Indulge one-on-one: Homegrown designer Chaitanya Rao chats with LFW model Pavitra Malaiappan on the Chennai fashion industry, cinema and more
There’s no doubt about it. Chaitanya Rao is a name that’s synonymous with Chennai fashion. To match his undeniable swagger and air of confidence is Lakmé Fashion Week model Pavitra Malaiappan, standing tall at almost six feet and one of the first Chennai models to have walked for designer Manish Malhotra. The two aren’t strangers since Pavithra has walked the ramp for Chaitanya Rao, as she reminisces that it was he who pushed her to make the plunge to Mumbai last year. Impeccably dressed in black, Indulge catches up with these two stylish personalities in a special one-on-one interview:
Chaitanya Rao: Tell us how it started for you and how your parents reacted.
Pavitra Malaiappan: Since I was from an army family, I was born in Patiala, Punjab. But my grandparents are from Palani in Tamil Nadu. We moved around a lot and then we ended up in Chennai. I did my MBA eventually and that’s when one of my friends convinced me to take part for Miss Chennai. I think the whole concept was very alien to my father, someone who believes in education and discipline. But my mother was pretty encouraging. Anyway, Miss Chennai happened, I finished my MBA and was working at ICICI bank for some time. But then I came back to Chennai, randomly did one show, then another and I was hooked!
CR: After going from Chennai to Mumbai, you did the Lakme Fashion Week. How difficult was it breaking into that scene?
PM: You’re asking questions that can get me into trouble, Chaitanya! (Laughs) It was difficult to break into the Mumbai scene because I struggle with my skin colour there, even today. But I am very clear that I want to do only designer shows and not entertainment shows, because I know I don’t fit the bill. But, Mumbai is very set with their models and they know what looks they want. They are highly disciplined as well. Mumbai is incredibly professional, and even have a ramp backstage, they make you walk, try on shoes, the hair guys are in and so are the makeup guys, they even check the garments from front-to-back before the show. Chennai is my comfort zone. Everyone knows my name and has spoilt me, giving me more time to venture out into different things.
CR: Now to the question that everyone has on their mind. Do models even eat? (Laughs)
PM: Of course they eat! Its a popular misnomer that we don’t eat. But we burn it, and the more we work out the more we eat. I’ve been to shows where they feed models biryanis. And then there have been times when they ask if I want a salad, and I have said, ‘Okay I am not cattle. I need my sambar saadham, my curd rice, rasam saadham and my mini meals, which will help me carry on through the entire day. And as far as fitness is concerned, walking my dogs is the fitness that I want and hope for every day. One of the reasons I moved back to Chennai was because of the food, my family, and my dogs.
CR: Ah, and it’s really hard to get through to you. You aren’t on social media, are you?
PM: I am a very selectively social person. Which means, I am selective about my social circle. I am also very lazy.
CR: You just don’t want to deal with fake people, do you? I just need three Long Islands and I am good to go. (Laughs). When I had my first fashion show, I was so kicked about an after party. Are you coming for the party, they’d ask. Yes, why not! But after a few years of that I just want to go and sleep.
Pavitra Malaiappan: I’ve always heard and known about you as a designer, and then we became friends. How crazy is that! But we’ve never really chatted, so tell me about yourself.
Chaitanya Rao: I started way back! I don’t think you were born. (Laughs) This was 25 years back, I was this young kid, sketching away from my mom’s magazines. At that time, there were no courses for fashion so you can say I am self-taught. I got into Viscom at Loyola but it was too advertising oriented. Then I got into Color Plus, while on the side I did my under graduation in economics. In the mornings, I’d run to the factory, where a lovely lady named Deepa Meher trusted a 19-year-old me with a lot of things. I handled their linen range. And while it was good for three years I had to move on. I then met Priya Balasuramaniam, of the AVM family who was looking to assist with her on Minsara Kanavu, in 1996. I also started my own line with Studio Saks, which is how I met Sunil Menon and Swetha Jaishankar. She wore couple of my designs, word got around and soon enough I was designing for the who’s who of Kollywood. It’s a bit of fashion and film and they are now coming together.
PM: How so? And which one do you prefer — films or fashion?
CR: Both! Films are last-minute and very disorganised. It’s high pressure, but seeing your couture design on screen is a high. When I saw Nayantara wear the floral gowns in Thani Oruvan, I was ecstatic because that’s something people still talk about today. That’s where I saw the meeting of fashion and films. That said, both have their own challenges. With fashion weeks, you have your time but with movies, you have to work on the go.
PM: You went solo as a designer for Minnale in 2001. And you were just 21. I remember Reema Sen with her embroidered pants and bustier. How was that experience?
CR: I met Gautham Menon through Rajeev Menon. And that song Vaseegara with Reema and Madhavan was such a big hit. I was so young, and they trusted me. It was word-of-mouth really. From there I went onto to style Simran, then Trisha for Aaytha Ezhuthu, Asin for Gajini and M Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi and then the recent one being Nayantara for Thani Oruvan and Imaikka Nodigal.
Pavitra: So you’ve worked with actresses and models. Is there a difference?
CR: That’s a tough question. I mean with films, you aren’t just dealing with the actress, you’re dealing with the director, the cinematographer, choreographer and the whole team. With fashion weeks, the models are our muses so it’s a whole different ball game. Film is more a director’s medium, whereas fashion is the designer’s medium. In fact, you represent us.