The Man of Couture: Inside Manish Malhotra's World
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The year 1995, Bollywood gifted homo sapiens with four things. A critically acclaimed movie -Rangeela, filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, talented Urmila Matondkar, and the fashion phenomenon - Manish Malhotra.
The movie became the turning point of Malhotra's career and that was how the making of India's fashion monarch begun. He is Bollywood's favourite stylist, bride's dream, transformer of the fashion industry, a runway trendsetter, a visionary magnate. The man can be called a lot more but he is and will always be Manish Malhotra who enkindles the haute couture, making it a living dream. Nothing more, nothing less.
A Born Creative Mind:
It's been three decades of Malhotra's costume renaissance and 15 years of his label. Surprising right? Still, the man stands strong running a million-dollar business. Maybe it was his calling or he was just born to create, the five-year-old boy, engrossed in movies, colours, costumes always was a style critic.
"I would always comment. I used to comment upon my mother’s sarees. She was teasing me the other day that she would see my playing in the drawing-room and quietly walk out just to save herself from my comments. I had a habit of critiquing about her attire and recommend some different pairing of blouse and sandals that could go well with her saree."
Well, his mom wasn't the only one on his radar, at the age of six he almost displeased his home tutor with frequent remarks on her dressing sense. Guess, he was always into it.
A true-blue movie addict, he spent his entire childhood in theatres. "Fashion and design was a part of me since I was a kid even before I could realise it for my career. I used to cry for watching movies and I remember been left wide-eyed and awestruck by the magnificence of 70s and 80s Bollywood films. Guess it was my sheer love for the movies that just pulled me into this world."
Rangeela - Inception Point:
During his college days and before marching into the film industry, Manish was modeling for five years and also working in a boutique. Being an average student, he didn't try his hands in higher education or academic research. His flair for designing and modeling was a tipping point for his entry into film fashion.
In 1989 he got his first film Juhi Chawla's ‘Swarg’ directed by David Dhawan but it was Ram Gopal Verma's Rangeela that changes the lives of many.
"I did two costumes for Juhi for one song sequence but I guess, Rangeela was my turning point. This was 1995. The director Ram Gopal Verma was clear with his brief and Urmila was also all set to prove herself. It was a very strong creative energy and we did something completely new. Crop tops, dungarees, t-shirts, and jeans, a completely new fresh palette that just caught the eyes of all millennials and became a true ‘viral’ as we call it today."
Every great story marks the inception of true creation and that's what Manish's work did. The same year, he won his first Filmfare award as a ‘Costume Designer’. Interestingly, it was the first time, this category was added making him the first recipient of the award.
An Outsider in Bollywood:
When an outsider, the universe might seem to plot against you. One has worked hard, turn things around but prove themselves time and again. But you the advantage of looking at things from a new perspective. When movie clothing was all about costume dadas (costume vendors), he found the space and created a new whole new designing paradigm in the rigid Bollywood system. Being a young kid on the block with no degree or desired academic background in costume designing, he was a lot more cautious of being judged or evaluated. He followed the simple mantra back then 'Speak less, observe and work hard to prove.'
Back in the days, the movie industry had different people for different work. There was no visionary in that space. Understanding the gap, he tapped into space. "My vision was always to work with a ‘whole look’ that included hair, make-up, jewellery, and everything. I never limited myself to just costumes. I intended to never step on anyone else’s profile of work but eventually, my contributions did so. So, it was slightly difficult to wade through in the beginning from the hairstylists, make-up artists, and creative directors, etc. But with time, people started acknowledging and appreciating my value towards a shared goal."
In 1993, he created another authentic look with Late Sridevi in Gumrah. The raw and real on-screen demeanour of hers made people understand how looks play a vital role screenplay. "I sat with Sridevi to explain about her hair and make-up. Back then, rules in films were rigid and at times unreasonable. Like a girl with a western outfit must have short hair and similarly, girls in an Indian outfit will have long hair and corresponding make-up. But it never made sense to me as a Costume Stylist, I asked, how can the same character have two different kinds of hairstyles in just the next sequence? And thankfully, the team understood. We defined the whole look of Late Sridevi for that movie."
Sustainability, Relevance, Individuality
Not many fashion designers have turned out to be great entrepreneurs, but he did! Question is how did he manage to stay relevant to date? To which he credits honesty, sincerity, and the willingness to give that 24 hours of commitment.
"I must confess it’s not easy. There have been lots of ups and downs. But I think I come from the thought process where you wake up the next morning and say, 'Okay, I’ve made this mistake, now what, now how do I rectify it and then go on…' I never had the greatest support of fashion fraternity on my side. I was always targeted and was somebody whom they saw as an outsider because of my workings in film fashion as a costume designer. For most of them, I wasn’t meant to be in couture and fashion weeks and that rattles you but it can also be huge learning."
