Kitsch and sell


Kitsch and sell

There are many reasons to celebrate Manish Arora. His taking over as head of international fashion house Paco Rabanne is not the only one.

Remember how people would jostle to catch a glimpse of a cousin who had just returned from overseas? No one really understood what the person did in faraway land but everyone believed that it was awfully important. In minutes,the incidental congregation would swell,people would whistle,clap and celebrate.

In the last few weeks,the noise around Manish Arora taking over as creative director of Franco-Spanish designer Paco Rabanne’s house is a bit like that. A good story,it went from quote and unquote to misquote within days,meandering from compliments from the industry to Arora being misquoted saying that he would never show again in India (he insists he will,after a brief break).

If the story is about an Indian designer taking over a sagging European fashion house,it does little justice to our good old cousin Manish Arora.

Rabanne,a designer from the Sixties,best known for his collection 12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials and his chain-mail bags made from lavatory chains,retired in 2000. The fashion house was shut in 2006 and the label is now known only for its perfumes. It is not exactly a household name in the country. But with Arora on board,we clap as if we grew up on Rabanne.

Isn’t it time to cheer Arora for what he is rather than for what he is associated with? Brought up in a family,which exported saris,he felt like a stranger in Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT),and had no idea what he had got into. Yet he got the Most Creative Student of the Year Award for his final collection in 1994. He followed it by a two-year stint with Rohit Bal. In his first show in 1997 at Delhi’s Park Hotel,he used materials from Chandni Chowk’s Kinaari Bazaar. From a ladies tailor who made salwar kameez to the maverick designer who created an Amar Chitra Katha embroidery sequence,from the funny guy who made a jacket with 10,000 leather hearts to the global stylist who dresses up Nespresso,MAC and Maria Luisa windows in Paris,he is much more than a familiar cousin who has returned with goodies for the first time.

Arora accepts the disturbed circus of his mind and has the guts to show its neurosis,both through fashion shows and his clothes. A majority of the garments and accessories we see on his ramp is eminently unwearable. They are indulgences of an uncensored mind,where 1,500 hand-embroidered butterflies sit on Surf detergent packets,mirror work glistens on space-age outfits,Japanese warrior motifs are woven from Benarasi fabric and models wear purple make-up and white paint on their lips. People clap for him spontaneously because he gives them a peek into their own psyches. Most of us have conditioned ourselves to dress our feelings down; he has chosen to dress them up. “Somehow,all stories can be traced back to one’s childhood,” he had said once,when the why and how of his crazy,over-the-top,pink and funky work opened up a conversation between us.

What Arora shows on the ramp is not what he sells. He is one of the few Indian designers who makes separate fashion show collections and commercial lines. He may be the most-known Indian fashion name abroad but his clothes don’t sell like hot cakes here. Even for the pared-down store versions,you need a rehearsed lack of self-consciousness to carry off a Manish Arora garment.

As a designer,he matters not because of his vivid dreams but because he works strategically. As does his business partner Deepak Bhagnani. Both give business and creativity equal footage and keep out of each other’s way. Aware that a majority will never buy his clothes,Arora does not waste his time converting his customers into Lady Gagas or courting Bollywood. Instead,he works to reach a wider clientele through multiple collaborations. He partners with MAC cosmetics,Good Earth (for mugs and saucers),Nivea (for limited edition jars),Inspecs Eyewear,Swatch Group,Reebok Fish Fry (for funky shoes),Aamby Valley City,Swarovski Elements,Pommery Champagne,Espresso,Lee Cooper,Barbie and the Conran Shop. His other small and big collaborations have been with Absolut Vodka and Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He admits that the money he makes from his collaborations allows him to show in Paris,where each show leaves a designer poorer by a crore of rupees every season.

Paco Rabanne is just one of the “too many” things in the Manish Arora tale. But as he said in an interview,“Too many is a western notion. For me nothing is too much.”