It doesn’t take Rahul Mishra long to see parallels between his journey and Lebanese designer Elie Saab’s.
The Delhi-based designer, who retails from giants like Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue, has hardly a fortnight left for his runway debut at the Paris Haute Couture Week (PHCW), but through our long conversation earlier this week, he doesn’t once look at his watch. The sobriety of his jeans, white trainers, black T-shirt and two-decade-old black jacket is in stark contrast to how excited he is — the debut makes him the first Indian designer to be invited by the Committee of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to be a guest member at the PHCW.
“I’m still trying to figure this out,” he admits, pulling up a blog that gives me a crash course on haute couture: only the French Ministry of Industry is authorised to grant the use of this tag, and currently, just 16 grand couturiers, such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy (other than seven recognised foreign members and yearly guest members) can. One of the pre-requisites to be in the 16, however, is an atelier in Paris employing at least 15 people. “Being a made-in-India brand, I can only be in two categories. Either as a guest member or, depending on my work through a few more seasons, I can graduate to a foreign member category,” says Mishra.
This is where he brings in Elie Saab. In 2003, when the Lebanese designer was 39 and barely known, he was invited by the Chambre Syndicale to be a guest member. Rahul turned 40 last November, a month before the invitation was made public. If he follows Saab’s trajectory, he could be on his way to being inducted as a foreign member by 2023, and will expand into a mega empire, like Saab who now also sells perfumes and has ventured into interior design.
Not the first
This is not Mishra’s first brush with an international spotlight. In 2014, the National Institute of Design graduate was the first Indian designer to win the Woolmark Prize. He has also shown a lot at the Paris Fashion Week, even debuting his couture collection in Fall 2019. The recognition this year seems like the next natural rung in the ladder.
The inspiration for the upcoming collection is twofold: his recent trip to the Maldives and visuals from the film Madagascar, which he’s watched a number of times because of his daughter.
He shows me an almost-finished blouse. On it, his signature 3D embroidery takes the form of layered flora and fauna — tigers, peacocks, monkeys, leopards and various birds, amid lush greens with a heart of pale blue embroidered water. The garments, despite techniques like zardozi, resham ka kaam, and fareesha embroidery, are machine washable — “it is robust haute couture” — and they’re relatively light, at about 800 gm.
Rahul Mishra Ready To Wear Spring Summer 2020 Collection Paris Fashion Week
But Mishra is hesitant to answer questions on the materials if they are tied to ideas of sustainability. While he is known for his fidelity to handlooms and green practices, he isn’t convinced with the way these ideas are getting popularised. “For us, sustainability boils down to the pace of consumption. Even the most organic cotton will be unsustainable if that’s the only crop grown on that soil for a long time. You need to grow pulses and some cycles of vegetation to replenish what the soil needs. Anything that’s grown too much or too fast isn’t sustainable. We need to consume at a more natural pace,” says Mishra, who grew up in Malhausi, a village two hours from Kanpur.
He wishes the industry would look at sustainability more deeply. For instance, his brand has consistently rehabilitated karigars — mostly from pockets in and around Baundpur in West Bengal — who otherwise move from weaving clusters and villages to live in sub-standard conditions in metro cities where designers’ workshops are. His “decentralisation of production” he says is an important step in sustainability. It reduces the strain on urban centres for starters, a root cause of various kinds of pollution in urban pockets. “It also makes more economic sense for me; there are better workspaces at lesser rent, and the workers are closer to their own homes and families,” he notes.
2020 and beyond
Mishra, who has even sold from the now-shut iconic Parisian boutique, Colette, says that the future of retail is “kind of bleak” across the world. It is the era of trunk shows, pop-ups and online retailing, and therefore there is a need for strong branding for young designers like himself. With this in mind, and an eye on the future, he wants to engage with need-based production (against orders), and not be compelled to become inventory-heavy. While he sees this as a smart model for couture in India, and for the future of the planet, he also distances himself from commenting for the industry, stating that “the products are all different, and everyone creates their own universe”.
Online retailers, though, get his vote. Farfetch, Yoox and Lyst are some internet-native sites he sells from. He especially likes New York-based Moda Operandi — both Mishra and his NID batch mate, Aneeth Arora (of pero), retail there — which lets customers view a designer’s entire runway collection and pre-order directly without relying on a retailer or stockist’s curation. This not only democratises the market, but also facilitates production based on real time need.
As far as he is concerned, this might be the most responsible way forward.