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Neeta Lulla and 40 years of Indian fashion

In an interview, the designer talks about her career, how the fashion industry has evolved and how important marketing is to build a brand today

Neeta Lulla
Neeta Lulla

During her 40 years in the industry, fashion and costume designer Neeta Lulla has worked on about 400 films, including Darr, Chandni, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Devdas and Bride And Prejudice

The 59-year-old, who has an eponymous label that offers flowing lehngas, long kurtas, jackets, dhoti pants, sarong skirts, among others—all rich in traditional embroideries and textiles—has won the National Film Award for Best Costume Design for films like Jodhaa Akbar and Balgandharva

It wasn’t an easy start, recalls Lulla, who began studying pattern making and garment manufacturing after being married at the age of 16. 

Her career started taking shape in the 1980s as the Indian fashion industry started expanding. Today, she heads the Whistling Woods School of Fashion in Mumbai. 

Also read: Social media has democratised fashion, says Mac Duggal

In an interview with Lounge, the designer talks about her career, how the fashion industry has evolved and how important marketing is to build a brand today

Could you talk about your journey as a fashion and costume designer?

As a newbie to the industry, there were only a handful of designers senior to me, such as Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla who were working on some of their first collections for a multi-designer store (Ensemble). Access to trends came every five months with magazines, unlike today where micro trends are created every five seconds. Hemant Trivedi is my mentor. He brought a shift in the industry. PV Polytechnic started in the 1950s for widows and young girls to learn tailoring to pursue a vocation. 

But when Hemant came on the scene, a swanky designer who had studied in Australia, he wanted to make a difference in Indian fashion. He gave us 360-degree education in fashion, including make up, grooming, creating a style statement, and even how to wear high heels. I can do and teach professional make up even today. So that era is where I think the industry and I evolved from.

You were among the first designers to work with Bollywood. Was acceptance easy?

Earlier, there was a rift between costume designers for films and mainstream designers, which I feel was due to the difference in the techniques of working. I was offered to work on films while I was working on my first collection. I remember when I told Jeannie Naoroji (legendary fashion choreographer and mentor to several Indian models and designers) that I want to do films, she was perplexed. I even remember having clients for my label who would say they don’t want anything filmy. After an hour of pondering over designs, they would then ask for Juhi Chawla's blouse from the movie Darr. There was this apprehension back then. 

Today, actors and stylists are spoilt for choice, with every brand a call away.

What was life like on sets?

I would drive myself to movie sets with two bags filled with clothes, shoes and jewellery, a small machine and a sewing kit. We didn’t have phones or instant courier services then. And often with multiple shoots, other designers like Rocky S or Vikram Phadnis would be in the same studio and would borrow pieces from my car’s boot, that was the kind of camaraderie we worked on. 

For Pooja Batra’s character in the movie Virasat, director Priyadarshan asked me to carry my clothes on set for her wardrobe. The straight skirts, tubular dresses and Doc Martens you see Batra in are mine. Looking back, it’s a hilarious memory. I always travelled with yards of fabrics to create draped costumes on set, which I then became known for. 

We were churning clothes in record time then. If you ask me how did I do 400 films, I have no answer. But it has been rewarding. People loved Juhi’s (Chawla’s) Elizabethan looks from Darr and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. And once at Gandhi Market (a fabric and apparel market in Mumbai), a seller tried to sell a "popular Coolie No. 1 saree: to me, which were ombre sarees that I had designed for the movie.

How has marketing for a fashion label changed over the years?

The consumer and labels have evolved exponentially in these 40 years. In the 70s and 80s, people were beginning to become aware of and accept trends from the West. This led to a boom of fashion designers and fashion in India in the next decade.

 Marketing was still nascent then despite the increase in labels by the 2000s. In the mid-80s and 90s, if a designer would create PR activity around a collection, people would say, “She doesn’t believe in the strength of her product”. You are in an era today where you can choose a marketing thought process that synergizes with the ethos of your brand, and not just rely on word-of-mouth. 

It’s not just about fashion weeks or magazine covers, with Instagram and social media in general, we suddenly have an influx of marketing; whether it's influencer marketing, Bollywood sourcing, direct or consumer marketing, it's become a norm today. There has been a drastic change in fashion marketing in India since the 80s.

How has the customer changed?

There were just a couple of movie magazines in the 80s for people to get their inspiration. Tier two and three cities were alienated because of a lack of access.

With mobiles and televisions in every home, trends came of age as those outside the metro cities started wanting to dress like soap stars, and suddenly there was this gradual uninhibitedness towards movie fashion, says. 

Fashion came to the forefront in media after 2003 when we had serious fashion weeks, which led to the creation of fashion media and journalists who started writing about trends. It’s not just people from the metros today who follow national and international trends but from tier two and three cities as well.

Also read: What sleeves say about fashion's past and present


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