Manish Malhotra is a trendsetter. In his 30-plus years of working life, the couturier has overhauled the way Bollywood dresses, introduced the concept of runway showstoppers, made would-be brides want to dress up like a Karan Johar film bride on their big day, launched a production house, a make-up line, jewellery, and directed a film.
Lately, he has been trying to become a man of firsts at the intersection of fashion and tech. At the start of the year, Malhotra launched what he claimed was India’s first virtual store by a leading designer. Earlier this month, he came out with the country’s first designer NFT (non-fungible token) collection, which included five unique jpg files (or digital dresses) that are collectibles, like fine art. The line, on home-grown platform WazirX, sold out in seconds. And on 16 October, Reliance Brands, part of Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries, picked up a 40% stake in the Manish Malhotra label, a partnership that the designer says will allow him look at “new directions in the digital space and beyond”.
Lounge speaks to Malhotra about completing three decades in the industry, his vision for the label, the NFT collection, and the Reliance deal. Edited excerpts:
Thirty-one years…how do you feel when you look back?
There have been so many ups and downs. Every fashion designer has worked with a design house or trained under another designer to learn the ropes or done a course. I had no such dreams; I hadn’t studied fashion. My only thought was, I wanted to do something with movies because I loved them so much. So when I came into costumes, I never ever dreamt that one day I would start my own label and become a couturier. That just happened as the demand grew through my film work. There wasn’t any help from the fashion industry or my peers because they always felt I was that costume designer and stylist, and I can’t do couture. When I look back, and I am very proud to say this, there are a lot of things that I started. Like the trend of a showstopper or a star-studded front row or the fact that the clothes were glamour and bling. It was all very criticised in the initial years, but today it’s a norm. I learnt on the job, and I am still learning. In fact, it’s just last year during the pandemic that after 30 years of running around I got the time to think of my label as a company. I think I attract work; I have always gone with the flow.
That’s why the NFT collection?
For me, change is the only constant. You have to stay relevant, that’s something very important to me. So when the opportunity to generate NFTs came, I was game. The Indian market has always been quick to embrace new technology. The fact that our NFTs got sold out in seconds tells you just how on-board the market already is.
Tell me about the deal with Reliance. What shape will the brand now take?
It was the like-mindedness with Reliance Brands. They are as much about long-term vision as they are about understanding what matters to the consumer in the present, retaining the brand’s identity. With the investment, we can now look at new frontiers on both the business and creative sides. The immediate plan is to focus on international expansion, introduce new product and design verticals, and develop tech innovations at both the physical and digital stores. We are looking forward to setting up a formalised, corporate framework that ensures the sustenance of the brand’s legacy. I will continue to lead these ideas in my existing role as managing and creative director.
What is it like to work with a big corporate house?
My pace has always been faster than the rest due to my close deadlines when I do movies. I have witnessed the workings of the Reliance team before and their efficiency and their pace are unmatched. I am certain there won’t be a problem keeping up with each other at all. As I said earlier, I like to keep evolving.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the industry?
Today every individual has their own unique style. People are no longer following each other. There are no rules. You don’t have to match tops and bottoms, you don’t have to follow the herd; today you create your own rules and style. Take the brides as an example. Before, when a bride would come to see me for her outfit, the whole family would be involved in the decision-making process, from the colour to the embroidery, but today the bride, and even the groom, they come in knowing exactly what they want. They are so sure about the style they want, the colour they want to wear, the cut of their blouse. There’s more individualism in today’s fashion.
Also read: What Manish Malhotra means to Reliance