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Kunal Rawal: Menswear’s Magician

Kurtas that change colour in the sun, Mumbai symbology and a grunge-inspired aesthetic—the designer tells us what to expect from him at Lakmé Fashion Week next week

Pieces from Kunal Rawal's Solar collection.
Pieces from Kunal Rawal's Solar collection.

Holding a white sherwani with pink beaded motifs, Kunal Rawal walks me out of his Juhu studio in Mumbai. The designer displays the garment in sunlight. Within 7 seconds or so, the white changes to a pale pink, like those magic painting books where the pictures would change colour with just a splash of water. “It’s like two outfits in one," he says.

Rawal is two weeks away from showcasing his new collection, Solar, at the Summer/Resort 2020 edition of the Lakmé Fashion Week being held from 12-16 February. While the title is apt, given that the photosensitive clothes change colour on exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, the collection also pays homage to Mumbai.

Kunal Rawal
Kunal Rawal

The symmetric and geometric designs, from the clear honeycomb embroidery to the abstract cube-like structures, contain hidden signs alluding to the city’s iconic visual motifs. “If you look carefully, the honeycomb embroidery (which he’s named the Y-Salli) is actually interspersed with beads resembling the tetrapods that line Mumbai’s shores. Or you can see that the tone-on-tone cubic threadwork actually spells out “BOM", for Bombay or Mumbai, of course," he says.

In the midst of showing us some of his signature design elements, ranging from multifunctional silhouettes to mock-layering, Rawal talks to Lounge about French knots and deep colours, how his clothing is inspired by grunge, the booming business of menswear and its changing dynamics. Edited excerpts:

How did you make your fabrics photosensitive, considering that most coloured fabrics start fading after too much exposure to sunlight?

We have used a photosensitive pigment to screen-print on the clothes. When they are exposed to UV rays, its colour changes. It’s an experiment in seeing the intensity with which the colour changes and it will be interesting to see how differently they change colour on different fabric surfaces.

We had used them sparingly during the Winter/Festive 2019 season, but they didn’t catch the light that well since the show was held indoors, without UV ray lights. This time, since the show will be held at the Bandra-Worli Sea Link promenade, I’m hoping it’ll do the magic.

What was the inspiration behind referencing Mumbai for this collection?

I find it to be one of the coolest cities in the world, and that’s not just because I was born and brought up here. The pace and the energy of the city is unique because of the different cultures of people living on the same wavelength. They are all diverse and accepting, forming a creative melting pot. In other cities, everyone seems aloof with their own kingdom, but here everyone’s worlds are constantly colliding, usually because of their close proximity. The interaction is inevitable.

In your ode to the city of Mumbai, there’s a subversive, grunge-like tone. Plus you are someone who has always prioritized structure in your clothing. How do you synthesize all these diverse ideas?

I do naturally gravitate towards symmetry, geometry and balance because they are part of my creative perspective. It is why you will never see an asymmetrically draped outfit from the label. Good tailoring and clean lines enhance those qualities.

On the other hand, the idea of grunge has always fascinated me as a part of my personal style. This is why I try to synthesize that idea with formal Indian-wear.

This collection uses handloom and plays with texture along with digital prints with embroidery for the first time on your staple sherwanis, kurtas and jackets. Tell us about that.

There are as many as 80 different fabrics, such as doubly-woven handlooms, washed raw silk and velvet, and their variations that have been used. I prefer sheen over shine, and have tried to incorporate that by weaving shiny fibres into the clothes or screen-printing on them.

They are the foundation for surface ornamentation, such as beading and stonework, and embroideries such as French knots and appliqué work.

I love the way French knots look because it’s the richest form of threadwork. They can be used to play with depth and dimension. While it’s usually used to highlight certain designs on the garment, I try to make it the skeleton.

Bold colours in graphic prints, pastel shades and white—how do these colours shape your idea of summer festive wear?

When I started out two and a half years ago, maximalist design was all around. It had extravagant elements of colours, embroidery, etc. I was a little scared to play with bright, bold colours, not knowing how it would fit into my grunge aesthetic, but I managed to. For instance, I give bright colours a washed-out look.

Otherwise, I work with a lot of neutral, classic colours such as white, beige, vanilla and champagne. On the other end of the spectrum, I like working with deeper and darker shades of colours.

Over the last few years, menswear design has grown quite a bit outside comfort zone of rigid lines and boxy silhouettes. Is it indicative of a growing segment of menswear for consumers to choose from and make it more accessible, in a way?

Men’s identities are going through so many visible transitions today, and it’s making them more experimental about what they are wearing.

It’s similar to the “chicken and egg" parable, where either the market wasn’t ready for this change and that’s why the designers back then were so staid, or because the designers are now being innovative about their designs and that it’s changing the market.

The way women have had the options to style and accessorize their clothes was looked at as costumery for men. But now, social media has enabled men to be interested in knowing more about style. It has given them the confidence and the comfort to try new things.

You had also introduced your take on womenswear in the ‘Confluence’ collection in 2019 and are known to have designed menswear styles for women clients. Are we going to see more of that this time around?

You will, but in bits and pieces. The idea of androgyny is just coming into its own in India. There aren’t too many people who take risks here yet, at least within occasion wear. Usually, women put on their “boyfriend jeans" or a menswear jacket, but androgyny goes deeper than that. I want women to readjust their lehnga budgets and wear androgynous silhouettes at their wedding occasions.

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