Every failure and every rejection comes with huge learning and that’s what he took from it. "I guess, just by doing what I’m doing. I would give it to my parents that we have been raised to focus on our work and stay restless and relentless. My team often jokes about how I hate weekends? I’m still all for my work and I guess, that’s the only way. You get up, jump out of your bed, and start doing your work. It’s about the process and never the destination."
The Manish Malhotra World - The Start, Sacrifice and Rise
Loved by millions, everyone wants to be a dressed Manish Malhotra's label on their D-day. But the label that is a dream of every Indian bride, took some sacrifice to reach the point it is today. "At the brink of starting my label, I was offered a film to direct but I must say this (and this is the first time I’m mentioning it) that I sacrificed that for my label."
He started a store in 1999 with Yash and Avanti Birla called ‘Reverie’ and then worked at ‘Sheetal Design Studio’ for three years. Having practiced on clothes in mainstream cinema, set-up, having right tailors and craftsmen, etc, he decided to launch his label. "I must say that nothing succeeds than hard work. I put in everything in my work. I’ve given movies 48 hours in a 24 hours day. And similarly, I ended up giving 48 hours to my label in a 24 hours day."
He launched his brand 15 years later in his career in films. "When I did Chiffon kurta for Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Paagal Hai, there were endless knock-offs and then I could only think, I wish I could have sold those pieces. Then, I didn’t have my label. I was just doing costumes for movies. "
Finally, he launched my label for ready-to-wear ensembles and soon entered into couture because of the demand. The popularity of movies and Bollywood wedding then were even more powerful and due to his creations on-screen, a lot of brides wanted him to design their attire and wedding itself.
He also started his makeup range in 2018 in association with MyGlamm, headed by his niece Rriddhi Talwalkar. In late 2019, he also started a Jewellery label in association with Raniwala 1881. At present, they just curate a collection that is retailed at their store but will soon come up with designs as well. Adding to the list is also Manish Malhotra Home which is still at an early stage and gives a peek to his design sensibility with spaces to customers. Besides that, there is Manish Malhotra Productions too, which is also set to take its course in the coming financial year.
Who will be his showstopper, is the question everyone wants to know. He lits the runway and showcase designs like no other one.
"At times, I felt alone, very alone because of no support or critique but my idea of having a showstopper and celebrity donning designer attires is a norm today which was started by me. I was bashed for it but then, today, I get to have the last laugh when everyone, literally everyone, runs behind the celebrity with their outfits."
Celebrities fill the first row of his show however having them there wasn't a calculated plan. "For me, it was, very organic process, because I came from movies, I had my relationship with these actors and they were my friends. So, calling them at my fashion show wasn’t any strategic move, back then and even now."
Keeping to himself and never dwelling in anyone's business is his greatest virtue that has helped him stay on-point to date. So, finally its heart + hard work and then, the economics follows.
An amalgamation of Creativity and Business
Bringing the best of two worlds is quite a hassle. But who does it, its the mater of all trades. "They’re poles apart and I struggle to maintain a balance at times. Creativity, sketching, drawing, colors, painting, comes much faster to me than business strategies. So, you end up doing lots of mistakes and lots of losses too (giggles). It is indeed difficult but what’s design if it doesn’t create good for you and the people around. So, both are indispensable. It’s important for me to lead with creativity but also supplement it with business ideals."
The Quarantine Period:
The pandemic has changed everyone's perspective and transformed lives. Making the best of it was also Manish. "This has been a great period of looking back and introspection of my 30 years journey, I never had this much of time before with just myself. Learning the importance of life which something I never did. I’ve started reading, finally. I’ve lost 13 kgs in the last 80 days with my hard work and sincerity towards my health. I guess that has been the biggest treat to myself in this lockdown."
30 Years to Eternity
Working like a machine, the ace designer has been committed his heart and soul to his profession. While three decades might have made anyone tired, he just got angry, anxious, and nervous to work better and better.
"When I sit back and try to tread, it all just comes colliding. There are so many memories, episodes. It’s like a stream of consciousness. A big blur, which is one of my biggest regrets too because I never created, catalogued, and compiled the memories. Also, it was not a digital age. But overall, I will always say, I get filled with gratitude looking back. My journey has been awesome and today, I don’t have the time to sit back and just fall back into the reverie of old times because I’m equally busy, and that’s a blessing."
Thirty years of non-stop movies and after that 15 years of his label has kept him so occupied that he couldn’t even sit to crystallise his memories.
"This pandemic period had me at least, think over a little. Today, I’m dressing the fourth generation of actors in my career. From Late Sridevi to Jhanvi & Khushi and all in-betweens. What more could I ask for?"
(This cover story was first published in the August issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)