Steel and lace


Steel and lace

It’s unlikely that on 11 August, after he takes a bow at the finale of the BMW India Bridal Fashion Week in New Delhi, designer Suneet Varma will go back home and catch up on sleep.

The seasoned couturier, who has just signed up with stainless steel manufacturing company Arttd’inox to design tableware and decor, doesn’t believe in, or seem to need, much sleep. He seldom sleeps before 2.30am and rises early too.

The 50-year-old designer says he has been staying up past midnight researching couture embroideries from across the globe on scrapbooking site Pinterest, reading news magazines or finalizing the press release for his upcoming finale show. Straddling ideas, worlds, confusions, clothes, cuts and collections through what he calls his “obsessive personality” makes him think and behave like a livewire. He could drive his team round the bend for a particular shade of gold that sits in his imagination. Nothing deeper, paler, brighter or matte will do instead.

Varma does not look obsessive; and he certainly does not look sleep-deprived. He arrives 10 minutes early for our interview. His hair is gelled and spiked; he is dressed in an onion-pink “Aviator kurta” (with buttoned epaulettes and pockets) by Ravi Bajaj, paired with a black churidar and Aldo chappals. He carries his favourite Louis Vuitton brown leather satchel. “I have been carrying this for 15 years. My mother won’t recognize me without it,” he says.

His first Arttd’inox collection will be up for sale this fall. There will be tableware, dinnerware, décor pieces, even steel furniture adorned with bidri craft, gold finish or gemstones, should the idea grip him.

He is working on taming the unrelenting physicality of steel. Yet the bridal collection he is working on simultaneously has chiffons, lace, net, resplendent crystals, fine embroideries and a quirky interpretation of Islamic head ornaments—a world more magnolia than steel. Titled Couture: A Love Story, this bridal line, with saris, lehngas, anarkali sets, kurtas and jackets, is inspired by Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum and its Ottoman grandeur, and the work of Persian poet Omar Khayyám, specifically an 80-year-old version of the Rubáiyát that belonged to his father.

New collaborations and old-new couture apart, Varma says he is feeling colourful this summer. Having moved away from black and white, he has been wearing green, peach and orange kurtas. When I prod him about other fashion quirks, he tells me the story of how he acquired a 15-inch Hermès Birkin bag for men. “Once, in Paris, I felt like indulging myself with the man’s Birkin bag I had seen on designer Marc Jacobs. It was frightfully expensive, with a two-year waiting period, but I waited till I got it in taupe colour, Togo leather and silver hardware. It comes with its own raincoat, can you believe it?” says Varma, laughing loudly. He is probably not wrong when he says he is the only Indian male to have a Birkin.

“It is only when I carried it around in DLF Emporio mall in New Delhi, where even luxury store managers and passers-by stared at it, that I understood what women feel when they carry logo bags.”

But Varma is happy being a bag man. In 2009, after he signed up for a collaboration with luxury handbag brand Judith Leiber, the company gifted him a box-like clutch made of black crystals with “SV” engraved on it in white stones. “It is quite a piece. Too many people look at it enviously,” he says.

Arttd’inox is Varma’s fifth big design collaboration, after Swarovski, Judith Leiber, BMW cars (for conceptual fashion shows and design direction) and Azva Jewellery (this one has come to an end).

His collaboration with BMW began in 2007 and, as a part of it, he has conducted a series of talks in various Indian towns, teaching couples “how to be well dressed at all times”. The designer has collaborated with Swarovski several times over the last 10 years. In fact, his most recent jewellery collection for the crystal brand will be launched at the India Bridal Fashion Week, along with his bridal collection.

All this, of course, accompanies the couture he has been creating and selling since the late 1980s, when he opened shop after completing his fashion design education in England.

Steel and lace have crisscrossed in Varma’s career. In 1989, when he opened his studio in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, a shop that he says was as big as a sofa, with one cutter, one tailor and one designer (himself), Deepika Jindal was his first customer. And it was Jindal, Arttd’inox’s founder and managing director, who convinced Varma to experiment with steel as his blank slate and create a high-end luxury collection of décor, gift pieces and tableware.

“I knew nothing about steel before this, even though I have worked with metal for Judith Leiber bags and during my BMW association, and with gold for Azva Jewellery, for the World Gold Council’s Design for India project. But I start every new project with saying, please excuse me for asking silly questions,” says Varma.

Many Indian designers take up collaborations of different kinds these days—décor, restaurants, destination weddings, real estate, jewellery, furnishings, sports brands. Manish Arora, now based in Paris, possibly has the maximum number of these, ranging from Reebok shoes, Amrapali jewellery and Swatch watches to MAC cosmetics. Couturier Rohit Bal has a good number too, including Chivas Regal and Sagrados luxury villas in Goa.

Creative extension is one reason, but commercial survival must surely be a motivation. “I wouldn’t have survived without these collaborations. It is not just for the love of design. These are very well-paying projects,” admits Varma, adding that the more a person works, the more work he gets. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” He also believes partnerships work if you put the interests of your partner ahead of yours—that’s when the collection becomes notable and the relationship lasting.

That’s sensible talk at a time when Indian couture is at an inflection point and couturiers at a crossroad. Since fashion is interpreted (or misinterpreted) as flamboyant clothing by a majority of Indian buyers, most designers are forced eventually into “couture”. Without decorative or occasion wear, it is hard to make commercial sense of fashion businesses.

Varma makes a few perceptive points. “On the one hand, while younger designers like Gaurav Gupta and now Rahul Mishra are trying to give a new meaning and look to Indian couture, some older players, like India’s earliest couturier, Ritu Kumar, are focusing on ready-to-wear,” he says. In the market, these commercial collisions mean that, as Varma says, “Everyone is doing everything—menswear, online, couture, ready-to-wear, gowns, saris…” So, it is tougher than ever before to stand out, to be distinct as well as commercially viable.

Varma says he will never compromise on being a fashion designer—creating sexy diaphanous clothing and lace saris. But he is too curious, he says, to restrict himself to couture. “I believe we designers should not try to outdo each other by making Zardozi tea-cosies, but should evolve our USP without losing the way.”

He assesses this juncture by saying, “My eyesight has become poorer, but my vision is sharper.”

Varma clearly makes his lace with steely will, which makes you wonder if his steel will be equally lavish.