Rohit Bal: Indians Don’t Give a Damn About Fashion

Rohit Bal: Indians Don’t Give a Damn About Fashion

India’s first famous designer on why he doesn’t make fashion films, his new line for children and how he continues to be written about more than his work

The only A-list Indian designer who did not make a single fashion film in the last two years of digital fashion weeks or for a private showing since the pandemic, launched his first children’s line last week. It is wittily called ‘Bal Bache’.

The first is a curious fact about Rohit Bal at a time when fashion designers wrack their brains to negotiate the coexistence of digital and phygital fashion weeks. The latter is a piece of news about what he is (also) doing now.

Bal has not exactly been in the news lately except recent photographs with Olympian athlete Neeraj Chopra, who he has dressed for awards and events. Despite industry assumptions that he “may not be doing much”, and is elusive with interviews (which is true), we reached out to India’s first famous designer for The Voice of Fashion’s Diwali issue. The man brought the fashion industry recognition as well as ultra-glamorous attention. The legendary Gudda, described as a “wild child” by the media, synonymous with the (partly overhyped) partying culture the industry was once notorious for.


Photo: Sagar Ahuja

The Voice of Fashion’s digital cover. Rohit Bal in handloom wool sherwani with dome semi-precious stone buttons, shot at The Lodhi New Delhi. To order visit or Rajesh Pratap Singh stores in Delhi and Mumbai.

This though is not an update on his personal life, his parties or his friendships with male models. It is to ask where Rohit Bal finds himself in the present moment as a designer and a person as the fashion industry recovers from COVID-19. Why haven’t we seen any show by him—phygital, physical, digital in the last two years? Does fashion still excite him?

Known for applauding the work of some fellow designers from a dark corner during fashion weeks (never from the front row) and yet someone who, in his interviews, would express cynicism about the state of fashion, we also wondered if Bal would wear a garment made by another designer for the photo shoot. Not just his own clothes.

Why yes, of course, he responds, quick and cryptic about his choices. Shahab Durazi or Rajesh Pratap Singh. While the chosen look from Durazi couldn’t be ready within our deadlines, the handloom wool sherwani with semi-precious buttons made by Pratap that Bal wears for the TVOF digital cover matches his long abiding love for sherwanis and bandhgalas, for clean, black couture in luxurious materials. “I am not a pant shirt guy,” he says. “I like watches and shoes but have never hoarded even 15 jackets in my wardrobe. No fancy labels for me.”


Photo: Sagar Ahuja

Rohit Bal in a jacket set from his eponymous label. Shot at The Lodhi New Delhi for TVOF’s Diwali special. Makeup and hair by Pallavi Devika.

Over two recent meetings, once for the photo shoot at The Lodhi New Delhi, where he arrived with a large box of pastries for the crew, and again for this interview at his menswear store in Defence Colony, I notice a cheerful, settled energy around Bal. He is slower in his step and a bit tired, but gentle as always. His appearance is of an unruffled warlord with silvern hair. In my head, I quickly cast him in an Indian version of Game of Thrones or in the battle of Troy being fought in Kashmir.

His laughter echoes his familiar gusto. Insists he hasn’t changed at all in his inner self. That he knows exactly what he wants and fashion videos or digital films are certainly not a part of that.

“I have seen the biggest designers of this country make fashion videos but they did nothing for me. There is no connection. It really needs to be something you can feel with your soul. I am sensitive and fashion is very sensitive for me,” says Bal. He is clearly unmoved. “Clothes might have been beautiful, but the only thing I remember from the 40 odd digital shows I saw were the locations. If fashion was a film medium, we wouldn’t have been doing shows all these years,” he adds dwelling on why these differences matter.

Indians Couldn’t Care Less About Fashion

Bal also feels that in India restrictions take over making it hard to create spectacular settings for fashion shows like in Paris-Milan. “Only I know how I got permissions for my show at Qutub Minar, (‘Gulbagh’, for the finale of Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015 at Quli Khan’s tomb near Qutub Minar). All the applications I had to write, I would never do it again,” he says. “Indians couldn’t care less about fashion. The Indian government or the bureaucrats have never done anything for fashion. By and large there is 0.1 per cent of population which is interested and who buy. But I am talking about India as a country. They care about Bollywood and cricket. Even in terms of business, the ratio between fashion and exports is 1:10. It is really sad.”


Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Rohit Bal’s creation on the runway during the Grand Finale of the Wills Lifestyle Indian Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015 at Quli Khan’s tomb near Qutub Minar.

Neither of us specifically bring up the resistance, a kind of rejection heaped today on some of fashion’s retail expressions or designer campaigns by self-styled gate keepers of tradition, yet when Bal says “Indians don’t give a damn about fashion,” it strikes a poignant chord with the current socio-political moment.

The Karigar’s Brown Rabbit

This time, Bal is eager to talk pragmatically about the designer-craftsperson collaboration. “I know there is so much talk that designers don’t give credit to craftspeople. But it is not logistically possible to use every name. Look at this piece (holds up a densely embroidered black velvet sherwani). Thirty karigars have made this. Fifteen of them have changed four times. Karigars keep dropping out and others come to work in their place. This is not an organised sector, it is a small cottage industry, with labour that is not educated. They live in clusters in cities but often go back to villages to look after families or ailing parents. There is no doubt that ours is team work and the credit can never be of the designer alone. If it wasn’t for the designer, the karigar wouldn’t be anywhere. And if it were not for the karigar, designers would not get what they wanted.”


An archival shot of Bal.

