Malhotra has now been dressing stars on-screen for almost three decades
Designer Manish Malhotra on his famous clients and the evolution of the Indian bride
If you’re a South Asian bride-to-be, you will, no doubt, be familiar with the work of Manish Malhotra. You’ve likely saved some of his catwalk images as wedding-outfit inspiration, since the brand, being one of India’s top fashion labels, might be beyond your budget and can also be difficult to source outside of India.
Until now, that is. Malhotra will be showcasing his coveted couture and ready-to-wear creations at a runway event and two-day Sahachari Foundation Design One exhibition at Dubai’s Jumeirah Emirates Towers on September 30 and October 1.
When we meet ahead of the exhibition, Malhotra is warm and easy-going, offering me a cup of tea as we disrupt the peace in his suite and rearrange his chairs to find an optimal on-camera interview angle. As he starts to speak, he addresses the camera head-on, locking his eyes on the lens. It’s no surprise – Malhotra may be widely known for his eponymous fashion label, but his career began with films and his natural which means his Bollywood instincts come across immediately.
“I was obsessed with Hindi films – obsessed,” says Malhotra of his childhood. “Every Thursday when I had a holiday from school, I had to see a movie. Saturday was [a] half-day, so straight to the theatre, and on Sundays I’d either watch a film on television or at the theatre. I was fascinated by films; I saw the world through movies,” he says. “Even now, they’re stress busters for me.”
Although he initially wanted to become a film director, he first worked as a male model and then ventured into Bollywood in 1989 when he was offered a chance to conceptualise a costume for actress Juhi Chawla, for a song in the David Dhawan-directed film Swarg. “I thought if I can change the way films look, I’ll be able to make a name for myself,” says Malhotra.
And that’s exactly what he did.
He went on to design the costumes for countless leading ladies in Bollywood blockbusters including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Student of the Year and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
Malhotra says prior to his affiliation with Bollywood, the concept of styling was non-existent in the industry. “Styling is a term that I actually introduced in Indian movies,” he says. “I wasn’t just a costume designer interested in fashion, I was someone who was interested in the movie and the character, so I would speak about make-up, hair and shoes, too.”
Bollywood films are known for their numerous song-and-dance sequences and Malhotra points out how films in the 1980s would sometimes seem disjointed as actresses could sport completely different hairstyles in back-to-back scenes.
“How can a heroine’s hair be short when she’s wearing a western outfit and in the next scene she’s wearing an Indian outfit and she has a long braid? How can the hair change? So, for Yash Johar’s 1993 film Gumrah, we came up with the idea of Sridevi getting a haircut,” he says. “I was very interested in scripts because I love narratives and had wanted to be a director.”
In 1998, Malhotra officially debuted his fashion label, and in 2005, launched a couture line. Today, he’s a go-to name for Indian bridal wear, especially among celebrities. But while the voluminous, hand-worked lehenga may be his signature silhouette, the designer explains that contemporary bridal wear and fashion, overall, is undergoing a transformation so as to appeal to trend-conscious consumer. “Look at what brands like Gucci have done – their storytelling is now very youth-oriented,” he says.
Malhotra recently introduced shorter hemlines and other western-inspired elements, in his first-ever collection of cocktail dresses, menswear suits and dinner jackets, intended for the modern millennial with cultural roots and globally influenced taste.
“I think the bride is changing in India,” he says. “She’s becoming more experimental.” Traditionally, South Asian weddings are comprised of three to five functions and, as the designer explains, brides are looking for some diversity in their wedding-week wardrobes, often opting for western dresses for some functions.
“That’s why I introduced a cocktail collection; I think that first wedding event in India has become all about a dress, or slim gown. And then it’s the mehndi function, which is a lot of fun and colour, and the sangeet has become that quintessential glamorous [outfit], something that I’m known for.
“The wedding day is more about tradition – red [dress colour]. And I think the reception has now become a gown,” he says. Malhotra’s client list includes many non-Indians, too. Three years ago, he was recruited to create the wedding dress for a member of the Saudi royal family, and while the silhouette was of a typical Arabic-style wedding gown and the colour was white, it featured silver Indian-inspired embroidery.
“It was a beautiful experience – very luxurious, very lavish,” he recalls.
Malhotra also has numerous clients in Dubai, and he says the city will be the first to see his new cocktail collection, which was unveiled in August at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai.
Among all of India’s designers, Malhotra has reportedly put on the most runway shows. But while he’s a fashion-week regular in his home country, exhibitions of his clothing are not as common. “I’ve never really done too many exhibitions as a designer – it’s always been more work than I can handle, and it’s very difficult to remove clothes from my stores in Mumbai and Delhi,” he says. And although he has orchestrated almost 10 years’ worth of catwalk presentations, Malhotra says that the stress of a fashion show never really goes away.
“I’m very calm; I set up everything from the music direction to the model selection, to the way the story will be told, all of that. But yet, when the show’s about to start, for that one hour before the show, and until it's done, my heart beats faster.
“I remember the last show we did with Sahachari Foundation and Design One in Mumbai, Katrina Kaif told the press: ‘I thought Manish was going to have a heart attack’.”
Celebrity names are woven into almost all of Malhotra’s stories. He hasn’t only dressed them; he’s friends with them, too. He recounts memorable moments spent with actresses Shabana Azmi and Rekha, while selfies with Bollywood A-listers like Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor and Karan Johar are scattered across his Instagram page.
“As a child, I loved the world of films so much that I think, in return, it’s given me back everything; it’s given me a career, it’s given me friends, it’s given me relationships and it’s given me a lifestyle,” he says.
Malhotra has now been dressing stars on-screen for almost three decades. “Every year I think: ‘OK, enough movies, there are so many brides and bridegrooms and so much fashion to do.’ Movies are my first world, and they keep pulling me back. But today, for me, it’s about the craft, and adding diversity to the label,” he says.
While his namesake label may be his focus, it’s doubtful that Malhotra will ever abandon the film industry – this is a man who lives and breathes movies.
His voice is animated, his expressions are exaggerated, he’s perpetually aware of his appearance and angles, and he’s accustomed to theatrics.
As our interview concludes, like a seasoned director, he says in true film style: “It’s a wrap!”