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You can be experimental but still timeless: Gaurav Gupta

Conversations At Large: The unanimous favourite of the fashion cognoscenti this season, designer Gaurav Gupta on covid-19, couture, and how he mastered the Indian fashion film

Gaurav Gupta marked 15 years of his eponymous brand last year.
Gaurav Gupta marked 15 years of his eponymous brand last year. (Photo: Raju Raman)

Last year, Gaurav Gupta celebrated 15 years of his brand by launching his Hyderabad and Kolkata stores, a fine jewellery collection, and an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Among his dozen-odd events around the globe was Prince Charles’ annual Animal Ball charity in London, for which he designed a hummingbird-inspired masquerade mask.

So when things came to a standstill in 2020, he could have taken it somewhat easy. Except that 2020 seems to have been even bigger for the designer and his eponymous brand. He launched his e-commerce platform in September, and his fashion film, Name Is Love, was a rare disruption in the otherwise mundane and cyclical world of fashion. The 10-and-a-half-minute film set a new benchmark for what Indian fashion can say and do.

“I do feel I am a lucky person,” Gupta tells me over the phone from Delhi. He is thoughtful, more modest than earlier—a decade ago, the Gupta I met at a party in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village told me “you can google me” when I asked him what he did.

Name Is Love was created for the Fashion Design Council of India’s (FDCI’s) first virtual fashion week (18-23 September), where 12 designers were invited to present their latest couture collections as fashion films. Beyond the new jewel tones and provocative twists to Gupta’s signature architectural silhouettes was a message to expand our wardrobes and minds to include a spectrum of gender, sexuality, body type, skin colour and ethnicities.

The visuals were accompanied by poetry from Gupta’s friend Navkirat Sodhi and set to an original soundtrack by pianist Sahil Vasudeva. Gupta curated an accompanying seminar series, “The Love Festival”, on Instagram. “I am always going to be very proud of it,” he says. “This film is beyond me and my brand.” Gupta, a vociferous member of the LGBTQ+ community, says they received thousands of DMs, people sharing their own stories. “I cried a lot during the time of its release. When I see the film now, I still cry,” he says.

Even as Gupta admits to going through a personal shift—he’s investing in self-care and nutrition, for one—there is a decisive shift in his brand. For someone whose silhouettes and swirls can be best described as galactic, this parting note from the Nepalese trans model Anjali Lama, who features in Name Is Love, struck a chord. “It felt real,” she told him, after the shoot.

The Nepalese transgender model Anjali Lama in a still from Gupta’s fashion film, ‘Name Is Love’.
The Nepalese transgender model Anjali Lama in a still from Gupta’s fashion film, ‘Name Is Love’.

We spoke about the making of Name Is Love, his biggest critics, and why it’s important to be “slightly disorganized”. Edited excerpts:

What were your first thoughts when the FDCI invited you to present a fashion film for the digital Indian Couture Week (ICW) this September. Tell me how ‘Name Is Love’ evolved.

We were already deep into a new couture collection when the lockdown struck. Our business depends on the couture collection.

The film happened in parallel. It started with the idea of showcasing everyday love. We didn’t want to do a film on inclusivity only because it’s trending. As a brand that is associated with weddings, we got interested in discovering stories about love: a lesbian couple living in Gurgaon, an 18-year-old trans man, a non-binary person from Hyderabad, a trans supermodel from Nepal…. (In the fashion film) we wanted to cast a new feeling of India, an India that is beautiful and vibrant and confident in its skin, an India which does not have boundaries that straitjacket us into gender or skin colour or body type. I wanted to underline a cultural shift that is already taking place. All the people in the film are who they are.

Your 10-and-half-minute film packed in 50 womenswear looks, 20 menswear looks and 50 pieces of jewellery. Increasingly, there’s a concern that the social messaging in fashion presentations overshadows the clothes. That didn’t happen in the film. Was it tough to maintain the balance?

No, I am a natural with these things (laughs). I know what I am doing with my clothes. There were new things I was doing with my palette in this collection—the emerald, the cerise—and I am generally so passionately involved with my clothes, I would not let them get overshadowed. I get excited about everything. The film was a big deal for us. We worked with a completely new team: new photographer, videographer, people were flown in from all over the country. It was 20 models shot over two days. There were 60 people at the shoot…it was a big production and there were a lot of aspects to oversee, especially given covid concerns.