He then pulls out a Garden of Eden all-over design on another sherwani and points to a single, embroidered brown rabbit placed almost randomly among the leaves, birds and flowers. The rabbit has been imagined in brown and embroidered by the karigar even though it was never a part of the approved design. “They have folkloric talent and that does get translated into fashion design. We need to sensitively understand that.”

Gen C: Bal Bache

For those (myself included) who thought that fashion might have now become tedious for Bal, he rubbishes the thought. “If I didn’t feel as crazy and passionate about fashion, I wouldn’t do it. I do it as art, not for the money. If I pursued fashion only commercially, I would have made 20 times more money. The only thing is that now I also want to do many other things. Homes, tapestry, pottery, upholstery, stemware, crystal ware. The more I do, the less it seems.”

Bal’s past collaborations and projects have included Sagrados Villas in Goa, Jabong, Biba, Bombay Dyeing, Linen Club, Chivas Regal, Mitsubishi, Rohit Bal Luxury Weddings, Rolls-Royce, Indian Roots, Ege Carpets, Zippo lighters, Titan Nebula, Khadi Bhandar and Kirtilal Jewellers—apart from his former restaurants Veda and Cibo. Biba in fact, just launched a new festive collection with Bal.


“The fashion section, menswear, womenswear, bridal wear is a rolling wheel. As time goes on, the machinery keeps getting smoother. However, I like everything to be done through me without being a control freak. So we have created a system of information and instead of running a factory that I did for 20 years, I see samples, hold meetings with designers, oversee all decisions for each collection, colours, textiles, embroideries,” he says. He talks excitedly about the smartly named ‘Bal Bache’, his new line for children. Baby bandhgalas for boys; miniature lehnga-gowns for girls. While writing this story, I find myself rewinding to moments in the recording where Bal uses the words “adorable, cute and sweet” for children who wore his baby couture for a recent show in the capital and laughs merrily. If I notice an indulgent grandfather sentiment, I don’t say.

The Distracting Pull of Bal’s Persona

Earlier in the week for the photo shoot, Bal arrived in a blue T-shirt, blue bandi (his favourite separate, he even wears bandis  in summers) and khaki pants. He is unhurried. He tries a black sherwani from his own studio with two trademark red parrots, Kashmiri kani shawls (from his private collection) and other clothes. Shirts, shoes, hair are discussed over a can of Coke that he never opens. We eat all the pastries, he chats away, talking about an upcoming power wedding that will be India’s biggest wedding of 2021 in his opinion.


Archival images of Rohit Bal as an emerging design force in the industry.

Photographer Sagar Ahuja, says he has been waiting for Bal as his appearances and interviews thinned over time and he has barely been spotted in the last two years.

I ask Bal about why he is so elusive. “You have no idea how many interview requests I get. But I realised many years back that a lot of people from the media or for other projects wanted to associate with me or with other big names because of the value it brings to their work. I stopped giving ‘quotes’ to journalists long back and even for personal interviews, I have been very selective for the last 10 years. What can I tell people that they already don’t know about me?” he asks exasperated.

Bal repeats what he told me four years back during an interview for HT Brunch. That people are more interested in him than his work. It makes him a dancing monkey if he visits markets and shops, as he gets mobbed for selfies by men who claim it is for their wives. He chuckles good-humouredly. “Of course it is not for their wives! I also got fed up with the extra information spinning around me in the media. For some strange reason, I don’t know if it is the kind of person I am, or the persona I have, or the impression I give, people started writing much more about me than about my work. It is not a small problem. Your privacy is gone. Of course there are lots of advantages of celebrity –doors open for you. You get VIP treatment you are looked after on flights, in hotels and you can get used to it. It is a kick indeed but not to be taken seriously,” he says.


Photo: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP

Bal’s Spring/ Summer collection at the Blenders Pride Fashion Tour in Mumbai, showcased on January 16, 2019.

A profile writer, however charmed, must strive to retain objectivity. I remind myself of all the articles this platform has published about Bal’s work. Not many. One against the language he used on social media for a woman journalist when a controversy about designer Samant Chauhan copying his jalabiya design had erupted in 2019. He would later take down those posts. Others are flattering articles, including his work with Usha Silai’s women artisans in Kashmir (also in 2019).

Now, as Bal sips green tea across the table as I see more than a few young male clients try clothes in the store, I realise that his designs which are clearly not “millennial” do have buyers. To test this thesis further, I land up at his womenswear store, also in Defence Colony Delhi the following day. It has been promoting a single day meltdown sale with upto 70 per cent. Again, I see customers including younger women in their late twenties and thirties, looking for bridal pieces. Bal’s couture, in opulent fabrics replete with zardozi and dori embroidery among other techniques are “heavy” to use fashion slang. They do not reflect changing customer taste towards minimal, frequently wearable couture or what we understand of it. The anarkalis and jalabiyas are voluminous. But customers throng in anyway. Prices for Rohit Bal pret, also on the designer’s ecommerce platform, are unexpectedly accessible. Someone is paying attention to business and numbers.

What About the Next Rohit Bal Show?

Bal never publicly comments on religion, politics or the Kashmir situation but says no “one can take Kashmir out of him”. That includes his yearning to sit under a chinar tree and sip kahwa.


Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP

File photo of the designer taking a bow after the showcase of his collection at India Fashion Week in New Delhi in March 2015.

If real, physical fashion shows were to revive fully, Bal says he will be back. Not by heaping a bunch of garments and some models on choreographers to manage but by staging a lavish, grand production.

Amen. We will raise a kahwa to that.

Banner: Rohit Bal in his eponymous label, styled with an old Jamawar shawl, his own. Photographed by Sagar Ahuja for The Voice of Fashion at The Lodhi New Delhi. Makeup and hair by Pallavi Devika.