash and repetitiveness and a blind adherence to a herd mentality. This is dangerous to growth. You become a sycophant as that’s the only way to remain in the herd. I do not entertain any of that. Because I feel I will end up pandering to the needs and tantrums of the stars and the creative aspect of my work will get completely sidelined.

So where does the buck stop? It can’t always be about what is said. Somebody has to do something.

So here’s what I do. I don’t give my clothes free to stylists to dress their celeb clients. I only make exceptions, if it is going to serve my brand in a very special way. What has happened is that there is a new generation of young stylists who have befriended Bollywood stars. They make them their clients, then they scout around for clothes. A lot of these stylists don’t have any understanding of how appropriate a garment is for an event; how suitable it is for the body type of a certain celebrity. They go by colour and shape trends instead of a broader understanding of fashion. Let’s say if they come looking for garments for Shilpa Shetty, Dia Mirza or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, I say I understand what works but stylists don’t want that. So I refrain from just handing out clothes.

But then, there are those like Lara Dutta, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Katrina Kaif who actually buy from me. I don’t give them free clothes. I must repeat that I make exceptions when there is an unusual event, for instance, Aamir Khan wore one of our bandhgalas when he went to meet the of the state of a country. But let’s put it like this, I am not dying to give my clothes to Aishwarya Rai for Cannes (Cannes Film Festival). If I have worked hard, I need to get my money’s worth for it. Would any star do a campaign for me for free? So why would should I give free clothes?

Does this kind of stand need a collective voice to be effective?

Of course. But there is unfortunately a lack of unity among designers. I am not on the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) board. But I feel that as the apex body of fashion, if designers affiliated with the FDCI come together and put their foot down, celebrities will have to purchase instead of get free clothes. It has to be the collective voice of the entire fraternity.

Isn’t this collective voice missing on a whole lot of issues—pricing, sizing, exploitation of models?

That’s true. The most important thing the FDCI should do instead of focussing on the money to spend on events is to create retail space for up and coming designers. Clothes are constantly taken by big stores on consignments, and the unsold is returned. They exploit young designers by asking them to update new collections every three months even before the previous has sold. If the FDCI can root for a larger retail space, designers will get a permanent platform.

How would you define Indian style, its aesthetic?

Bollywood. They call the shots. So what you see filtered down all across is a rehash of that. It is not style.

So are you saying that Bollywood has no idea of style?

A handful of averagely talented designers, who create mediocre work create for the stars and then people believe that if Kareena Kapoor is wearing something, it is fashion. When I see collections, often I can’t even make out who is the designer. There is so much of overlapping. All we see is lehnga-choli, lehnga-skirt, then again lehnga-choli. Or at best an Anarkali kurta where indiscriminate use of embroidery is seen as design.

So you don’t make lehnga-cholis at all?

I do make them, but they are my bridal line, not my couture. We do make some bridal wear—Indian and Western. But that’s not the sum total of the couture we make. That includes well-tailored garments—pantsuits, gowns, tuxedos, even sherwanis. My couture is very well-defined; it is about clever seam work, exquisite handwork techniques, pattern making and cuts that may be invisible to the layman. For instance, I have in the past made a fluted man’s bow tie that had 88 satin silk organza strips. That’s construction, that’s couture for me.

You talk about celebrity endorsements but quite a few of your collections are modelled by film stars? Who would you shoot a new campaign with?

I just shot one with Diana Penty. In the past, I have worked with Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan), Arjun Rampal, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta—all of whom were models before they became stars. They understand clothes. But I would not do a campaign with a top actor.

So what would bring Shahab Durazi back to fashion weeks?

FDCI President Sunil Sethi has been asking me for a finale and there were some conversations with LFW too. But as I said in the beginning, I need everything—a great budget, relevant inputs, creative independence. To give you an idea, way back in 1999, the budget for a Longines DolceVita show with Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan) that I did was ₹56 lakhs. They flew down cheese and oysters from Switzerland. For a Montblanc show of mine, the entire regal room of a five-star hotel was re-carpeted in white. The Times of India converted a crystal ballroom into a floral arena. I do collections where every piece is a masterpiece. It’s not heavy or totally embellished. But everything is one of a kind—the cut, the way it has been seamed, tailored, finished. I need a platform that serves this idea.