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Manish Arora: The mad genius of Indian fashion

In an interview, designer Manish Arora talks about his ongoing retrospective show in the US, love for food, and why he hasn’t thought of succession yet

From the 'Manish Arora: Life Is Beautiful' show, curated by Rafael Gomes

By Pooja Singh

LAST PUBLISHED 12.04.2024  |  05:00 PM IST

If Indian fashion has a mad genius, it is Manish Arora. And if there was any doubt about that, take a look at his milkshake glass-shaped purse, complete with straws and a cherry on top, designed seven years ago, or a short kaftan-like dress resembling a butterfly in psychedelic colours, which was part of his 2016 spring collection. They’re all part of an ongoing retrospective show for the designer that opened last month in the US.

Each of the 100-plus garments and accessories, on show till 18 August at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, is an example of street art going couture, while painting a fun and colourful story of India. It is visible in a dress with sepia-tinted photographs of 1990s Bollywood actors—faces you might still find adorning a Delhi auto or filling a studio wall in a rural area—and in a jacket embroidered with gummy bears and jelly beans. The exhibits in the Manish Arora: Life Is Beautiful show (curated by Rafael Gomes, creative director of SCAD FASH museums) have been part of his runway presentations and collaborations. Other pieces have been loaned by his customers spread across Japan, China, Europe and the US.

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“There’s a skirt with chain-stitch embroidery that was done in Kashmir. Only one artisan worked on that piece for months," says Arora, 51, over the phone from the US. “It’s impossible to make it again. Most of the pieces are like that; they don’t have duplicates."

This is Arora’s biggest retrospective show after four years, when all his businesses shut down in 2020 amid the pandemic and reports of financial trouble and unpaid dues to employees. He’d had a dream run for over two decades, launching brands, working with international and Indian celebrities and showing at some of the world’s most prestigious fashion weeks.

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When Arora started his namesake label in 1997 in Delhi, the Indian fashion industry was still taking shape. The Mumbai-born Arora was a young designer in a nascent industry, wanting to add fantasy, fun and satire via vintage prints, appliqué and traditional embroideries. “I used to go to Kinari bazaar (in old Delhi), see all the kitsch imagery, the posters and all…and then make clothes," says Arora, who is now based in Paris. “I was attracted to these things for some reason. You can see women wearing red, blue, green, orange, yellow, purple, all together, unknowingly, and still look very convincing. I took that with me subconsciously when I started doing my collections."

'I have come to this phase of my life where I want to do things at my pace,' Manish Arora

Arora’s love for funky designs and colours was evident to his National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) classmates in Delhi as well. Designer and friend Namrata Joshipura, who was in the same 1994 batch, shares an instance when they were given a class project. “Manish came up with ‘Guatemala Rainbow’. The fabrics and prints were bright and colourful," she recalls. “It was mad but also brilliant. Very India, very glocal (global-local). That’s why the West also recognised him, and let’s not forget that at that time there was no social media, no corporate backing."

Arora debuted at the London fashion week in 2005, three years after presenting his show at the inaugural India Fashion Week in Mumbai. Two years later, he was invited to stage a catwalk show at the Paris Fashion Week, the first such instance for an Indian designer. On the side, he was designing exclusive collaborations with some of the world’s leading brands, including Swarovski, Reebok, Swatch, MAC and Amrapali.

In between, he became the creative director of the womenswear collection of the French fashion house Paco Rabanne for a year—another first for a homegrown designer. Side by side, Arora was growing his retail presence in India and abroad. A-listers like Priyanka Chopra and Katy Perry were flaunting his creations, much before the trend of global celebrities wearing Indian designer clothes became a familiar sight. Manish Arora had become the breakout star of Indian fashion at a time when the Indian economy was just finding its feet and the customer was starting to understand the idea of globalisation.

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“While his work is fun and colourful, it is also timeless and translatable, like a print or an embroidery on a sari can be easily used in a T-shirt as well," says Priya Paul, chairperson of The Park Hotels and among the initial first Manish Arora buyers. “You can’t say that about many designers today."

Agrees Sunil Sethi, the head of Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). Once, while at Arora's studio in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, Sethi came across a print that he wanted turned into a carpet for his then home décor company, Sunil Sethi Design Alliance. “That print had a god on it, so Arora removed it and added an autorickshaw. That carpet ended up at the front window of Selfridges in London; it was a big deal in the 2000s."

The Manish Arora carpet for Sunil Sethi Design Alliance (Courtesy Sunil Sethi)

By 2020, Arora's business had shut down. A 2020 New York Times article claimed his “business is in tatters". When I ask about what went wrong, Arora says he would prefer not to comment.

He did address The New York Times article in a 2023 interview with Dirty magazine, saying, “... I never thought I was so important for somebody to give me 4,000-something words in The New York Times. Because there are bigger brands who have bigger issues. I did feel that a lot of things in that article were not correct. It felt like an agenda against me."

Aparna Bahl, a show director, who’s worked with designers like Arora, Tarun Tahiliani and Gaurav Gupta, for over three decades, offers a point of view: “Like every other sector, some businesses fail in the fashion space as well."

LIVING IN THE NOW

Arora doesn’t want to dwell on the past. “I have come to this phase of my life where I want to do things at my pace. I did collection after collection for more than 20 years," says Arora, who looks up to the work of Rick Owens and Dries Van Noten. “I never had time for myself."

Since shifting to Paris in 2019, the designer has branched out in several directions, from installations and stage costumes (he made costumes for ABBA’s Voyage digital tour last year) to cooking. He now holds pop-ups in restaurants like Desi Road in Paris.

“During covid, since I was all by myself in Paris, I used to cook, like dal makhani. I would call my chachi (aunt), my ma, and ask them kitna masala dalna hai (how much masala to use?). I used to make my own paneer, I still do. Once the lockdown eased, I invited some friends over and one of them happened to own a restaurant in Paris. And she said, ‘it is so divine that I would like you to do a collaboration with my restaurant’."

In 2021, he came out with We Are Family, a French book detailing the recipes he had learnt from his family members. Arora doesn’t want to restrict himself to food, though, and says he wants to dabble in filmmaking as well. He’s currently on a project, details of which he didn’t wish to share.

“At 49, I realised that I can do what I want to do. I don’t have responsibilities. I don’t have children. I don’t have to think of saving for them," he says.

Does this mean we will not see a new collection for India? No, comes his reply. “I never left the fashion world. I’ve just stopped making collections every three months," he says. “I would like to do a collaboration without the headache of manufacturing and production. I just want to design."

Unlike other designers who are securing corporate funding and looking at succession plans, Arora is in no rush. “It’s not like I have retired. Fashion is when one has a vision that they express without filters, that this is what I want people to wear. And when people accept it, you make your own tribe," he says. “For example, I did a collection called Candy Tribe because I was obsessed with playing Candy Crush."

It’s this kind of risk-taking and eccentricity that has helped Arora make a mark on the international stage even though his India business failed. He has inspired many to adapt his signature whimsical style but no one has managed to make street art couture on a similar scale. “The Manish Arora brand is so me," he says. “I am not sure if anybody else can do it."

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