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Manish Malhotra—30 years of a master trendsetter

The couturier who revolutionized costume design in Bollywood on what keeps him fresh, and fashion in a pandemic-hit world

Manish Malhotra (fifth from left) with a glittering array of Bollywood celebrities.

These days, fashion designer Manish Malhotra is busy with his new collection, Tabān—The Luminous World, an ode to the art and artisans of Kashmir. The handcrafted and handwoven garments range from a powder-blue kaleeda, with embroidery in ivory, and embellished with pearls, sequins and crystal tassels, to a kashida kaleedar in sorbet daffodil colours. The collection marks 30 years of Malhotra’s career as a costume designer and 15 years of his eponymous label.

This is a big moment for him—one of reckoning and reflection. “I have been extremely busy for the past 30 years, first as a model, then as a designer, working round the clock. It is only now that I have the time to slow down and look back at my work in a broader perspective,” Malhotra says. The lockdown allowed him to spend quality time with his mother. Simultaneously, however, he started trying to refine the systems at his fashion house and focus on different verticals—be it jewellery, haute couture, make-up, interiors, or his movie production house.

Malhotra’s journey as a costume designer has been marked by a series of firsts. In a rare instance, director Ram Gopal Varma narrated the entire script of Rangeela (1995) to him 25 years ago, thus making him part of the process of characterization. “A film is a complete vision of a director. Rangeela brought together Ramuji’s vision and an actor like Urmila (Matondkar), who was willing to work hard to realize it. Then I came in, a designer, who wanted to come up with something new,” he says. Not only did the film set fashion trends for a long time to come, the peplum-cut dresses worn by Matondkar and her neon athleisure outfits are back in fashion today.

Jahnvi Kapoor wearing a Manish Malhotra creation.
Jahnvi Kapoor wearing a Manish Malhotra creation.

“We knew that we had something special. But we had no clue it would be this special. I will cherish Rangeela for life. And what stamped its success was not just the way the clothes caught on, but also that it provoked Filmfare to institute the first-ever award for costume design,” says Malhotra, who was the first recipient of this honour.

Malhotra has come a long way from the time he dressed Juhi Chawla for a song in Swarg (1990) or Sridevi in Govinda Govinda (1993). A major breakthrough came with Raja Hindustani (1996), when he completely overhauled Karisma Kapoor’s style on screen. Raja Hindustani and Rangeela saw the introduction of a subtle and minimalist vocabulary of glamour in Hindi film costume design. Such has been his impact that a “Manish Malhotra outfit” has been key to storylines and plots in movies like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, in which Alia Bhatt wants to dress up only in a bridal outfit designed by him, or in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, where the character played by Anushka Sharma wants to spend a day dressed up like a Yash Raj film protagonist in Malhotra’s trademark chiffon sari.

Be it Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or Janhvi Kapoor in Dhadak, Malhotra believes the personality of the actor is as important as the character they are cast in. “The garment depends on the person’s carriage. It should enhance their strengths. One needs to be intelligent while styling actors,” he says.

Deepika Padukone in a Manish Malhotra outfit.
Deepika Padukone in a Manish Malhotra outfit.

It is only after he had spent more than a decade designing costumes in films that he started his label. “I still remember the endless knock-offs of the chiffon kurtas I made for Madhuri Dixit for Dil To Pagal Hai. I wish I could have sold those but I did not have my label then,” Malhotra said in a recent interview to Vogue India.

A self-taught designer, he began working with boutiques such as Equinox while studying at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. In 1999, he started the store Reverie with Yash Birla group chairman Yashovardhan and his wife, Avanti Birla. An eager learner, he soaked up new learnings on the job.

“At Equinox, I always asked questions of colleagues and tailor masters. I was always busy sketching, often doing that for 12 hours,” Malhotra remembers. “Post feedback from seniors, I would make corrections. That’s how I learnt about cut, colour and fall. This experience was extremely important in my journey.” This is what paved the path to fashion design.

Malhotra believes design needs to be relevant and inclusive. So he takes in a range of opinions and feedback. “I am extremely welcome to new ideas. They help me think fresh,” he says. At this juncture, for instance, he is figuring out fashion in the post-covid world. “The consumer is now looking for something timeless and value-for-money. There is a bid for quality over quantity. Hence, we are creating clothes that are high on sustainability and remain trendy for a long time to come.”

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