In Delhi’s 45-degree Celsius summer temperatures, a man wearing a yellow paisley shirt with a waistcoat and an unstructured linen jacket with a matching pocket square is bound to stand out. When Jivi Sethi arrived at one of Delhi’s prestigious clubs frequented by senior retired and serving bureaucrats, the staff were awestruck. Thinking him to be a diplomat perhaps, they seemed unsure of which language to speak to him in. In Sethi’s blending of Eastern prints and Western styles, it was hard not to think of Mughal emperor Jahangir’s fateful meeting with the Englishman Thomas Roe in the early 17th century and imagine Sethi was auditioning for both roles in a biopic.
Sethi shuttled between Delhi and Goa, where he ran a small boutique hotel and helped make Assagao a magnet for chic stores and eateries before he died in his early 60s a few years ago. His clothing extended from bandhgalas and achkans to Kerala mundus and the technicoloured dashiki, which men wear in western Africa. He once arrived at a dinner for eight in Delhi in a lime-green suit made from upholstery material, long before bold colours such as Bottega green became a colour for this season. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes…change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” The designer Rajesh Pratap Singh told me recently that Sethi had an innate understanding of textiles and styling, which made for a constant, enriching dialogue between them. He remembers how well Sethi paired Jaipur designer Brigitte Singh’s printed shirts and colourful waistcoats with Pratap Singh’s jackets. “He just had it. There was nobody like Jivi in that sense,” says Rajesh Pratap. “Once a week, I think, ‘Jivi should have been here.’”
Also read: Inside the world of bespoke tailoring
The lesson I took to heart from observing Sethi was to dress up more, and ignore the rising tide of the dictates of dress casual. Sethi has been an unseen inspiration as I have worked on this column, an experience that has also made me search for other role models. This is an inherently subjective exercise but serves to widen one’s sense of style. Setting a gold standard for dressing well and living well, the 70-something Tejbir Singh, editor of Seminar magazine, is high on my list. Whether walking his dinner guests to their cars close to midnight in his elegant kurtas and bright turbans or wearing a minimalist, square-shaped Muji white shirt with britches and boots to a summer dinner in Delhi, he always looks the part. He is not averse to borrowing styles, wearing a Himachali topi instead of a turban on his morning walk and even an Argentine poncho in winter.
At the other end of the age spectrum are the designer Jenjum Gadi and the actor Rahul Khanna.
To follow both on Instagram is to enjoy an impish take on men’s clothing. Gadi, 40, is that rare designer who not only avoids black but wears every colour imaginable. He might wear a multi-coloured shirt and orange shorts on a do-it-yourself family picnic in his native Arunachal Pradesh. A few weeks later, he is in a reworked open-necked shirt repurposed from a hand-dyed throw that adorned a sofa in his home. Gadi explains his approach in simple terms: “Colours really make me very happy”. In Gadi’s style, there is an element of what the writer Susan Sontag described as “the essence of Camp… exaggeration.” Gadi says, however, that he neither thinks in those terms nor even about gender fluid clothes: “I don’t end up designing for just men or just women. If it feels good, it feels good.”
In a season of themed wedding dinner dress codes, Rahul Khanna’s could be summed up as Peter Pan. He defines young at heart even though, improbably, he turned 50 this year. Khanna’s trademark is to wear his suits with T-shirts while accessories from Chokore, such as pocket squares and bow ties, are worn rakishly—flirtatiously even—untied with a tuxedo, with the dress shirt partly unbuttoned. The problem is actors and models can carry off styles that the rest of us cannot. Few of us could wear pink jackets as daringly as Daniel Craig or Ranveer Singh or even perhaps conceptualise the deep-blue tuxedo Henry Cavill has worn in the past. Still, I feel emboldened to at least try wearing a T-shirt with a suit jacket. I have started using pocket squares to embellish plain Fab India waistcoats and even swank silk ones from the Jaipur-based store Rashid. What Khanna encourages, while wearing fuchsia pink shorts matched with an unlikely umbrella in the same colour, is that we take ourselves less seriously. This is good advice as men get older and often more pompous—and ought to be followed well beyond the wardrobe. This is also true of the Mumbai filmmaker Mahesh Mathai’s approach to shirts; his collection of floral and jazzy printed shirts must fill up a few wardrobes and are paired with bright-coloured pants.
One expects European diplomats and Rajput hoteliers to be cosmopolitan and to dress confidently. Even so, the Portuguese ambassador Carlos Pereira Marques is unusually elegant. I met him at a Delhi dinner party this summer in baby-pink chinos teamed effortlessly with a blue blazer, a white shirt and a pocket square that, in miniature, metaphorically tied everything together. The ambassador has given up wearing ties after four years in India.
“Of course, if it’s a very, very formal event, then I do wear them. (In India), I have learnt to dress more casually, more freely,” he says. I have never met Rajasthan-based hotelier Manvendra Singh Shekhawat but encountered him on one of those formulaic men’s magazine pages, where the subject asked about his clothing usually proceeds to rattle off a succession of French brand names. Instead of a style statement, it seems like advertising one’s herd instinct. By contrast, Shekhawat repeatedly credited his Jaipur tailor Mohsin Khan for his superbly tailored bandhgalas, hunting jackets and britches. When we spoke some months ago, I was impressed by Shekhawat’s passionate advocacy of artisans and craftspeople and his worry that their children en masse might abandon these professions. His concern is that too many of us make do with mediocre off-the-rack clothing while baulking at paying master tailors what they deserve. All of these men are role models in a way. We can benefit from their example: Shekhawat’s commitment to artisanship is one lesson, Gadi’s to unrestrained colour another. Also worth emulating is Khanna and Tejbir Singh’s understated yet bold assertion that when it comes to dressing up, the cliché that “age is just a number” might actually be true.
Most tailors, even high-end tailors, don’t always look the part. Yunus Ahmed, who runs the fashion-forward bespoke tailor Y & O in Bengaluru, wears fabulous shackets made of light English wool with jeans and presides over a store that is an Aladdin’s Cave of English suiting, cufflinks and cummerbunds. In Bengaluru, a city that has dumbed down men’s clothing to the boring bare necessities, Y & O might seem like an Indian Savile Row establishment under siege. Instead, it is always busy and classy wedding tuxedos are among its best-sellers. In different ways, Ahmed and others are setting standards for India’s younger generation of natty dressers. Sethi would approve. He would deflect compliments by replying in Punjabi: “Saadi te tor vakhri ai.” Loosely translated, it meant, “I have a kind of swag.” When dressing up, we could all do with more of that adventurous spirit.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.