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Fashion
May 05, 2017

Why Designer Rahul Mishra Is A Man On A Mission

Text by Saumya Sinha

His penchant for sustainability has earned him the respect of his peers in the industry…

It’s been a decade since Rahul Mishra first brought the Gandhian philosophy of a self-sufficient economy to life on the runway. Now with his latest collection Infinity — where he puts his own spin on post-impressionist paintings — and with his reputation for impeccable craftsmanship, he continues to innovate every season. Hailed by some as one of the most creative savants in India, Mishra has set out to achieve what few designers promise to and fewer deliver — build a fashion empire with a conscience that resonates with the status quo. The 2014 International Woolmark award-winner has put wool back into the limelight with his diaphanous merino outfits. His ability to work with indigenous textiles, create handcrafted 3D textures and deliver au courant looks without hitting brand fatigue has put his designs at global retailers like Colette, Saks Fifth Avenue and Harvey Nicholas.

“Any kind of inspiration is like falling in love, whatever happens next is a chain reaction,” says Mishra as he talks about his Autumn/Winter 2017 collection, which is influenced by pointillism and other works of postimpressionist artists. He recounts the story of being invited to Musée d’Orsay after his Spring/Summer 2017 show in Paris, where he found himself sorrounded by the acclaimed works of Van Gogh, Cézanne and Paul Signac. The enduring appeal of the iconic paintings provoked Mishra to create clothes that could be cherished by their wearer forever. This thought travelled home with him, and led to the name Infinity, also suggesting that the efforts of human hands are limitless. Taking inspiration from an existing art form and making it his own took Mishra to unexplored terrains where he found himself creating new techniques with thread and needle. “It is always about creating new materials and ideas… creating a new look,” he says. “When you set out to achieve a brushstroke effect on a garment, it involves a lot of research and development.” Reliving an iconic painting through hand-embroidered couture pieces is quite a challenge but he’s happy with the outcome. “Van Gogh’s Sunflowers have a sense of melancholy, they are dark, contrary to what they look like in real life. We tried things we have never done before — when you lift the paintbrush it leaves a mark, we tried to achieve that effect in the embroidery,” he points out.

From innovating new stitches to experimenting with 35 to 40 colours on one garment, Mishra has explored multiple concepts for this collection. As a result, every artwork is an evolved visual on the garment. And for someone who has noticeably worked with monochromes, this bursting spectrum is a refreshing touch to the sartorial story, so much so that one would question whether it is a move away from his signature style — a term he is averse to. “I really feel that is very limiting. It’s one of the very reasons I wanted to do things differently. You have to do something new but also look like your own true self….” His perspective rings true on a global level as well. Gucci’s phenomenal impact today is all thanks to the adventurous route the luxury giant has taken without compromising on its identity and brand values. Mishra strongly believes that when one stops inventing, one stagnates. “We try to define everything in words but visuals are beyond that,” he adds. There is certainly something attractive about the indescribable and that’s exactly what moved Mishra when he first glanced upon the paintings.

Not one to kowtow to commercialism, his definition of design remains unadulterated and liberating, “It is how you express yourself as an artist as well as how you solve problems. It isn’t about the final product alone but also the process behind it. What you see at fashion weeks and what you see in retail is just the tip of the iceberg. But the where, who, what and why, how many people are actually involved in the idea, the environmental impact of the process, all of it comes under the big umbrella of design.” Mishra also advocates that his brand does not create simply for consumption but, through the process, also looks at ways to sustain livelihoods: “When we make a product we look at how many more hands can be employed to create it. User-friendly design on the other hand, such as a plastic bottle, is easy to carry out, doesn’t leak, you can consume it anytime and throw it away but when you look at the environmental perspective, it is probably the worst idea.” For him, it is about this ignored aspect. He goes by the ‘triple E’ philosophy where environment, employment and empowerment form the pillars of his business model as well as his brand’s values. Today, Mishra employs 500 to 700 people in villages and cities across the country through the Ghar Wapsi project which allows artisans to work from the comfort of their homes rather than migrating to the city in search of jobs. From a group of 150 embroiderers in Hooghly, West Bengal to 150 at his Delhi studio, each is paid 20 per cent more than what they might get anywhere else, claims Mishra, and that according to him is his real contribution to sustainability. “At the moment, 80 per cent of my work happens in villages. It is very easy for me to bring workers here, but if I can somehow help them work in an environment where they get home cooked food then that is the best thing. It is not just about creating an eco-friendly garment but much more.”

For a brand known for its hand-embroidered products, sustainability also lies in the technicalities of garment creation. “A lot of people say they use cotton because it is eco-friendly and comfortable, but a cotton T-shirt might require more than 10 thousand litres of water from crop to final product, excluding the ‘aftercreation’ — which requires frequent washing. That way a polyester T-shirt is better because there is no water involved in producing it… it is a very debatable subject…and there is no guidebook.” After petrol, the garment industry is the second in line as the most polluting sector on the planet. And with increased mechanisation, employment-related issues are on the rise. Mishra tries to work as an interlocutor for a more balanced, organic approach. “Designing the system trumps garment design. We do not touch machine embroidery because machines lead to unemployment.” Ten years from now, he aims to employ many more people, and not just in India. With a store coming up in Delhi this year, followed by another in Mumbai and then in Paris, he’s heading towards his goal at a determined clip.

Ever since his Woolmark win, his brand has earned many international followers. At his last showcase — Autumn/Winter 2017 in Paris — Mishra spotted 15 people wearing his clothes, but what he found most interesting was how each had styled his separates in ways he had never imagined. And that to him is the true meaning of globalisation, when people from different geographies and lifestyles pick an outfit and mix it up with their individual sensibilities. Back home, couture still sits within the boundaries of occasion or bridal wear; as costume more than clothing; whereas in international fashion capitals, it is viewed as daywear. But with a growing milieu of experimental dressers, our wardrobes are signalling a change, and not just in our style but in our mindsets too. And brands like Rahul Mishra are catalytic to these progressive shifts in India’s sartorial story, which is moving from vanity to practicality, with handmade chosen over mill-made increasingly, and fashion-consciousness transcending into a chapter about developing a fashion conscience.

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