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Pallavi Jaikishan: Flowers, chiffons and wispy whites

Designer Pallavi Jaikishan on shaping the style sensibilities of Bollywood's leading ladies in the 1970s

Pallavi Jaikishan at her Mumbai home. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Pallavi Jaikishan at her Mumbai home. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It has been 45 years since Pallavi Jaikishan launched her eponymous label from her lifestyle store Paraphernalia in south Mumbai. Now 72, and just as happy to spend long hours at her Parel workshop, the doyenne celebrated her label’s big milestone with a showing of her new collection on the seaside lawns of Taj Lands End in Mumbai last week.

But Jaikishan reveals that her career in fashion could have started even earlier. Married to music director Jaikishan of the Shankar-Jaikishan duo, she became familiar with the world of Hindi cinema since directors, lyricists, producers and actors would often drop by to meet her husband. “Ismail (Merchant) used to compliment me on my style of dressing. They were working on Bombay Talkie at the time and he asked me to style the movie for him. I was really excited but my husband didn’t want me to work and I had to respect his wishes," she says.

Her inherent taste was channelled into her own outfits. “I hired two ladies to work with me at home to make my clothes while I would design the embroidery. I had a very unique way of dressing—a European sensibility—and this way I could control what I wanted," she says.

Jaikishan started work as a designer soon after her husband’s death in 1971. Her vintage romantic style, saris in wispy fabrics and lehngas with delicate floral embroidery, made her the go-to designer for Mumbai socialites and brides. Her beadwork became so popular that by the late 1970s, Jaikishan was exporting to upscale American stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman.

As we sit in the sea-facing drawing room of her apartment on Marine Drive to discuss her personal style evolution, her reputation as a warm hostess is on full display; the centre table is laden with little sandwiches, samosas, khandvi and chocolate cake. Dressed in a relaxed floral tunic, she speaks about her obsession with clothes, and how star-wives and Bollywood’s leading ladies wanted to dress like her. Edited excerpts:

When was your earliest exposure to fashion and design?

It was while I was still in school. At the time there were no stores where you could go to buy an outfit, no ready-made clothes were available either. We had to go to tailors and flip through dog-eared catalogues to choose the styles we wanted. And whoever had the best catalogue was a hit tailor at the time. But even then I would make my own dresses, and my friends loved what I wore and would ask me to go along with them for shopping. My grandparents used to spin Khadi themselves. As kids we were taught how to work the charkha and make yarn. My grandmother would knit crochet and make beaded bags, and we all had to learn how to stitch. My mother was very creative too and liked wearing nice clothes.

A ‘dupatta‘ from one of her first collections.

How would you describe your style of dressing?

I got married at the age of 19 and my husband had a busy social life. I would accompany him to filmi parties but my style was different from other women. I used to wear mostly saris and churidar kurtas. In the day I would wear my embroidered organdie saris, white and freshly starched, to pick up the kids from school or when I was entertaining at home. In the evenings, I would wear chiffons and cottons in pink, white or pale grey. Others would often wear heavy saris in turquoise, shocking pink, etc., but I loved soft pastel colours. I would get a lot of compliments from all the wives and leading ladies, who would then ask me to take them out shopping.

A pair of emerald and diamond earrings that is her favourite.

Are you an accessories person?

I like to have good bags and shoes. I prefer to wear closed shoes and at that time people used to notice that I would wear court shoes with my saris while others would wear heeled sandals. Unlike women in the film industry, I had a very minimal way of dressing. I used to just wear one pair of chandelier earrings with a diamond bangle while everyone else was wearing heavy matching sets. I had a favourite silver kandora (waist belt) that I used to wear before my marriage and my husband loved that. Later, without my knowledge, he had it made in gold for me for the princely sum of Rs3,800.

I remember at one time there was control on gold by the government, to curb black money. I had a collection of gold guineas, which I used to buy whenever my husband gave me money, and was wondering what to do. So he called a jeweller home and told him to take a long chain and attach the guineas to it to turn them into a big necklace. And I used to wear that necklace with my saris along with a matching baajubandh (armband).

Bags she has bought from vintage markets across Europe.

What was your fashion influence then, and now?

I have inherently had a sophisticated and subdued aesthetic. We didn’t have easy access to magazines at that time but whenever I could, I would lay my hands on international fashion magazines or catalogues from American stores like Saks and Sears. Even though we had the means, we didn’t travel abroad much because my husband had a fear of flying. So I would go to chor bazaar and find old borders and knick-knacks for inspiration. Now I travel all over the world for inspiration and my favourite haunts are antique markets and fairs in Europe. My style is vintage European, I don’t use too much zardozi and that’s why even till today the clothes that I design don’t weigh you down.

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