India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve Man
November 17, 2011

Dressing up Bollywood

Text by Nasrin Modak. Photographs by Aparna Jayakumar.

In his 21 years of fashion and Hindi cinema, Manish Malhotra’s label has become synonymous with Indian opulence, contemporary glamour, sensuousness, flowy chiffons and an interplay of colours. Verve discovers the man behind the bling

  • Manish Malhotra, Fashion Designer
  • Manish Malhotra, Fashion Designer
  • Manish Malhotra, Fashion Designer

It’s an industry joke – ask Manish Malhotra what the other designers are doing and he’d have no clue, but little do they realise that the joke’s on them, because Malhotra is never interested in what other designers are doing. He’d rather focus on his work, which is why even after two decades since he first started designing, the very feel of a flow, the lushness of colours or the threads of embroidery on a sharara or a sari can bring him sheer joy. A pioneer of sorts, when Malhotra entered costume design in the late ’80s, fashion in Bollywood was all about being loud and gaudy. Step one: he removed the extra shine. Step two: he brought in class, one movie at a time. By 1996, when Rangeela released, for which he even won a costume designer award, Malhotra had become a known name even by the classes. In fact, his work influenced young NRIs to look back towards home to order clothes.

The Struggler
It was never as easy as it seems. Before entering the designing world, Malhotra used to model. “I hated studies and didn’t have the money to do a course abroad so I started working at a boutique to learn the basics and made clothes from the money I made in modelling.” That’s when someone suggested the movies. It was awkward initially because back then, he was the only male designer. But it was his ability to sketch and illustrate that got him a lot of work after his first film Swarg. “I didn’t come from an affluent background, but money was and never is the priority. That’s always been second or third. It follows.”

The Bollywood Lover
From fame to friends to relationships and inspiration from the movies made in the ’50s, ’60s and the lovely ’70s, Indian cinema has given Malhotra everything. He has a sharp instinct about movies and connects with the masses through his films. “Clothes and movies never tire me. They are almost therapeutic. In fact, working as a costume designer with actors from Sridevi, Karisma, Kajol and Urmila to Priyanka, Kareena, Sonam, Katrina, Ranbir and Imran, is like a lifetime award. It means I am moving ahead with time. The young want to work with me not for period films but for my contemporariness — that is my truest achievement.”

So has Bollywood ever limited his creativity? “No, creative doesn’t just restrict to making clothes, it also reflects in how you decorate a table, or direct a film, or speak in a conversation.”

The Task Master
When his assistants go shopping, they send him pictures and so do actors when he’s not on the sets so that he can tell them what works. “I don’t mind being honest and I’ve had the longest relationship with people. I have worked with Karisma since the 1990s.” At a fashion show, Malhotra is present before the models. “I like what I do and I feel I can style it in the best way myself.” Even if his office has worked overnight to make a dress for Kareena, but Malhotra feels it doesn’t work for her, he sends his assistants to look for another dress. “I don’t think like a businessman, because for me, it’s important that she gets appreciated for that look. That’s why, Kareena relies on me blindly.

Almost like an actor, every morning, Malhotra wakes up thinking of the roles he has to deliver. He grasps a situation, observes people and gets to the source of the problem. “I’ve always said let’s cut the crap and get down to what has to be delivered. That is why I’ve been able to do a lot. Once I met a designer on a flight who said some years ago, we costume designers would get together and speak about you. I said I knew that but while you were doing that, I was working,” smiles Malhotra.

It’s funny how people think Malhotra is constantly on the phone with the stars. The truth is, he can’t because he is so busy working for them. Interacting with the biggest names in the industry is now an everyday thing for him but he doesn’t take any relationship for granted. “There was a time, when I went to their house the first time and felt oh wow. Today it’s routine. And yet I am happy that I am still working with them and creating looks that people like.” It isn’t just about the emotional connect or the friendship. “If it was just that, then we would only have had dinners together (which we do) but they know I deliver and I am not struck in a time warp. People and lots of designers keep saying that I get work because they are my friends, but come on, get real, is someone going to give you a film just because you are friends? I have built myself such a structure that I am there even if it is five in the morning.”

The Perfectionist
“After I’ve turned 40, I’ve started to learn to enjoy moments and ignore small things. While a glass or a box of tissue kept in the wrong place can still irritate me, I’ve learnt to overlook a lot of things about friends, people, actors or situations that would upset or irritate me. I have changed my perception and learnt to look at the bigger picture. I’ve started enjoying being and travelling alone. It has also changed my work.

“The last 40 years have been very satisfying in terms of accomplishment, relationships, everything and it has given me the courage to take five steps further. I’ll never do anything that I’ll regret and I’ve been very clear about it. It’s simple that way. Maybe I regret that I was never in a sport, I wish I was. I often wonder what I would have done if I was 23 now. So, if today’s films didn’t have the glamour or the adulation, I’d have brought that in. I always want to work on something that’s not there…be  the first. Or at least take that step. I’ve learnt on the field, in a boutique, with tailors – the hard way, so I never get scared of the critics nor am I afraid of what people think or of speaking the truth. I believe that at least I have the courage to try.”