So you get excited about everything. Who is your biggest critic in your team? Who reins you in?

Everyone around me! I am not joking. I have specially curated people around me to do that. Most of all, it’s my brother Saurabh (also the director of the Gaurav Gupta label). He’s younger to me but acts like he’s seven years older. It’s a good balance. He handles the whole backbone and back end. And my best friend, the poet Navkirat Sodhi, who I also live with. I have known her for 25 years, we have lived together for 20. She keeps me grounded.

This would have ordinarily been the busiest time in your calendar, right between Diwali and the Big Indian Wedding Season. In what ways has covid-19 impacted business?

It is still a busy time for my company but I am approaching it differently—I was in Uttarakhand for 20 days. Covid’s first phase was a shock; there was a huge amount of concern, questions about how our business would survive. The main concern was how we would support our massive staff—our tailors and embroiderers—many of whom were migrant workers. In May, we reopened our factories and now most of our staff is back from their villages. By June, all five of our physical stores opened up but it was still very ambiguous. A flat 70%-off sale nursed the business back to health…it was a good call. Clients are always happy to get clothes at a discount.

It’s now business as usual, at least in Delhi. People are preparing for weddings in places like Delhi and Udaipur. Since they can’t spend on grand-scale weddings at the moment, they are not compromising on their clothes.

In the past, you have called the ‘lehnga’ “India’s LBD”. Any new observations on the changing contours of Indian fashion?

There are too few relevant voices in Indian fashion so change is slow. Besides, I don’t think the lehnga and sari are essential items of festive Indian clothing any more. I am working on our Spring/Summer 2021 collection, so I have images of my past “lehngas” in front of me, but I realise that more than half of them are gowns. We just call them lehngas. The lines are blurring in a lot of ways and we need to rejig our vocabulary.

I believe culture moves quietly, in magical and unpredictable ways. People are drawn towards originality. Brands like mine and a few others who are original in their thought process will survive. You can be experimental but still timeless.

Another big change is that people are finally feeling guilty about climate change—would be nice if they are a lot more guilty about it.

We have changed the way we package and recycle and are investigating ways to do more.

You graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2003. If you were a student of fashion today, what would you like to focus on?

Biotechnology. It encapsulates so many things, from effective sustainability to circular fashion.

What’s next in terms of launches—footwear?

Oh, I can’t tell you. Where’s the surprise then? Not footwear though. Footwear is hard to get right, you need the right kind of partnerships.

What areas of the business do you look into personally?

I look into everything…design, strategy, marketing, social media, merchandising. I am even on WhatsApp groups for customer complaints. It’s a problem. My brother has sat me down to give me lessons on how not to micromanage, which is something I need to learn, especially as the brand grows. I would never want to become too corporate though. It’s good to be slightly disorganized.

But I can say honestly that we have beautiful systems in place. There are no politics. Designers and merchandisers who quit want to soon come back. Customers and stylists tell me they have the warmest experience in my stores. It’s something we have worked on building because we don’t want to be known as a snobbish brand.

Your brand recently announced virtual consultation sessions for couture. What do you lose and what do you gain when the customer doesn’t step into the physical store?

Our consultations are mostly hybrid. In most cases, the customer does go into any of the five stores across the country and the stylist and store manager guide them. I have been unable to travel all around because of covid and so I join in on video. With overseas customers in the US, UK and Canada, it has been all-virtual this year. We are also trying to improve the overall website UX to a global luxury standard.

Where do you get your creative nutrition? What fashion do you follow?

My mind is constantly abuzz…. I can sit down and sketch 50 garments right now. I have been trying to slow down actually. This recent trip to Sitlakhet in Uttarakhand was great… hikes every day, the sun temple, tree hugging. My kind of reset is staying on a remote island in Indonesia. I try to take Wi-Fi breaks on a daily basis but it’s not possible, especially in this lockdown, when you need to be even more connected.

I don’t follow fashion but I follow film. I love cinema, I love drama, everything from obscure French animation films from the 1960s to new, avant-garde stuff.

If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?

The Buddha. I would like to party with him.

Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.


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