It’s 4pm in Paris. The minus-5 degrees Celsius weather hasn’t dimmed the excitement in the grand hall at The Westin Vendôme hotel where Rahul Mishra is going to showcase his collection on Day 1 of the Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week (23-26 January). Dressed either in what seems to be the latest trend, the all-black bodysuit (or clothes that give the impression of one), teamed with matching coats, or Rahul Mishra creations, people are busy clicking photographs or shouting “hi-s” across the hall that was also Yves Saint Laurent’s favourite location for presenting his couture.
The front row is full of “donuts”—a term I learnt from my neighbour. A “donut” is essentially a better way to get photographed at an event: The more dressed up (influencers, mostly) sit together—they form the hole of the donut—flanked by the “dough”, or those in black or other “basic” clothes. Actors Ashley Park and Kelly Rutherford and American stylist Law Roach made a donut, too, at the show.
Then the lights dim. To the tune of a piano, a woman in a bodysuit enters the hall wearing heels full of sawdust-like glitter, instantly reminding the viewer of Mishra’s signature style. The heavily embroidered garment evokes a world where buildings sprout in several directions, plants grow in water and fish swim in the sky. His Cosmos collection is a fantasy world crafted with such fine embroidery that each piece looks like painting in a different silhouette, all inspired by his own work. When you look closer, under the bright light of three chandeliers, you realise why the jellyfish or the leaf or the dancing flamingos seem so alive, or why the golden ladybirds look like they are crawling out of the garment. Each of the 30-plus hand-embroidered creations, from gowns and capes to trousers in silk, tulle and organza, took up to 3,000 man hours to complete in his Noida, Uttar Pradesh, studio.
Mishra plays with layers of sequins, fringes and embroideries, from aari to zardozi, in tones of black, blue and metallic, bringing his craft to life with appliquéd details. It’s a familiar maximalist Mishra universe, soft yet bright. The designer, always gushing over the handcraftsmanship and embroideries of India, reminds the world of the versatility of traditional clothing. Of how a dupatta can easily be a cape. Of how a sari can be a gown.
“I have used my previous creations as a canvas and perfected them,” Mishra tells me. “It’s my 20th season now in Paris. I want to showcase my USPs, and why not? This is what makes me, me.”
Vaishali S., too, has played with her signature designs in her latest couture collection, pushing the boundaries to make space for more wearable art. Though not part of the haute couture week, she presented her collection, Abyss, on 24 January under the landmark La Pyramide Inversée skylight at Carrousel du Louvre. In a room stripped of wallpaper, with rows of electrical wires visible, the designer takes the viewer on a journey of an abyss, from darkness to light, underwater. With sitar, sarangi and tabla music playing in the background, models—in Kolhapuri chappals from Vaishali’s hometown—present 35 garments made with different silks. Her clothes are structured yet fluid, offering a more futuristic take on Indian textiles. The hero of the show remains the sari. First, it’s a gown with cords. Then, it transforms from a sari to a dhoti. In between, there’s a dress in the shape of a white spotted black manta ray. “There are different drapes in the collection but the sari is my hero,” Vaishali had said when we met two days earlier. “I want the sari to become part of the global fashion language. The world has long been ready for our fashion; we just have to remind them again.”
Gaurav Gupta served a strong reminder of this on 26 January at the Palais de Tokyo, a centre dedicated to modern and contemporary art in the city’s 16th arrondissement. Making his debut at the Paris Haute Couture Week as a guest member, the designer interpreted the stillness and infinity of zero in his collection of 35 garments, Shunya, made with satins, chiffons and organzas. The show opened with a gold metallic dress, created with handwoven tissue, and sculpted to resemble dancing wind frozen in time. Then came elemental dresses in black and nude, exploring the idea of fantasy and surrealism. Whether it was the kundalini-inspired snake dress, or goth dresses in black leather-like jersey and an acid trip neon yellow, his craft makes you believe couture can be elegant, royal, yet playful.
“I am not holding anything back; I am going all out,” Gupta, who has dressed celebrities like Sharon Stone, Lizzo and Cardi B, said while walking me through his collection at his atelier in the city. “I think the couture becomes couture when fashion meets art and that’s what I want to reflect. I want the world to see the surrealism of India in our mythology. I want to go beyond the handloom conversation. India is having a beautiful moment globally and it feels good to be part of it.”