Rahul Mishra: boat ride to Paris


Rahul Mishra: boat ride to Paris

It is a cloudy September morning and Rahul Mishra, now known as the first Indian to win the International Woolmark Prize (IWP), is concluding his daily conversation with God at his manufacturing unit in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi. He is in knee-length shorts, a shirt and sports shoes, hair pushed back with a hairband. His prayers may be silent but his mind is spinning with the pressure to perform at Paris Fashion Week (PFW), starting this week, after wooing the world “with just six garments” at the IWP in Milan in February where he was awarded for his innovative use of Merino wool.

Mishra’s earnest “let me show you this from Paris and that from London; he wrote this from Milan and she wrote this on a blog,” narration to cram the exhilarating events of the last six months into hurried sentences is visibly exhausting him. The 34-year-old was born in a mud house in Malhausi near Kanpur and did not attend formal school until the age of 6, surprising his teachers with academic agility. He went on to join Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design. He lives by poetry, philosophy and anxious responsibility towards rural crafts and is used to the complex churn such choices bring.

We move to his studio where samples from his recent work hang on racks. In a way, they map his rapid design evolution. Clearly in the mood of an intense fashion-design-philosophy soliloquy, Mishra stands across the large centre table to talk; his compulsive excitement won’t allow him to sit down for a chat. All he needs is a mic and all we need is a videographer to capture his emotions. This interview was going nowhere as the intended Q&A piece. The designer wasn’t about to make room for questions and his “quotable quotes” on his Paris collection are already echoing in Internet articles.

To a willing listener, Mishra will even recite Rumi’s poetry or from Mahatma Gandhi. Even if it is at the cost of diverging from the core narrative of his work as a designer, his craft and construction or how he has restored employment to more than 100 craftsmen—who relocated to their villages in West Bengal from various cities where they had gone to seek employment. Or how social auditors inspecting his rural units gave him a clean chit for best practices.

“We are also doing a lot of commercial work,” he says, pointing at the Chanderi anarkalis on one rack. The next instant, he picks up his iPad to show images of a store window, at Colette in Paris, dressed with his black and white garments from the IWP collection (the plaque reads Rahul “Mischra”) and a wall at Harvey Nichols in London showcasing his work. The latter architecturally replicated patterns of the hexagonal flowers Mishra made using embroidered wool. The next moment, he lovingly gazes at the garments that are ready for Paris. Called The Ferryman’s Tale, they will walk down the world’s most-watched ramp on 1 October between the Miu Miu and Hermès shows. Designers Rajesh Pratap Singh and Anamika Khanna have shown at PFW in the past while Manish Arora is a constant, but for Mishra it’s a big leap.

Mishra may not currently be an interviewer’s delight as the awe of his own success swamps him in a childlike way, but he is extraordinarily talented and has a perceptive design mind. The new collection also reveals a lovely irony—his pursuit of what is usually pushed to the sidelines in international fashion. Instead of shocking the world with the power of the new every time, the designer wants synergy and continuity between the last garment of his last collection and the first garment of his next collection. He wants to sidestep fashion seasons to create versatile wardrobes. Create clothes that are not intimidating or lavishly attention-seeking. Tone down the colours. “We are from India so it is important to rewrite the world’s view about us and invoke absence of colour,” he says. His palette has primary colours—black, white, grey, yellow, pewter grey. He wants to improvise embroidery techniques on technical textiles (wool jersey, for instance). Instead of converting trendsetting European fashionistas with revolutionary shapes—the road taken by the world’s most influential designers—Mishra wants his customers to ask: So who did this delicate needlework? Oh, an Indian villager? Wow!

The Ferryman’s Tale, financially fuelled by the e-commerce company Myntra.com, will have about 35-40 garments with “five-seven textiles, five-seven textures, five-seven techniques”, says Mishra. Besides Katagami, a Japanese craft of making paper stencils for dyeing textiles, it has garments with geometric patterns created by florals made from hundreds of delicate French knots and ombre effects with embroidery in changing hues. Others show intricate needlework on handwoven organza—a ravishing recreation of chintz prints that Mishra saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There is a focus on tailoring and construction but shapes mimic zipped-up trench waists opening into easy, playful frocks beneath the waist. “It is couture meets sports,” says the designer, adding that each garment has been priced at approximately $1,500 (around Rs.91,500).

Mishra is standing up again to pat his garments but his point is made. His six garments at the IWP got orders for 500 pieces, roughly 90 or so for each style from top stores globally. One particular ombre, embroidered dress sold more number of pieces in a single day on the online shop Mytheresa.com than what his clothes would in an entire year in India. All orders have jointly yielded business worth $600,000. Now his target is to be in 100 stores worldwide as soon as possible. He will continue to create prêt for Indian stores but when it comes to shows, he may only choose couture events. “Louis Vuitton can’t sell clothes here, how can I sell high-priced Western wear?” he asks.

Lessons then, from the class of Rahul Mishra? Enable fashion that shrugs off seasonal fickleness, newness, bigness, shrillness, muchness. And yet give it the depth and value of couture. Never mind what Rumi said ( a verse sits on his show invite), if “Mischra” uses his oars well on this boat ride to Paris, his garments may soon stare back at us from the covers of international fashion glossies.