x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A stitch in time

Feature The first Indian designer at Paris Fashion Week, Manish Arora has paved the road to Europe for India's vibrant fashion scene.

Manish Arora
Manish Arora

The first Indian designer at Paris Fashion Week, Manish Arora has paved the road to Europe for India's vibrant fashion scene. In the hectic lead-up to this year's triumphant show, he chats to Katie Trotter about bridging the gap between East and West. Manish Arora doesn't want me in his house. Thus it is that I find myself slumped in the back of a baking yellow and black taxi in some nameless suburb of Delhi, dodging cows as they stray on to the road. Pradeep, my driver, has for some unknown reason decided from the outset to call me by my surname and we are too far down the line for me to amend the error.

Unsurprisingly, we are lost on our quest to find Arora's studio. I mean deeply lost, two hours and 37 minutes lost, the kind of lost I cannot imagine recovering from. "Trotter! Trotter!" squawks Pradeep as we swerve over the road, nearly wiping out yet another cow with a mighty set of horns. "We very lost but I find for you, Trotter, please no worry." I would be a little more "no worry" if only he would keep his eyes on the road.

Bizarrely, all of this has become incredibly funny. This happens to me often during the bleakest of situations. I start to laugh, the kind of nervous, manic laugh that pops up in the most innapropriate of circumstances - which catches Pradeep off guard. "Trotter, why you laughing, Trotter, when we are lost?" Pradeep is not laughing. In fact he is almost weeping. "Just keep your eyes on the road, Pradeep," I beg.

I have come to the conclusion that Pradeep and I may well perish together on this trip. Somehow, we make it. A nicely dressed security guard who was expecting me three hours ago is there to greet me. "Most welcome, Katie," he says, as he peers at me through the passenger window. Pradeep looks back, his face as blank as an owl's, perplexed by the realisation that he has been calling me by the wrong name for the entirety of our epic journey. I want to tell him I regret it - that I just missed the opportunity and couldn't go back - but all I can muster is a lame apology. It lacks conviction and he looks at me as if I have cheated him. We have been through a lot, after all.

By the time I arrive - after three hours and 36 minutes, 11 phone calls and seven stops to ask the way - I have almost forgotten what I am here for. I am here to meet Manish Arora, 37, the first Indian designer to show his collection at Paris Fashion Week and without a doubt the most important face to spring from a rapidly growing Indian fashion market. The master of psychedelic representation, Arora has carved out a place for himself in the centre of the global fashion market, and currently retails in more than 75 stores worldwide, including Harrods and Dover Street Market in London, Maria Luisa in Paris and Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai.

When we meet in Delhi, there are just under two weeks until Paris Fashion Week begins - without a doubt the most difficult 14 days in a designer's calendar, so I am surprised that he has agreed to the interview. I am led through to Arora's office, which is beautiful and busy in that dizzying Indian way, the walls covered in art and thousands of textile samples spilling from every imaginable space.

I had been expecting Arora to be equally colourful in person. But today he is not. In fact the only snip of colour on his entire get-up comes from a small patch of purple on his trainers. He is a modest-looking man in an unremarkable pair of jeans and black T-shirt - all crinkly in a cool way. The only hint of bling comes from an alarmingly expensive-looking watch that threatens to blind me from certain angles and which hangs from his wrist in a way that appears almost painful.

Arora is both jumpy and liquid in his movements. He seems to find it hard to focus, and flits around the place like a trapped moth. "You came all the way here just to see me?" he asks, while concentrating on something far more pressing that I can't see on his computer. I tell him I have and he seems genuinely touched. If he is at all peeved by my presence at such an inappropriate time, he is doing well to hide it.

His face has some mileage on it, and I am sure it isn't helped by the long drags on his cigarette, which he pulls on as if it's his last ever. He is animated and warm, with heavily accented vowels that threaten to take over every so often. He envelops the physical space he is in. For a small man he has a big presence. We sit for a while together before I notice that he is sweating. "Yeah, sorry," he says, mopping his forehead. "I'm actually pretty sick, bit of a fever and I really should be in bed."

I feel slightly awkward for dragging him here, but he is having none of it. Arora grew up in Bombay just about as far away from fashion as one possibly could. How does a young boy from, as he puts it himself, "a very normal conservative Indian family", fall into fashion design, something that must have been seen as a somewhat odd choice at the time? "Actually I was studying commerce in Bombay, and obviously I hated it," he says. "I knew there had to be more to life, so I started looking around and heard talk about this fashion school in Delhi. So I sent an application off, and was pretty shocked when I got the call asking me for an interview. I sat the exam - luckily, it was more about creativity than anything else - and I got through. I knew then that this was it. I was completely confident, I knew what I was doing and that it felt right. This is what I had to do, there was no question."

When I ask what his parents made of all this, he laughs, a deep, raspy laugh that comes from the depths of his belly - and one impossible to fake. "I think they are rather bemused by me." He pauses for a while and leans back on his chair. "I mean, they still don't really know what on Earth I am doing. Of course they come to see my shows and they support me, but the kind of clothes I make are maybe, well, not so easy for them to understand."

The lack of any formal design background also made things difficult. "If I'm honest, it took me a long time to get used to it, to the pace, and well, everything really. It was a real struggle." I later learn that Arora won the most creative student of the year award in 1994, the year he graduated, something that doesn't sound like a "real struggle". You see, this is what is so nice about Arora: he is just so un-fashiony. There is no inflated ego, no drama or filtered, honeyed version of himself.

