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September 16, 2014

The Talented Mr. Mishra

Text by Parmesh Shahani

This September, Parmesh Shahani muses on nation building through textiles, youth power and more

I am writing this column from the beautiful Yale University campus watching the Smriti Irani saga unfold over Indian news channels and Twitter timelines. Over the next four months, dear Verve readers, you’re going to be hearing a lot about my experiences here as a Yale World Fellow. And, before you ask, no, I won’t be getting a degree! But more about that next month.

Before leaving India, it was my pleasure to host designer Rahul Mishra in Mumbai for a special event. I’ve followed Rahul ever since he burst on the scene at Lakmé Fashion Week in 2006. I’ve watched him grow into the poster boy of handlooms among young designers, and admired how he has used traditional textiles in modern ways – like with his reversible dresses of Kerala mundu fabric on one side and Benarasi silk on the other, or with his seamless dresses.

Rahul’s unique background has certainly helped him in thinking differently – he has a degree in Physics from Kanpur University, a design degree from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and he was the first non-European to be awarded a scholarship at the Istituto Marangoni.  The education has served as a perfect complement to his burning ambition and deep commitment to a larger cause.

This has been a landmark year for Rahul with him bagging the prestigious 2014 International Woolmark Prize at Milan Fashion Week that was previously won by designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani. So when the Lakmé Fashion Week team and I sat down to see which speaker we could get to kickstart our Autumn/Winter fashion season collaboration with, it was a no-brainer – it simply had to be Rahul!

Our event was held at Maithili Ahluwalia’s beautiful Bungalow 8. After guests strolled around the store, gaped at Rahul’s exquisite creations draped on mannequins and nibbled on divine dips made by Maithili’s mom Jamini and a gorgeous cheese spread, courtesy my friends at Nature’s Basket, Rahul and I settled on a vintage four-poster bed for our talk.

I ask him about something I have overheard – about how when someone raised with him the success of Sabyasachi’s retail empire, Rahul likened it to a 100-crore Dabangg, but said that it was time now for a 300-crore Dhoom 3 to hit the market. He smiles and diplomatically says that he can’t remember saying this – but affirms that he certainly has ambitions to create a large global brand out of India, and if he does so, then numbers like 300 crores will all be minuscule.

He describes his entire Woolmark Prize experience vividly. How he was an underdog throughout…the resentment he felt when he saw all the journalists including the Indian ones, in their hotel lobby in Milan, make a beeline for Joseph Altuzarra, the hands-on favourite.

Dear Joseph unfortunately will have to wait for another time. Rahul’s trans-seasonal fabric, which consisted of 85 per cent merino wool, 15 per cent chanderi and also had woollen zardozi embroidery, blew away the Woolmark judging panel comprising Frida Giannini of Gucci, Alexa Chung, Franca Sozzani and Tim Blanks, among other fashion heavyweights. I asked Rahul about how he felt presenting an alternative version of India abroad, given that the fashion world there was mostly conditioned to a Manish Arora pop kitsch aesthetic. “I wanted to do something different,” he told me, frankly. “Not the same old orange pink and clichéd images of India.”

His approach worked. After the prize, Frida Giannini came and told Rahul she wished she could have similar craftsmanship at Gucci – and surprise, surprise, even the Indian journalists flocked back to his orbit. Now, Rahul is a man with very little time on his hands – flying to Sydney to showcase at David Jones one day, popping into Paris for a Colette pop-up on another, fine-tuning orders in his India factory the third. Having gone through similar career highs and lows, I can totally identify with what he is going through – enjoying the moment – but realising each day how tenuous and fragile this position is.

What Rahul is doing pretty well is in using his moment in the spotlight to advocate what he really believes in – Gandhiji’s philosophy of creating a self-sufficient village economy. So when the Woolmark jury asked Rahul where he saw himself 10 years from now, he replied, “I want to employ a million craftspeople under the Rahul Mishra label.” I feel that more than the global fame, it is this response that we should be celebrating about him back home in India. Rahul works with clusters of craftsmen across the country– including the Khatri community in Bhuj for bandhani work, the Koli family from Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh and the Ansari family in MP who work on the Maheshwari weaves. He is responsible for their lives and well-being, and it is a responsibility he takes very seriously.

He is brutally honest during our conversation about how his success is linked to that of his artisans and about how he wants them to be financially empowered and live a good life, with all the trappings that successful urban folks have, such as good homes, refrigerators and air conditioners. In his view, they won’t become rich by following a Fab India style model, that sources from craftspeople in bulk. Instead, he believes in following a higher value-added model and in treating Indian textiles as luxury, and in educating clients about this, so that the craftspeople can be paid much higher for their work, and can find their occupations to be monetarily rewarding enough for them to continue them.

I encountered a similar theme of empowerment in a very different context when I spoke at the Confederation of Indian Industries’ Young Indians Conference in Mumbai, just before flying off to Yale. Rishi Jaitley from Twitter spoke about how the service is becoming a platform for all kinds of change such as Twitter-enabled water pumps that inform citizens the exact time when water comes in the taps. Neera Nundy of Dasra spoke about how philanthropy can both create and serve as a platform for social change. I am a big fan of Dasra’s giving circles – which they open up for a limited period – and you have to give both your money and your time to get in and contribute to a cause that matters, such as girl child education.

On the business side of things, Quikr’s Atul Tewari spoke about how they’re hiring door-to-door Quikr agents, who are enabling customers to sell their unused items on the web, even if these customers are not internet savvy. Praveen Sinha of Jabong spoke about how he wants to democratise fashion and create an online platform that could deliver aspiration fulfillment to those across India that do not have access to the latest fashion in retail stores. I personally spoke about the dreams of young India, and how we are creating a platform at Godrej to help young Indians live out their dreams. My recent journey across Indian MBA campuses was captured by CNBC-TV18 – it will be airing on TV as a seven-episode series called Godrej LOUD by the time you read this column dear readers, so do catch it if you can, each Saturday and Sunday at 5 pm IST.

Ultimately I have realised that whether in corporate India, in creative India or in the non-profit space, unless we tap into people’s potential and help them be the best they can be, our efforts to make a difference will be limited. For ache din to come, we need to first create platforms for change and then empower people to make the change happen for themselves, and one doesn’t need to go to Yale to realise this; these amazing efforts are happening all around us.  All one needs to do is plug in, and join the movement.

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