The Challenger
Malhotra feels responsible about everything he takes on. “I feel like a sword hanging on my head when actors trust my judgment blindly, when stores wait for my clothes, when my models wait to do their stint. My shows always have an abundance of models, lots of garments, and it’s grand. I come with that and I work towards that.” While it’s a challenge to come up with something new each time, Malhotra has learnt to deal with it. “Each time I go ahead and take that one step and keep asking myself, what am I doing differently? Which is also why I work with Shabana Azmi’s Mijwan Foundation in UP, with 60 craftsman in Kashmir for the Rockstar collection and with Rajasthani textures and fabrics. I don’t want to sound like a martyr; this is my way of just evolving myself.”

The Forward Thinker
When you compare him to his peers from the costume designing fraternity, he is the only one working with young actors. “I feel really nice about that. Of course, it takes a lot of effort. To keep abreast, I travel a lot; meet different people, especially younger ones. I interact daily with tailors, embroiderers and brides and bridegrooms. I like young movies, I have never looked at myself as older, I don’t take myself seriously. I was telling Raveena one day, our songs are coming on a retro show and we both laughed. Very few actors and directors move ahead with time. I feel proud that I have. There is no point in living in the past. It’s gone, it’s over.” After every fashion show, most designers relax for four-five days but Malhotra is busy shooting. It’s his nature. “Next morning, I’ve moved on. Show’s over, what’s next?

“People say I should get into nature breaks but I can’t understand how someone can just chill and watch the sun rise. I was with my friend in Central Park, New York and he said, just lie down and I was like ahem, lie down and do what? He said I’ll read a book and you listen to your iPod. I said okay… I’ll try. I lay down for what was less than two minutes and then headed to a coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino and did my own thing.” Malhotra loves travelling, aircrafts and airports. “There, I’m not restless. No phone calls, no work, I don’t drink, I’ve never smoked or smoked up, so you’ll find me eating on a flight and watching a movie. Good food, good movie and I’m sorted. Till date, a true form of relaxation for me is watching a Hindi film in a theatre or watching 60 Hindi film songs back to back on television.”

The Entrepreneur
“Modesty aside, individually I am one of the most well- known brands in India but I want to take it worldwide as a company and make it into one of the most known brands internationally. That’s what I strive and work extra hours for.” A lot of his peers are doing different things like accessories, shoes, home furniture and even restaurants but right now, Malhotra is concentrating on coping with the existing demands. “Correct me if I am wrong but I am among India’s top 10 brands, and if I have to be among the top three, then I have to focus on what I do best which is why I never started off doing anything else.”

The International Desi
Malhotra wants to take Indian clothes to the international level but doesn’t want to end there. “Look at Japanese designers – they take so much of their culture globally with their fabrics, designs and embroidery. I’d like to do something like that. I don’t want to do western clothes and dresses wherein somebody would say that’s a Dior stream, that’s a so-and-so waistcoat. That’s what’s happening with half of the Indian designers who do western clothes.” Once a New York critic wrote about Malhotra: ‘He had it all: the glam, the glitz, he was the showman, and yet it felt that this show could have been done better by Cavalli.’ Malhotra agrees. “That’s a good piece of criticism,” he says.

The Costumer vs The Designer
Malhotra was the first costume designer to become a mainstream designer while others followed.  “The design fraternity who never wants to acknowledge the next person’s success would often brand me as Bollywood. But the fact that collection after collection is selling and me showing at Fashion Weeks is proof that I maintain that balance well. In a film, I am styling the character. Here, I am doing the clothes that I want to do. A lot of critics say that I keep on doing the same thing. But what they never understand and look at is that internationally, an Armani does what an Armani does, he never does what a Cavalli does. So over a  period of time, you get to be known for what you do. That’s how you grow from being a designer to a label to a brand. I love doing Indian clothes, I don’t want to do western garments. I’ve tried my hand at it but I feel the west does it so well, and I’m not saying that Indian designers don’t make them well; I feel I do Indian clothes better and I feel I really want you to wear a western designer ‘s clothes …. Like I wouldn’t want them to make a sari.

Manish Speak
Style icon you’d like to design for: Madonna.

You’ll never find Manish Malhotra in: Dhoti pants.

Being content means: Happy, fattening me.

If you weren’t a designer: Film director.

Must haves for a guy: White shirt and black shirt, well fitted jeans, a good watch, good shoes and socks of course. A plain black nicely cut bandhgala sherwani.

Must-haves for a girl: Besides the essential white shirt and black shirt, well-fitted jeans, a good watch, good shoes, a nice chiffon sari.

You’ll always find Manish Malhotra in: Fitted jeans.

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