Like Father Unlike Daughter
I may not have known it when I woke up one morning a few weeks ago, but I would be recounting that day to friends and family for a long time. I received life lessons, was serenaded with songs, attempted a new dance, witnessed a charming father-daughter bond and learned a thing or two about the acceptance of differences, all within six hours.
I anticipate none of this as I navigate Soho House Mumbai’s cosy, labyrinthine interiors to locate the Eva Room where we’re shooting. When I set foot into the space, the gorgeously designed interiors, multiple racks of designer clothes and expanse of sea that faces me pale in comparison to the imposing figure standing in the middle of the room — a towering man dressed all in white, who is calmly watching the creative crew bustling around him. I have seen Suresh Rajani before — although from afar — at this year’s Lakmé Fashion Week, when he was happily trailing his creative consultant daughter as she flitted from one show to the next. And even though Ekta Rajani warranted my attention first, due to her position of value in the fashion fraternity and the fact that I’ve worked with her in the past, I could not take my eyes off her father. This was a man who had turned up at the country’s premier fashion event in naval-inspired, highly atypical finery from top to bottom, complete with polished white oxfords and a peaked cap. As if that wasn’t enough of a detour from the usual designer-heavy looks served at fashion weeks, there were a hundred (if not more) badges pinned to his shirt and cap, all of them modelled after military ships, honorary seals, submarines and fighter aircrafts. He even carried a naval baton to drive home the point that this wasn’t an ephemeral obsession. His daughter, on the other hand, was the picture of offbeat minimalism; months of attempting to emulate her effortlessness had led me to conclude that she was the only person I knew who could pull off print-on-print ensembles with enviable ease. I was happy to miss a few of the shows if it meant that I could get the two to explain this evident juxtaposition of aesthetic sensibilities. But before I could walk over to them, they had already mysteriously disappeared; Ekta was probably off averting some last-minute crises before models took to the runway.
But through pure serendipity, I get to interact with them in close quarters today. Suresh beams when I introduce myself as the person who will be writing this story, but his face settles into a frown when he looks around the room and realises his daughter is yet to arrive. “I’m sorry; could this wait until Ekta comes?” he sheepishly says. A bubble of laughter escapes my lips, but I can’t say I don’t understand his dilemma. After all, isn’t every father helpless in front of his daughter, especially after she’s old enough to make her own decisions? “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it clean and uncontroversial, I promise.” So I start with what I hope is a relatively harmless question. How did a simple businessman working in hydraulics elevate his style quotient so dramatically? “It was something I was born with, I guess”, the 71-year-‘young‘ Suresh responds. “When Ekta’s brother was a little baby, I specially purchased jersey material, designed identical t-shirts for both of us and asked my local tailor to bring my vision to life. Everything I’m wearing right now is also self-designed. Like Ekta is a stylist, I consider myself one too. The only difference is, I’m my only client. When I go for walks on the beach or for marathons, I wear bright stockings and matching arm socks, caps, aviators, gloves and shoes. I wear a shirt with a bit of an ombré effect to office as a welcome deviation from the standard corporate attire. I don’t know why people don’t put more effort into styling themselves, especially when they’re getting old. That’s when you’re supposed to be dressed to the nines at all times because God could invite you to meet him at any point. How could you not be well-dressed for the interview of your lifetime?” I’m momentarily stunned — I wasn’t quite expecting theology to become a part of this interview, but now that we have broached the subject, I’m not inclined to skirt it. I prod him, and “Captain” Suresh (as he likes to be referred to), doesn’t shy away from elaborating. “It’s not really about religion though. I’m more of a spiritualist. I have a few principles about leading a happy life, and they’re quite simple. I believe that when people stumble upon a regular man dressed in a navy uniform with badges and a baton, they might think he’s eccentric, but they won’t be able to deny that he’s a cheerful man. A sad soul won’t put so much effort into dressing up, and every day at that. If I see you sitting in a coffee shop and reading a book, dressed the way you are right now, I won’t be able to tell whether you’re happy or sad.”