He launched his label Manish Arora in 1997 and began retailing in India. Within three years his name had begun to be known internationally. In 2000 he represented India at Hong Kong Fashion Week and stole the show at the first-ever Indian Fashion Week in New Delhi. In 2002 he opened his flagship store, Manish Arora - Fish Fry, in Delhi, and in 2003 opened a second shop in Mumbai. But his work might never have reached a wider audience had it not been for a series of crucial lucky breaks.

The first was being invited to stock his collection by Maria Luisa, the world-renowned fashion concept store in Paris, in 2003, a collaboration that was to prove pivotal in terms of developing his international export business. "Maria Luisa has always been there to guide me," he explains. "She helped me understand what international fashion was about. It is not easy for us to sit in India and understand what the western market wants. She has been a huge influence in my development."

Four years later, following successful shows at London Fashion Week with magnificent reviews, came his second big break. He was invited by Didier Grumbach, the president of the French Fashion Federation, to present his Spring/Summer 2008 collection at Paris Fashion Week in October 2007. Grumbach knew he had made a clever, if not brave decision: "Manish's collection is perfect and provocative, which is a must for fashion in Paris. It's not exactly folkloric, yet it could only be a creation of an Indian designer."

Yet he hasn't turned his back on his roots. He continues to design for his Indian market and chooses to keep his base in Delhi. "Lakme Fashion Week in India is where I got noticed," he says. "The British Fashion Council was invited, and they enjoyed my collection and asked me to apply to London - so I have a huge amount to thank them for, and I don't forget that." Arora's design team consists of nine assistants, all women, bar one - which seems like quite a few assistants for one man.

"Usually I go to the same school as I went to and hand-pick my team. So many want to work with me these days as I am the only Indian designer to begin to build an international brand." The women in the office look on the edge. They have been working on average 14-hour days, seven days a week for the past month. I tell him they all speak highly of him, and not because I want to give him a compliment but because they really do. "Well, I don't think they have a choice," he jokes.

I try to catch their eyes but they are immersed in their work. I am distracted by a woman sitting next to me who is stitching tiny individual circles by hand on to what looks like a triangular shoulderpad. "How long have you been at that?" I whisper. "Around five days," she sighs, without lifting her head. I am now getting an idea of the sheer number of hours that go into these garments. They are more works of art, more wearable sculptures, than they are clothes.

Interestingly, Arora informs me that they produce every last component for the collection themselves - the embroidery, the beadwork - which is extremely unusual for a design house. "There are a team of 250 behind those doors," he points, "all men who work in garment production. And the embroiderers - 99.9 per cent of them are men too. "You won't be the first person to find that shocking. People forget that this is India's culture. It has been like this from the beginning, not just in my office."

Arora is distracted and I can tell he wants me out of there - understandably so. We rarely get five full uninterrupted minutes, and in the short time we have been together he has made some pretty hefty final decisions on the collection - on the length of the sleeve or the correct colour combination of the flashing lights on his showpiece dress. "A lot of things have been left to the last minute. If only you knew the reality. It is such a colossal amount to achieve."

Arora will be showcasing 30 garments from his collection and at the moment it looks as if a good three-quarters are hanging and ready to go. They are spectacular, with that other-worldly quality he does so beautifully, but with a slightly more subdued colour spectrum than his previous collections, a sign, maybe, that he is maturing as a designer. "It's very futuristic this time around," he says of the new collection. "It started off with a lot of geometry, with the repetition of shapes such as circles, squares and triangles, but as with all my collections things tend to stray from initial ideas."

One of the trademarks of Arora's work has always been his embroidery and it's still apparent, but he admits he has toned it down to avoid anything too ethnic, so as not to alienate the international market. "My stuff is contemporary, but it still has a lot of India in it. That's why it works - it is a difficult balance." Building an international brand in the current economic situation is not easy. "Right now, consumers are buying items that will hold their value. It is a testing time for creativity. And not everyone can survive." Arora is fully aware that India is in prime position. It is an emerging market with unlimited potential, but he is adamant that to succeed it has to embrace and reinvent its craft industry, to find the beauty in the traditional and not to strive to follow western techniques with which India cannot compete. "Actually," he admits, "pattern cutting is my weakness. While I may be better than other Indian designers, if you compare me to the rest of the world I can't compete. Surface decoration and texture are my forte - something I know I can probably do better than anyone else. As far as the perfect silhouette is concerned, I am still learning." "It must be frightening being such a risk-taker," I say. "All these crazy collections I do, they can fall back on me at any time and I will be out on my ear," he says. "I know there is a thin line between making a seriously beautiful piece of art and making a mockery. But I don't have a choice to be creative in any other way. It's the only way I know how, and I know it works." And I believe him. Arora is so preternaturally confident, so undeniably self-assured, you feel as if he is inwardly rolling his eyes at anyone who questions him. Two weeks later and I am again in a taxi, driven this time by a Frenchman with floppy hair, who has no desire to make conversation as we weave our way around the side streets off the Champs Elysées. It is Paris Fashion Week and we are on our way to Manish Arora's show, which takes place at the famous cabaret club Crazy Horse. Inside, the place is heaving with a crowd so diverse it would be impossible to determine it as an outsider. Sitting in the middle of all the madness I realise that Arora has done something quite remarkable in bridging the gap between Europe and India within the global fashion industry. The show is as elaborate a spectacle as one would would expect, but as every piece flies past - the Swarovski-encrusted dresses, the golden chains that swing from hips, the Space Age cages dripping crystals - I want everyone to know about the amount of workmanship that went into every last detail. I want them to know that the whole operation reminded me of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, that Arora is on to something magical. And I really want to tell that woman that the model wearing her shoulderpad shone like Flash Gordon.