Cool couture from Paris to take over wardrobes in Dubai

Indian designer Rahul Mishra who has made his mark in international circuits, says fashion knows no language

By Sujata Assomull

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Published: Fri 6 Oct 2023, 1:08 PM

Last updated: Fri 6 Oct 2023, 1:11 PM

He is the first Indian designer to win fashion’s most coveted award, the International Woolmark Prize in 2014 (previous winners include Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld). He is also the first Indian designer to be invited to show on the official calendar of Paris Haute Couture Week in January 2020. He recently dressed Zendaya in a custom-made sari gown for a high-profile event in Mumbai. Earlier this month, he was conferred with the French government's distinction Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters).

Meet Rahul Mishra, the renowned couturier who is now making fresh waves with his new corporate-backed contemporary wear line, AFEW Rahul Mishra. Last week, when Mishra launched the global luxury label in Paris, expectations in the fashion circuit were high. While Mishra may not have the glamour of Manish Malhotra or the brand value of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, he is the name that fashion critics are betting on. So much so that veteran fashion journalist Suzy Menkes has called him “a national treasure”.

Craft before celebrity

A born-in-India global brand, he chose to debut at Paris Fashion Week, where he has previously shown his eponymous ready-to-wear line and has put all his efforts into haute couture collections since the pandemic. “We had been part of the ready-to-wear calendar until the Fall 2020 season. With AFEW Rahul Mishra, it is a kind of return to this schedule in Paris. It is about easy-to-wear yet luxurious fashion pieces you wear every day; clothes that can fit into your wardrobe and will add a fresh feel. AFEW is an acronym for air, fire, earth, water and it also somehow looks at the idea of creating a few clothes, a few ideas, and a few philosophies, which are borrowed from couture at the same time,” explains the designer.

While this was a focused Spring/Summer line, it also had a seasonless feel. These clothes were made to work on women of any size and any shape. While there was a nod to the kurta-pajama, it was a collection made for the global woman. There is one woman in particular who was the muse for the collection, and that is Rahul Mishra’s wife, Divya Bhatt Mishra. A trained designer, she has been a part of the label for a decade, and her involvement in the label is perhaps the ‘secret sauce’ behind the brand. “She is the most amazing person to have as a business partner, a co-designer, as well as a critic. I feel like not just for this season, but for all the seasons, whether it’s ready-to-wear or couture, Divya’s involvement has been exemplary, and she has been a force behind the brand,” says Mishra.

For all the accolades and acclaim, Mishra’s launch of his new line was a low-key event. Instead of a catwalk, it was an easy presentation held over an afternoon, with showings taking place every half an hour, which ended with a surprise dance performance. “We wanted to create a unique energy with the clothes and establish a new language of emotion, lightness, and self-expression. The movements and live performance captured the same lively spirit. We also wanted to show how easy the clothes are to wear. So, when you have freestyle dance and body movements, the clothes look equally good and comfortable,” elaborates Mishra.

The use of floral embroidery, oversized scallop details, and bursts of vibrant colours made it feminine yet fearless, easy not effervescent, and wearable yet a statement. A show that was size-inclusive and gender-inclusive, the omission of any well-known Indian models did stand out. “Our intention was to maintain a global casting with representation from every ethnicity across the world. There were indeed some Indian or mixed-origin models at the show, but it all depends on the days of casting, about who walks in through the door and looks the best in the clothes,” explains Mishra.

While most designers chase celebrities, Mishra has always believed in letting his clothes speak for themselves. For him, it is craftsmanship that is at the core of everything he does, and he has always believed in taking things slow and steady. “Basic technical knowledge of construction and clothing has no substitute. In any profession, whether you’re a fashion designer or whatever you are doing, fundamental knowledge is most important. However you may acquire it — from a design school, a workshop, or at home — that remains. Especially at the global level, your craft and knowledge make a huge difference to your capabilities. It also gives you consistency which is needed to make relevant statements.”

Art needs commerce to survive

A designer who has never forgotten his roots, he comes from Malhausi, a village near Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur, and it seems fitting that he is leading the Indian voice on the international scene. His story is authentic and real. The son of a doctor who worked in government services, he applied for a post graduate programme at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and the only course he qualified for was Apparel Design and Merchandising. “I think India is a unique country in the way its people understand craft and value it. For me, they are the patrons and custodians of its heritage,” says the designer.

There is no question that designers from the Global South are having a moment. Mohammed Ashi recently became the first Saudi designer to present on the Haute Couture Week calendar, and Dubai’s Rami Al Ali became the first Syrian designer to be included on the coveted BOF 500 list (the Business of Fashion index of people shaping the global fashion industry). Indian label Falguni and Shane Peacock made its return to New York Fashion Week in a show styled by celebrity stylist Law Roach. While Mishra acknowledges that fashion is now looking for a ‘no borders’ approach to creativity, what designers need to remember is that having their financials in place can make or break them.

Over a year ago, Reliance Brands Limited (RBL), part of Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest private sector company, signed a 60:40 joint venture with Rahul Mishra to produce a ready-to-wear line and that is how AFEW Rahul Mishra was born. RBL is India’s largest retailer of luxury goods having partnerships with over 90 brands. They also have a partnership with Manish Malhotra, who is opening a store in Dubai in November, and Ritu Kumar, who is also expected to announce retail plans in this region soon. He was the guest of honour at a fashion show held in Dubai last September to celebrate the opening of a Milan-based school and his alma mater, Istituto Marangoni. Mishra, who already has a loyal set of clients here for his couture lines, says, “We are actively exploring the Middle Eastern market and looking at the right property at the right location. We have a promising market in Dubai with our existing product offerings and hopefully, very soon, we will be able to make some announcements.” So, watch this space as it won’t be long before you will be seeing more of Mishra in Dubai.


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