This hypothetical scenario hits a little too close to home as I dismally inspect my grey boyfriend jeans and striped shirt, but before I have more time to dwell on it, Ekta arrives and scans the room for her father. Her eyes narrow imperceptibly as she sees us chatting and realises that she has possibly missed moderating an important part of our conversation. She deliberately saunters towards us and props herself up on a high stool, beckoning to the hair and make-up team to get started. Satisfied that we are now within earshot, she provides some insightful interjections as I resume my rendezvous with her father. “I don’t think I can take credit for my first real fashion moment,” she reveals. “It was my mother who did it for me. There used to be this lovely Parsi tailor at Breach Candy, and whenever there was an occasion at home, my mother used to take me to her. We weren’t doing financially well at the time, but my parents were very fond of meticulously stitched clothes so they used to indulge us every once in a while. I remember there being bullion stitches on one of my dresses — I didn’t understand the beauty of what I was looking at back then, but when I think of it now, I realise it was entirely hand-made and hand-stitched. That was my first brush with tailoring precision and it has endured.” “You went completely off-track!” Suresh sulkily clarifies, “I was trying to educate her about the pursuit of happiness” and continues, “See, this is how it is. I wake up at 4.30 a.m. Then, I spend half an hour every day on Club Marriott or Flipkart, going through their fashion section, and I bookmark items of clothing that my secretary later purchases for me. E-commerce websites allow you to return clothes within 10 days, so I veto designs that don’t look good on me in person.” Ekta, who has evolved into an ardent advocate of pre-owned, local and the buy-less-choose-well stream of fashion over the last couple of years, looks horrified at this blatant admission, but her father goes on unperturbed. “Then I spend another half an hour sending instructions via WhatsApp to my employees on what they should do before I get to office. This is followed by a walk on the beach for 45 minutes, a workout at the gym for another 45 minutes and breakfast at JW Marriott. If you ever happen to come to the Marriott between 9.30 a.m. and 11 a.m., you will run into me on any given day. I’m in office from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., post which I return home and spend time with my family. I retire to bed at 9.30 p.m. I think it’s a great time-table, but most of all, I thoroughly value the six and a half hours I spend by myself in the morning. So many things pique my interest. I go to a yoga institute every Friday. I’ve been learning ballroom dancing for three years with Sandip Soparrkar. A teacher comes home to teach me singing.” Ekta regards him indulgently. “Why don’t you sing for her, papa? But please don’t croak intentionally. I know you do that to work me up.” Suresh’s face breaks into a dimpled smile; he clears his throat and looks straight at me as I meet his gaze expectantly. “Aise na mujhe tum dekho, seene se laga loonga. Tumko main chura loonga tumse, dil mein chhupa loonga.”* It’s such a sweet and well-timed song that I giggle like a little schoolgirl. He sits back, clearly satisfied with the outcome before jumping up. “Would you also like a crash course in samba?” he hopefully offers. And what kind of person would I be to say no to anything this sunshine-radiating soul has to offer? I take his hand and get only a 30-second lesson before the photographer informs us that the set-up is ready.
