Known internationally for creating drama on the ramp, designer Manish Arora feels that his journey has just begun. He talks to Priyanka Sharma
Being a designer isn’t about being famous and appearing on page three. It is a work in progress and a job just like any other,” declares fashion designer Manish Arora at the India Design Forum in New Delhi. Visuals of his recent show in Paris are paraded on a screen; in his tribute to street art, the models, decked in neon dresses, stop mid-walk and merge into the backdrop of graffiti. Wrapping up his talk, Arora runs out of the hall to attend to the throngs of journalists waiting outside. He smiles into cameras, answers questions with charm and turns to swarms of friends who praise his collection at the Paris Fashion Week 2012. “Fabulous” and “Astounding”, they remark. Clad in a black cotton bandhgala over a mustard jumper and glittery shoes, Arora’s persona is as vibrant as his attire. Promising Business Standard an interview as soon as he returns from Paris, Arora zips away in a swank SUV.
A month later, from his Paris home, Arora keeps his promise. Shuttling between Paris and Delhi, the designer is currently working on the upcoming season’s collections for all his labels — Manish Arora Paris, Indian by Manish Arora and Fish Fry (an edgy collection launched in 2004 in collaboration with Reebok). “I am also working on our ongoing collaborations,” he says via email. Among them are the Manish Arora Home collection for Good Earth, eye-wear for Inspecs in the UK, bed linen for Portico and a range of socks for Swedish company Happy Socks.
As the only Indian designer invited to the Paris Fashion Week for seven consecutive years, Arora has left his contemporaries far behind. At Mode à Paris — the oldest fashion body in the world, founded in 1868 —Arora is the only Indian to share space with big names such as Chanel head designer Karl Lagerfeld, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier and British designer John Galliano (whom Arora is often likened to). Another impressive feather in Arora’s already colourful cap is his appointment as creative director of French fashion house Paco Rabanne in 2011. He showcased his first collection for the brand at Paris Fashion Week SS’12; six of his designs were worn by pop sensation Lady Gaga for the MTV Europe Music Awards. His other customers include supermodel Heidi Klum and singer Katy Perry — who recently wore a sequined dress designed by Arora at an inaugural party for the Indian Premier League. He was also the subject of Discovery Travel and Living’s show, The Adventures of the Ladies Tailor.
Arora isn’t one to brag. “I started showing internationally about seven years ago, so I have a long way to go before I can call myself successful,” he says. “But it is a great feeling to see my designs on some of the leading women in the entertainment industry!”
While Lady Gaga is famous for her bizarre outfits, Arora too has made headlines for his eccentricities. In 2008, Arora gave his bulbous Ambassador a “kitsch makeover” by embossing it with Swarovski crystals and hand-made fabric in loud colours. His tryst with colour goes back a long time, says close friend, designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, recalling Arora’s days at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi. “He stood out even then because of his colourful ensembles,” adds Singh who was also his roommate at NIFT. Arora is famous for his palette of psychedelic colours and kitsch motifs; his garments combine traditional Indian crafts like embroidery, appliqué and beading with Western silhouettes.
Fashion writer and consultant Meher Castelino describes Arora’s talent as “out of the box”. She still remembers his creation showcased at the Smirnoff Fashion Awards in 1994. “Even then, he was way ahead of his time,” she says. Graduating from NIFT with the Best Student Award, he launched his eponymous label, Manish Arora, in 1997. In 2000, Castelino attended his first show at the Lakme Fashion Week. “It was bizarre...The models’ hair was in dreadlocks and their faces were painted to depict blood streaming down their noses!”
Yet, Arora didn’t get off to a great start. The media scoffed at his outrageous designs, labelling his clothes unwearable. In 2003, Outlook carried one of his quirky creations on its cover and asked: “Who wears this?” His successful debut at the London Fashion Week in 2005 made the international market sit up and take notice of his talent. Three years later, Outlook chose Arora as the best designer for 2005-06. “Though Manish might create drama on the ramp, his clothes are definitely wearable,” believes Castelino. Acknowledging his much bigger market abroad, Castelino adds, “Though they might not be able to pronounce his name correctly, everyone knows it!” Despite his hectic schedule, Arora always responds to her mails and texts promptly, she adds.
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Today, Arora is a force to reckon with. His three labels are valued at around $7 million at retail, informs Deepak Bhagwani, Arora’s partner and director of Three Clothing, the company that owns the labels. Started 11 years ago, the company now retails out of three self-owned stores under the Manish Arora Fish Fry label; it has an extensive international buyer network across 75 stores such as Joyce in Hong Kong, Maria Luisa in Qatar and Bonvicini in Italy.
In February, Arora made a grand return to the Wills India Lifestyle Fashion Week 2012, doling out his trademark shock value while showcasing his Indian wear collection —Indian by Manish Arora. His friend and “admirer”, Fashion and Design Council of India President Sunil Sethi, couldn’t be happier. “He may showcase his designs all over the world, but he is still an FDCI loyalist,” states Sethi. Arora was one of the few designers who supported Sethi when he took over as FDCI President in 2008.
Recalling one of Arora’s earliest collections in 1999, Sethi reveals, “I am one of the few who have seen his black-and-white line of clothing!” Arora was willing to break away from tradition at a time when “being a rebel wasn’t so common,” says Sethi who also happens to be one of Arora’s biggest buyers —Sunil Sethi Design Alliance bought three installations from Arora’s show, Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai, in 2001 and sold them all at Selfridges in London. Since then, Sethi has bought and exported Arora’s works to various retailers such as Anthropologie in the US, Tsum in Moscow and The Conran Shop in London. “His futuristic vision makes him a hotseller everywhere!”
“The word unique was invented for him,” says Vogue India Fashion Director Anaita Shroff Adajania. “His clothes are wearable art,” she adds. Brushing aside misconceptions about Arora being too quirky for the Indian customer, she says, “There is something for everyone.” Former model and fashionista Feroze Gujral agrees. “Though I don’t have the guts to wear a Manish Arora creation from head to toe, I love his funky tee-shirts."
“I don’t consider my designs as quirky but [they are] definitely unique,” counters Arora. The designer keeps a commercial version of his collection in his showrooms across the world. “And that is what translates into business for us.” Detesting clichés, Arora refuses to pander to the bandwagon of celebrity show-stoppers for his shows. “The concept of show-stoppers in India is an invalid one,” he clarifies. “A show-stopper is a garment which sums up the entire collection, a piece that leaves an imprint of the collection on the viewers. It is not the person wearing it!”
Arora knows what he’s talking about. For his clothes speak for themselves.