Photo Essay | Red riding good


Photo Essay | Red riding good

Two decades back, when Suneet Varma, now one of the senior-most names in Indian fashion, showed his first collection in Delhi, the audience gasped in awe. Titled the Greek Sculpture—Birth of Venus, it had hand-painted saris in earthy tones with four panels of crushed fabric draped as the pallu. Their pairing with breastplates, brassily worn by model Shyamolie Varma and photographed by the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, got impaled in design memory. Spectacle in Indian fashion had just acquired form.

In the late 1980s, the fashion scene was choking with export challenges and the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, set up in 1986, had just begun to mint designers. The late designer Rohit Khosla was becoming a trailblazer and Ensemble, India’s first fashion store, had been launched by Sal and Tarun Tahiliani in Mumbai. “Designer, not darzi” could well have been the jingoistic motto of those times. The fashion environment was nebulous, yet stunning visual imagery was intruding into our imagination.

Some of it was deep red in colour, with alluring headgear, electric-blue eyeshadow, a dozen chains rolled into a rope. There was dazzling detail and European hauteur, with a gooey Indian core. The images looked like unedited dream sequences with a fade-in, fade-out drama between lace, net, embroidery, Zardozi, Kalamkari…. They were by Varma. The exaggerated spectacle materialized like a possessed being on the ramp, but even in his studio, tamer versions walked freely.

Art collector and textile lover Lekha Poddar had gifted Varma a cutting table and a sewing machine and with that he opened a small store in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village in 1989. “My role is to let people dream, to let them experience something spectacular,” says Varma in a new coffee-table book titled Suneet Varma. It tells the story of his fashion career, with an introduction by Nishat Fatima, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. The book will be released later this month by François Richier, the French ambassador to India.

The images are not just warm reminders of the ebullience that models like Madhu Sapre, Mehr Jessia, Milind Soman and Noyonika Chatterjee, among others, brought to fashion then, but reveal Varma’s fondness for theatrics on the sets—a man given to styling as instinctive art. “I was always inclined towards theatre. My vision was to see fashion as a movie; I live in a space overpowered by fantasy,” he says, trying to explain weather, leather and feather, art deco jewellery, baroque architecture, European artists and his obsession with the colour red. One of the earliest works of the 47-year-old, Aligarh-born Varma, raised on a diet of art and music (his writer mother is a founding member of Delhi’s Shaam-e-Ghazal), is of Napoleon Bonaparte drawn on a T-shirt.

Two stories trot on parallel tracks in this book. One about the designer—his training under European fashion biggies like Yves Saint Laurent and Nicole Farhi, the influence of India’s textile guru Martand Singh, his college research paper on Romanticism with Marie Antoinette as the context, followed by a course in costume history. The collection names—Tree of Life (1994), Enchanted Forest (2008), Sham-e-Awadh (2010)—tell us how he dreamt. Varma has also been a serious thinker of the sari, interpreting it like a cape, tied with leggings, worn with a churidar, draped short, even as a sarong. In 2010, he entered the Limca Book of World Records for creating, in 2009, the longest embroidered sari—55m.

What emerges too is the macro-story—of Indian fashion’s turns and U-turns, triumphs and trials, from stores to the ramp, fashion weeks to global associations, and magazine pages to books like this one.