For the first look, we give Ekta and Suresh the freedom to style themselves, and they are up to the task with expected enthusiasm; one is a stylist in the true sense of the word, and the other refuses to let his official line of work prevent him from being a self-appointed one. Ekta has picked a shirt-trouser combination that I’ve seen her in many times — a fact that she takes great pride in, considering her keenness to understand and practise some aspects of slow fashion on a personal level. The hand-spun khadi denim jacket is the product of an upcycling exercise that was part of Levis’ trucker jacket’s 50th anniversary; the circular patches, created from waste fabric, were later added by her as a way of proclaiming her conscious ideology to the world. “I picked up the cotton shirt from a little shop in Le Marais around five years ago, and the block-printed pants are by Suket Dhir. My shoes are from a San Francisco-based brand called Allbirds; the fabric of this particular pair is constructed out of responsibly sourced merino wool, the laces use recycled plastic bottles and the soles are made out of this material called sweet foam, which is an alternative to petroleum and employs the discarded part of sugarcane. I like to wear printed tops because the busyness of the design allows me to get away with not wearing a bra underneath, and I’ve become big on comfort in the last couple of years. I pretty much wear three shirts and four trousers on rotation.” I find this fact somewhat familiar, and it strikes me that I’ve come across it on her mindful Instagram posts, where she habitually mentions how old a particular garment is and the number of times she has worn it. “I think it’s thought-provoking as well as comical. I have as many people who genuinely enjoy it as those who poke fun at it. They ask me how I’ve managed to remember the exact number of times I’ve worn a garment, and whether I maintain a diary where I log in the clothes I wear every day. That’s why I always specify ‘about’ so-and-so wears, because I only know approximates. Honestly, I’m very happy with my everyday wardrobe. I dress in the same things until they wear out; only then do I replace them with something else. India is still on the beginning curve with retail. I’m just hoping that the current dialogue about the wastefulness of consumerism — that the West is acknowledging and trying to address — will allow us to skip the worst of it. We may still have a shot at creating an industry that comprehends and learns from the errors of our global counterparts. The hope is that a few youngsters who follow me on Instagram see the posts I put out — which are as much an exploration from my end as it is from theirs — and identify with them enough to want to read up on the issue, just as I am.” For his part, Suresh has picked an immaculate white suit, plain enough in principle, until my eyes adjust to the fabric’s unusual taupey-beige ombre. Then to the badges on his tie that glint in the afternoon light; they are hard to miss seeing how not even a square centimeter of space is left between the tip of each pinned insignia. “I don’t know how to explain it; I simply love white”, Suresh explains. “I usually go to a special shop to get my whites customised. In a formal workspace, I’m all pristine. I bring out these shaded tie-and-dye suits in case the opportunity presents itself. But there is no maximalism with the caps or the badges at office. I may add a badge or two to my tie. But that’s it. That persona is only reserved for my morning walks or marathons. Just so you know, most of my badges are giveaways. So if I’m walking on the beach and a child comes up to me and says he likes a particular badge, I’ll give it to him or her immediately. I must’ve given at least a thousand of them away. I had a girl power badge specially created; I’ll give you one after we’re done for the day.”
Ekta vanishes for a while during this segment of the shoot, and when she finally emerges from the changing room, we hear a part plaintive, part amused cry. “I look like a Russian Bappi Lahiri!” she laments. She’s dressed in a thrifted, pre-loved lamé dress by Yves Saint Laurent that she snagged at One Amazing Thing, a pop-up that she helped put together last year. Her stripped-down sartorial comfort zone has been invaded, she is now bedecked in mismatched oversized gold earrings by Knobbly X Laurie Franck that she found at the quaint vintage store No Borders, multiple neck chains from Gucci, Misho and Nicobar and a bold red lip. These will soon be complemented by separates that reflect her trademark flair, but reimagined through Suresh’s touch: the aforementioned denim jacket — now taken hostage by badges — and shimmering bronze pants from Shift which had been created as sample developments by the founder and her close friend, Nimish Shah. Sporting a golden sailor’s cap which is a pared-down version of her father’s heavily embellished peaked cap, she groans as she regards herself in the mirror. I try to stifle a laugh, but this is so unlike her usually understated persona I’m used to seeing that I don’t do a very good job of hiding my amusement. Ekta glares at me. Her father, of course, looks at her adoringly; after all, he’s the one who has selected this outfit. “I’ve always preferred her in extravagant clothes. I like looking at Ekta in make-up; I like it when she wears jewellery. I have a penchant for anything that stands out, and you can tell that people will give her a second look when she steps out like that.” I protest — Ekta’s knack for making others look good is only rivalled by the noticeably distinct way she dresses herself; her androgynous mien and classic, sustainable garments inspired me to make changes to my own wardrobe when I was working with her. “You will think I look attractive in my basic avatar which I am happy with”, she placates me. “But according to my father, my regular clothes are drab and ordinary. He still sees traditional feminine elements as attractive. So, in his eyes, a little jewellery and lipstick will make me look infinitely better. I understand the psychology of ‘decking up’ and what that entails for a lot of men, even women for that matter. I can dress up if the occasion demands it because I come from a culture that is very festive, and I can go back to the absolute basics if that’s what is needed. I shift tracks based on what the purpose of a styling exercise is.”
