Here's how designer Rahul Mishra recreated the island of Santorini in his collection for Paris Haute Couture Week
He tells about the concept, his thoughts on art and his foray into architecture
To literally recreate elements from one’s source of inspiration, one might argue, is too simplistic an approach to art and design. However, couturier Rahul Mishra proves that his vision is nothing short of genius, in his latest collection, Shape of Air, which takes you on a journey through the Greek island of Santorini by painting vivid pictures of its charming blue and white architecture, it’s clear skies, the waves of the Aegean sea and the waters at sunset. Recently showcased at the Paris Haute Couture Week (PHCW), the collection is a work of art more than anything else — one where brushes and pigments are replaced by needles and lustrous thread, the canvas by handwoven silk, organza and tulle.
Though Rahul, who gained international recognition after winning the Woolmark Prize in 2013/2014, has been showcasing at Paris Fashion Week for many years, this is only his fourth time at the haute couture week. Not surprisingly, he has already made a mark, with collections such as Home, a line of garments inspired by the marine life and fauna of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives and now, with a fresh and innovative collection informed by the rich colour palette of the Mediterranean island.
In an industry that is brimming with heritage craft and legendary designers whose command over complex weaves and surface ornamentation is unshakeable, it is indeed a challenge to find a distinct voice. However, this is not a problem that Rahul has ever faced, right from his early days at the Lakme Fashion Week, back in 2006. “I consider myself an artist. As an artist, there are three types of inspirations for me — tertiary, secondary and primary. ‘Tertiary’ is browsing through something like Pinterest, content that someone else has curated to inspire you, ‘secondary’ is visiting a museum, looking at other art and being inspired by it, ‘primary’ is physically being in the space or place where other artists found inspiration. To me, the latter was my 2019 holiday in Santorini,” explains Rahul, adding that it was a combination of a famous Monet quote (in which he stated that his aim was to capture or recreate air in his paintings) and the curiosity of his then-four-year-old daughter during their Greek holiday, that was the starting point for this collection.
“That quote really spoke to me. I asked myself, if I were to represent air through my garments, how would I do it? And at the same time, the simple childish curiosity of my daughter, made me look at the island in a new light. She was so fascinated by the sea and the colours, she’d ask me questions like ‘How is the sky so blue? Why isn’t it so blue in Delhi?’ During sunset one day, she said, ‘How has the water turned orange? Isn’t it supposed to be blue,’ recalls Rahul.
All of these elements and other features that are synonymous with the Greek island have found expression in Shape of Air — a collection comprising approximately 20 looks. Presented as a fashion film, the video was shot in India with six models. An art installationby Ruchi Bakshi and Sanjeev Sharma titled Winds of Change, forms the backdrop against which the models display each carefully-curated look. The essence of Santorini is captured through the perspective of the five elements — earth (prithvi), water (jala), fire (tejas), air (vayu) and space (akasha).
The blue and white buildings, with their soft edges and dome-shaped roofs and the winding cobblestone streets represent earth. Each of these motifs was individually embroidered on small pieces of fabric and then affixed to the base textile to craft the frothy three-dimensional gowns, short shift dresses and statement trenchcoats. “Constructing the dresses, piece by piece, to create clusters of buildings and paint a picture of the famed island, was almost like city planning and a little bit like playing with Lego blocks,” says Rahul, who over the past few months has been pursuing a course in architecture. The calming blue waters of the Aegean sea glittering under the rays of the sun have been recreated using sequins on scalloped blue ombre fabric. “Small ruffles of blue ombre tulle embroidered with sequins have the effect of waves and splashing water,” explains Rahul. For fire, the Delhi-based designer took inspiration from the golden sunsets of the town of Oia, bringing to life the different shades that range from bright coral pink to true orange, again expressed through layered fabric, structural silhouettes, unusual scallops, reflective sequins and luxurious silken threads.
When it came to reimagining air through textile, Rahul thought about the feeling of being covered by the Mediterranean winds and how it gushed through the bougainvillea plants, making its flowers quiver and its leaves tremble. And so he turned to white tulle, carefully gathering and shirring the fabric, and on the edges of its folds were added embroidered deep pink and salmon bougainvillea flowers that move, as if caught by the island’s winds, along with the wearer. And finally, akasha or space, is shown through super light gauze-like tulle layered over complete ensembles. A key piece, which in fact, opens the six-minute film shown at PHCW, is a fabric ‘bubble’ made of tulle, worn over sequin-embroidered wide-legged trousers and a top, which on closer inspection, reveals the intricately crafted skyline of the island. “In Shape of Air, we have tried 10 different techniques that were new to us. I’ve never attempted to capture air or water or the sky like I did with this collection. With every launch, we try to broaden our design vocabulary and this one is no exception,” shares the designer, who has extensively used embroidery techniques such as French knots (which he is known for), aari, zardosi and numerous others developed in his atelier. “There are a number of embroidery techniques that I have invented myself I haven’t named any of them but we return to them every season,” he reveals.
While flying to France to be present at the part-digital-part-physical PHCW was an option for Rahul, he decided against it as he wanted to give local talent a platform on the international stage. “I saw it as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Indian models, and other Indian talent. Before we started shooting the video, I was unsure if I made the right decision. But once the models took posi- tion and the cameras started rolling, I was so inspired. Everyone present there drew strength from the creative process, from the beauty of art and fashion,” enthuses Rahul.
When the pandemic hit, he was one of the few designers who was least impacted by the lockdowns and consequent loss of labour. “In 2014, I started this process called reverse migration. I sent my karigars back to their homes to be with their families and they have been working with me remotely ever since. And so the pandemic didn’t really dent our growth. I have realised during the last two years that being sustainable and conscious, not just in the way you source your fabric or in the dyes you use, but in every facet of your work really pays rich dividends,” says Rahul, adding that he did not have to let any of his staff go and was even able to give them their yearly raise.
A science graduate, the couturier’s commitment to slow living extends to architecture as well and he shares that the course he is enrolled in is being pursued with the intention of building passive houses or energy-efficient homes that reduce the building’s ecological footprint by eliminating the need for electrical heating or cooling — a project that he hopes to lay the foundation for in the near future. Also up his sleeve is a collaboration with clean beauty brand Asa. While the details are still being hashed out, we can’t wait to see the results of this interesting partnership and how Rahul’s aesthetic and design philosophy will be translated onto a tube of lipstick or a case of finishing powder.