Manish Malhotra: I was one of the first designers to ask for a script to present the looks of the actress
We caught up with celebrity designer Manish Malhotra. The couturier talks about his latest collection, his 30-year long journey as a designer and the reinvention of fashion in cinema
It was the 1990s when Indian fashion and cinema saw a new dawn of change — celebrity designer Manish Malhotra and larger-than-life glamour in Bollywood movies. His genre-defining work in the fashion world with over 1,000 Bollywood movies to his credit and 15 years of his eponymous label, paved the way for many designers in the country to follow the path. He has the credit of bringing in the showstopper culture and front rows and it is hard to name one star in Bollywood who hasn’t worn Manish Malhotra clothes on or off the ramp. Starting from Rangeela in 1995 where he designed bold outfits for Urmila Matondkar, who later became his first showstopper, the celebrity designer has upgraded cinema’s fashion landscape with reinvented bridal wear. Whether it is a wedding lehenga with an unusual colour (the iconic green lehenga in DDLJ) or introducing sensual, sequinned and mulmul saris (the Desi Girl sari in Dostana, the Chammak Challo red sari in Ra.One and the Tip Tip Barsa Paani in Sooryavanshi) or bringing a redefined aesthetic to fashion with films like Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai, Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, among many others. Off-screen, he remains a favourite with actresses like Kareena and Karisma Kapoor, Malaika Arora, Raveena Tandon, Alia Bhatt, Janhvi Kapoor and her mother and actress (late) Sridevi and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan among others. Not just Bollywood but his designs have been embraced by global celebrities such as Demi Moore, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Michael Jackson. Evolving with the time, Manish developed a collection that’s influenced by the present, the new world. His recent wedding collection Nooraniyat, showcased at Vogue wedding show and India Couture Week 2021 earlier this year, sits firmly with the pandemic-induced preferences but is also relatable to the Manish Malhotra aesthetic and his loyalists. Here, the designer talks to us about his collection, digital makeover of fashion, cinema, competition, his favourite muse from Bollywood, and much more…
Tell us about Nooraniyat and what inspired it?
My inspiration was to bring together a new composition that is balanced in its heterogeneous elements, where everything exists. Nooraniyat is a collection I have thoroughly enjoyed creating. It has a range that is expansive with kalidars, lehengas, gowns, jackets, shararas, kurtas, palazzos, dupattas and signature blouses that fit diverse palettes and occasions. The collection is in sorbet and blush shades of bright pink, lilac, grey-blue, beige-gold, powder blue, metallic gold-silver, among many others. It has deftly embroidered pieces and two-toned colour-blocked silhouettes that journey from classic aesthetics to a more dynamic new-age look of the contemporary times.
How do you perceive this digital makeover of the fashion industry amid the pandemic?
I have always believed that change is the only constant. I, for one, love the new digital trend in the industry. Today, everything is instant. The reactions are immediate through comments and likes. How fabulous is that! I designed the clothes and conceptualised and directed the fashion film myself (a musical love story set in the backdrop of the partition). It was a whole new experience for me. I enjoyed the process so much that I decided to do it again this time with my latest collection Nooraniyat and I intend to do so with my future collections as well.
Do take us through the design process; does the subject take priority or the fashion and the theme?
For me, I have to know the subject to design accordingly. I was one of the first designers to ask for a script to present the looks of the actress. Never before was that done. But I knew that if the character was a soft demure one or if she was wild, then she had to dress as per her character. This is why the subject is very important. But that is for the movies. When it comes to the collection, I look at what is inspiring me or how I’m feeling at that moment. Like for Nooraniyat my latest collection, I felt like doing black for the summer and that’s how I proceeded.
What are the changes you observe in terms of fashion and how the cinema space for designers has evolved?
When I started, I did movies with Ram Gopal Varma, Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra where the actress was dreamy and aspirational. Those looks created an impact. That really helped me show my passion and styling skills. Many films, even today, carry that same impact — whether it’s with Sara, Kiara or Janhvi. But it was always sticking to the character and yet trying to do something new. I think, today the characters have become very real and simplistic but the challenge is still the same, to stick to the character. But today, a designer’s work is not restricted to the silver screen only. Styling has come into play in a big way. Promotions, red carpet events, social media videos, all require styling — when the actress is promoting the movie or even otherwise. Designers have a larger arena to work with now, which was not the case before.
We say the film industry easily typecasts actors. Is it the same for designers? How have you managed to create a niche for yourself?
The most important thing over here is to not take yourself too seriously and my philosophy has always been that I need to constantly be learning and observing. I come from no formal education in my craft, I’m passion-driven. You make mistakes and wake up the next day and work on it again. Till date, it’s my need to constantly hone myself through learning and the need to understand the new ways. It’s so set in my mind. Also, I’ve seen a lot of actors, directors, film producers and other designers who take themselves very seriously. In my mind, I’m not above anything. For me, every day, I’m a learner.
You have been working with a lot of sequins and glitter recently. How do you balance the subtleness and simplicity in your collection?
When you have to be artistic and when there is a commercial demand versus a demand about what people expect out of you, it is a constant battle and I do feel a sense of challenge when I’m designing with sequins and glitter. But at the end of it all, you have to keep in mind the aesthetic of the whole look. Like our signature sequinned saris are completely covered in sequins but they don’t look too heavy at all. Even the shaded sequinned saris that we introduced, have been received so well. Eventually, balance is the key but also it’s all about the final look.
While many designer labels have been affected due to the pandemic, you have launched two different collections — Ruhaaniyat, Bollywood-inspired masks, and now Nooraniyat, how did you cope with the pandemic?
Before the pandemic hit, for the last 30 years I had constantly been working on one project or another. The lockdown gave me a break to introspect. I got time to spend with my mother, have conversations with her, something that I hadn’t done in a long time — which I cherished greatly. I decided to focus on my health and got into fitness. Moreover, I had the time to work on my collections. I conceptualised and designed my latest collections Ruhaaniyat and Nooraniyat. Also, the pandemic and the lockdown taught us to never to take life so lightly and make time for our loved ones and for ourselves. That is very important.
You have dressed many brides on screen which has made you the go-to designer for bridal collections. How do you see things post-pandemic when weddings have become so intimate?
Weddings have become more intimate and there are fewer people for sure than there would be normally attending, but it’s still a special day for the bride, the groom and their families where they will be making their memories for life. So they will still get dressed up for the occasion. The number of events has surely gone down, but even with a limited number of events, the atmosphere and the ambience remain special.
You have had a long association with Bollywood, which is your favourite period? Would you like to share some anecdotes from the journey?
I loved the ’60s and ’70s. Everything about those movies, I loved. I remember watching Mughal-E-Azam and Pakeezah and was enamoured by Madhubala and Meena Kumari and the style and the songs. Many years later I got the opportunity to design and style for Mughal-E-Azam, the musical, and was so grateful to do so.
What are a few of your evergreen edits that are still in demand?
Quite a few. But also people still come to me for some iconic looks that I have designed and styled for movies and ask to recreate them. Like very recently, I had a client who asked me to design the same look of Kareena’s in Bole Chudiyan (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) and we recreated the same for her.
What was the inspiration behind your make-up and jewellery labels?
I believe in constant evolution. The Manish Malhotra world has become an entity in itself and with my love for styling; I wanted to be able to provide a complete look for my clients. Make-up and jewellery were an obvious way to go. All of these are verticals are doing really well and it is humbling to see the response. We will announce many developments on all these portfolios. Manish Malhotra Productions is a vertical that I’m looking forward to as it entwines both my loves — which are fashion and films — and this will mean coming full circle in my career which makes me really happy.