In the other corner of the room, Suresh has transformed from campy to modest; the badges are nowhere in sight, and the only military reference is the word ‘Navy’ emblazoned on a baseball cap. I ask him if he feels naked and exposed without his accessories, and he looks at me unfazed. “Happiness is a state of mind. If happiness depended on how you were dressed, so many famous people wouldn’t be suffering from emotional distress.” “Papa, not everything has to turn into a lesson”, Ekta rolls her eyes. She continues, “I’ve grown to like effortless styles, so I just simplified his look and paired a crisp white shirt with a grey linen trouser. I switched the white oxfords for sneakers because they are functional and comfortable for his age. Since he loves the naval vibe so much, I interpreted it quite literally with the baseball cap. I reimagined him in a normcore version, which I think is quite becoming on him.”
I wonder if Ekta and Suresh discuss the runway shows they watch, bookmarking the designs they like and critiquing the ones that don’t quite cut it. She laughs, “We actually don’t discuss fashion at all because our preferences are so different. He thinks I’m a plain Jane; I think he’s a wacky Joe.” Her father interjects, “That may be the case, but most importantly, we just enjoy each other’s company.” “It’s true, he’s actually quite unfussy,” Ekta continues. “He doesn’t need too much. Even if he just has his family around him, and we’re doing all the talking, he’s happy to just be a spectator. We don’t have to be doing anything together to actually bond. He just sits around while I’m working or running errands around the house; that’s his way of spending time with me. We do want to take up a musical instrument together though. I am fascinated by the tabla, but dad’s singing teacher says that the Casio would be better suited for the amount of time we can dedicate to learning an instrument at this point. One thing we do love doing together is going for walks on the beach.” Fortunately, we have a beach at our disposal, and after walking the 25 steps from Soho House to Juhu Beach, we are squinting at the steadily retreating figures of Suresh and Ekta. They are on home turf (or rather, sand), and their conversations take on a more private tone, their smiles suddenly secretive. Ekta looks completely at home in a personalised, naturally-dyed indigo shirtdress by Crow paired with a block-printed overlay from 11.11/eleven eleven and breezy pants from Swedish brand COS as the waves tussle with each other to get to her feet first. “Since the last few years, I have started to pay attention to process and material in design and acquired certain pieces as a result of that understanding. I continue to try informing dad about moderating his purchases, since his outfits cause an unholy amount of chemicals to bleed into our waterbodies. I myself didn’t understand this 10 years ago, but I understand it now; and it’s complex. So while I may work on commercial projects for a living that I can’t edit as tightly, I try wearing the older outfits I own more often and purchasing new ones with the best of my current understanding, be it yarn, dye, craft or geographical location.”
For his part, Suresh is entirely comfortable wearing what many would consider outlandish workout attire — a white t-shirt and shorts, paired with a jacket, belt, knee socks, aviators and a baton — all in bright yellow. Passers-by turn to look at him, some curious, some jeering. I ask Suresh if someone has ever come up to him and demanded to know why he’s dressed the way he is. The sagacious septuagenarian leaves me with a second song and mellifluous parting advice. “Kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna. Sadaf, chhodo bekaar ki baaton mein, kahin beet na jaaye raina.” **