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Menswear designer Kunal Rawal’s big move

  • Kunal Rawal has launched his new store in Kala Ghoda, restoring the first floor of the iconic Rhythm House
  • The designer showcased his first androgynous designs for women at Lakme Fashion Week

Kunal Rawal at his Kala Ghoda store. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Kunal Rawal at his Kala Ghoda store. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Kunal Rawal is surrounded by garments and accessories at his workshop in Mumbai’s Andheri (East) neighbourhood. Jackets, sherwanis and kurtas are stacked on hangers, shoes organized in three long rows, and a model is busy changing ensembles. Rawal was two days away from showcasing his new collection, Future Past, at the recently concluded Lakmé Fashion Week, always a hectic time for designers as they multitask between shows.

But the show isn’t the only big news for the menswear designer. On 25 January, Rawal launched his highly anticipated flagship store in south Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda neighbourhood, with an arsenal of celebrities, from Sonam Kapoor Ahuja to Milind Deora, in attendance.

The Kala Ghoda launch is Rawal’s second store in Mumbai after his studio in Juhu, but its location has made headlines. Rawal teamed up with architect and designer Rooshad Shroff to restore the first floor of Rhythm House, the iconic music store which shut its doors in 2016. Recounting fond memories of spending hours at the store in his early years, Rawal leapt at the possibility of leasing the space for his second store and has worked on the new look of the space for close to a year. “The building has been shut for quite some time, so I am really, really happy that we are the first to do this," he says during a break in rehearsals. “I believe there’s now more coming up in the same building."

From the original staircase and ceilings to the teak flooring, Shroff and Rawal have evidently spent considerable time and resources to retain as much of the original architectural elements as possible, updating the space with a fresh monochrome palette and décor ideas that resonate with the label’s design ethos and the very process of making a garment. “There were elements from the label that I wanted to incorporate in the space. I would like to believe that we pay a lot of attention to the functionality of our pieces, because these can be worn in multiple ways," he says. “I wanted that flexibility in the space."

Rawal and Shroff introduced the idea via hydraulic clothes racks that can be rolled up to transform the space, industrial elements like a conveyor belt to showcase key pieces on the store’s upper level, specialized blinds to segregate the rooms, brass cages surrounding luxuriously huge changing rooms with retractable racks, a metal table with two-toned French knots (a recurring element in the works of both Rawal and Shroff), military-inspired collectibles—another leitmotif in Rawal’s collections—and antiques sourced from around the country and the world.

Rawal is also excited about the brass tactile indicators in Morse code placed strategically across the flooring, a hint to the extensive coding techniques used in the label’s back end processes. “I love brass and it’s a great display for my footwear and indicative of the angle and spacing of my racks," he says. “It also helps with our visually impaired clients and it has hidden messages. Some have the logo or tag line, and some messages are from me to myself."

A display area in Rawal’s flagship store. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
A display area in Rawal’s flagship store. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The flagship store is one among a number of new high-end menswear stores being established in the country. In October, Mumbai saw the launch of Curato, a multi-designer menswear store, and designers like Amit Aggarwal and Mohammed Mazhar have launched new categories for men. Yet, the focus and attention paid to men’s fashion is aeons behind womenswear in India. For Rawal, this is a driving force. “With menswear, there’s a lack of options—we are always selecting from one rack of eight or 12 pieces. Men need clothes as much as women do, so why don’t they have as many options?" he says. “Dressing up is an emotion, and there must be a variety to cater to multiple needs and feelings. Men are (often) so involved with their Western wear, but when it comes to Indianwear, they don’t have too many options and don’t get involved."

Rawal says one common feedback among men is their lack of connection with Indianwear—most men will just have a couple of Indianwear items in their wardrobe. Mothers, sisters and fiancées are in charge of picking occasion-wear for men. “I think it’s messed up," Rawal says candidly. “For a long time, Indianwear has either been super opulent or super simple. And there’s nothing in between." That’s the gap he hopes to address, with pieces that can easily navigate a multiplicity of occasions and spaces. Case in point: Rawal’s signature kurta shirts, which can be worn with a sherwani or blazer for weddings, or as a light overlayer for the day.

Rawal is a strong advocate of designs that can be styled for different occasions. “We push for people to come in (to the store) to make their looks and wear it their own way," he says. For the new season, his collection Future Past, based on a neo-traditional design philosophy, continues in the same vein, revisiting the idea of what is considered traditional wear today. A wide colour palette, going from white and ivory to plum and black, is embellished with stripes, checks, binary codes and numerical figures. Along with menswear, Rawal also showcased a few androgynous looks for women.

“I love androgyny and have wanted to show it for a while," Rawal says, adding that he hopes to build on this segment in coming seasons while expanding his retail presence and building on his work as a designer. The menswear label has become synonymous with Bollywood over the years—Rawal styles Bollywood actors (like Ranbir Kapoor in Jagga Jasoos, and Anil Kapoor in an Indian adaptation of the TV series 24), campaigns and stage shows; his fashion shows are star-studded affairs, with actors like Ranbir Kapoor and Varun Dhawan; and he designed Shahid Kapoor’s wedding wardrobe in 2015.

Rawal credits his costume work for his understanding of patterns and functional design, but also acknowledges that his diverse work portfolio rarely left him with sufficient time to focus on retail expansion and branding. “There are two things customers say to me that both surprise and scare me actually—one, we didn’t know you had so many options, and two, we didn’t know you are designing for non-celebrities," he says. “It has been an amazing past two years, because I wanted clear messaging. I am a menswear designer, going back to what I used to do."

It helps that men today are becoming increasingly inclined to make fashion statements. Having long heard that it would be impossible for him to survive without making womenswear, Rawal is glad to see the growing interest in menswear. “Men now do their research and they know enough to give me a brief to make them something they want. They are adding a lot more of themselves in the garments," he says. “It’s great because we have wanted to see this change for such a long time. There’s nothing more rewarding than this feeling."

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