Rohit Bal: The lotus and the peacock


Rohit Bal: The lotus and the peacock

For most, Rohit Bal’s work existed behind the glass façade of a shop window. You could applaud it, be seduced by it, but never possess it. It caught your imagination and informed your style choices even if you couldn’t afford it. So, when his first prêt line for online store Jabong went on sale this week, giving Indian fashion a big democratic push, the industry tuned in.

How would the country’s most recognized couturier translate the grandeur of his clothes into a ready-to-wear line?

Bal, however, has switched easily from poetry to prose. With this collaboration, less than a year after he signed up with ethnic-wear brand Biba, he is switching from exclusivity to popularity.

At his Defence Colony store in New Delhi one recent evening, after a few lights had been switched off, the designer dwelt on style and desirability. On why he’s rethinking what constitutes fashion aspiration. How his collaborations are part of a bigger strategy, be they with Jabong, Biba, Bombay Dyeing, Linen Club, Chivas Regal, Mitsubishi, Rohit Bal Luxury Weddings, Rolls-Royce, Indian Roots, Ege Carpets, Zippo lighters, Titan Nebula, Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, Khadi Bhandar (now over) or Kirtilal Jewellers—apart from his restaurants Veda and Cibo in New Delhi.

Bal wants to live in the glass- house as well as the outhouse. “Success for me is not dressing up celebrities. It is about reaching out to the millions who deserve the delights of design, who have good taste but can’t afford all they want. God has given me so much fame and ability, why can’t I use it to reach the masses?” he asks, emphasizing that fashion now has to be about economies of scale, and that all his collaborations are on a revenue-sharing basis.

Besides, as the founder and CEO of Jabong, Arun Chandra Mohan, says, statistics from retail websites prove that Indian B-towns are consuming fashion faster than the cities. In smaller towns, people prioritize shopping for a designer or a brand by their name and fame and respond when the bar is raised. Bal raises that bar. The 40-odd styles in his women’s ethnic-wear line (300 pieces in each), priced from Rs.5,999-18,999, are not just easy to order, but will arrive in large, specially designed boxes with the designer’s name on them. “Yes, there are anarkalis too, made from 20m of mulmul (not 50),” says Bal, sighing happily.

Democratic fashion is a smart thesis but what will Bal do about the couturier in him, the one whose lavish shows leave audiences spellbound, the man who wrote the first draft of this country’s style dictionary, who still makes unequalled wedding wear, who swears by fine living, art books, lotus stems, vintage wines, the blue of Turkish pottery, the white of mulmul? “I want to separate Rohit Bal from the House of Bal—in products as well as style, in expensiveness and expanse,” he says. “Rohit Bal stores (there will be no prêt here) will be special. People come to me only for special things—they want garments that are like handmade pieces of art. I have it in me to balance the right and left sides of my creative and business leanings.”

So Rohit Bal, 52, the famous designer, is now also chief housekeeper, architect, chef and chauffeur of the House of Bal. As you read this, he may be selling Sagrados (sacred) luxury villas in Goa—built, designed and decorated by him—at Rs.4 crore each. He is also working on two books: a coffee-table tome to document his textile explorations over 25 years and an autobiography (“No sex and scandal in it,” he says with a boyish smile).

It is about readjusting the glare of the spotlight. When the bright lights at his store were dimmed, the softer ones illuminated the many lotuses etched on the façades and screens that surrounded rows of his beautiful couture. He took his favourite chair under the shadow of a tall lamp. Suddenly, it was like a Shakespearean set with deep-red velvet curtains, midnight-blue silk sofas, mirrored screens and antique glass closets, as lotuses guarded the kingdom of Bal at dusk. A Hindustani Ophelia could well have been trying an opulent gown, placed as the store’s centrepiece, in indigo-coloured velvet with peacocks embroidered in bronze, gold and red, paired with a long-sleeved white shirt with a lacy Victorian collar.

“I want everyone to afford this kind of beauty as long as the product is chaste,” says Bal, explaining how he treats all his collaborations with reverence, time and design investment. “I am not just endorsing products or clothes. I am genuinely designing everything that carries my name,” he adds.

Bal’s Janus persona, looking simultaneously at the future and the past like that of the Greek god of beginnings and transitions, wasn’t chiselled yesterday. He has always been in search of balance (his prêt line is called Balance) between polarities while experiencing the pitfalls of imbalance. The youngest of seven siblings (only six survive now), Bal, born and raised in Kashmir, moved to New Delhi when he was 17 and would go on to study at the Capital’s St Stephen’s college. The lotus and the peacock, two omnipresent motifs in his body of work, show how handcuffed he has remained by opposing ideas. “The humility of the lotus that blooms in swamps and the vanity of the peacock have been the two incredibly spectacular opposite forms I have been attracted to all my life,” he says.

They also represent Bal’s style essence. His favourite colour is off-white, and favourite fabric, mulmul. His clothes lovingly employ excessive yardage. Delicate embellishment—often rare Kashmiri embroidery—is used to highlight his designs, but never eclipses form. As a true creator of high fashion, he loves crinkled fabrics, woven textiles, long, full-sleeved garments and Shibori tie-and-dye. Ombre has been a favourite since a garment got dyed wrongly when he was a young designer and he decided to use it like that—the result, a beautiful piece in graded hues. So an ideal Rohit Bal fashion customer should be open to accidental beauty instead of rehearsed styles copied from look books.

Bal blends intent with spontaneity even in his own appearance. You will often see him in dark velvet blazers and Jodhpurs or a red coat with a gold pocket motif on it. Last week, on the eve of polling day in New Delhi, he walked into his store, fretting about losing his voter identity card, wearing corduroy pants the colour of wet cement, a summer jacket, azure blue shirt, a striped tie knotted off-centre. He was shod in cream moccasins, with his blond and brown hair nicely ruffled. His wrinkles looked deeper than when he faces the flashlights at society events. He looked his age, an unhurriedness controlling his reflexes, even though he is still the man who parties with inexhaustive verve, the designer who dances on the ramp, who people believe survives on a diet of glamour.

“People see me in photographs surrounded by pretty models and think that I am a snobbish, high-maintenance designer who is about beauty and hedonism. When they meet me, they realize how fake that perception is,” says Bal.

The only way to understand the difference between his media image and his real persona (that always has a whiff of his celebrity) is to ask Rohit Bal to talk about the House of Bal. That’s when he becomes as earnest and high-strung as a new leader seeking a vote of confidence.