The seductive power of Rahul Mishra design


Rahul Mishra and Divya Bhatt Mishra don’t care about being the coolest brand. They would rather be a work in progress as they set their sights on being India’s global fashion brand



Rahul Mishra’s atelier on the outskirts of Delhi is like a lab where art meets design meets science. In a hall the size of a school playground, hundreds of karigars from across India are sitting cross-legged on the floor, hunched over low cots, needle and thread in hand. One is busy piecing together blue, green and black sequins on a piece of organza to embroider a butterfly so vivid, it seems printed. At the next cot, an artisan is finishing petals of sunflowers that look freshly bathed in sunlight. In another corner, an embellished river seems ready to flow out of the base fabric. Irises, clouds, stars, sky, leaves, trees—all are being created, using techniques like dabke, zardozi, aari and gardana, with enough microscopic precision to ensure the viewer never stops marvelling at the simplicity as well as the complexity of nature and the power of human hands to replicate it, on a lehnga, a T-shirt, a dress, a pair of trousers or a coat.

That’s the seductive power of Rahul Mishra, a designer brand started by the Delhi-based husband-wife duo Rahul and Divya Bhatt Mishra in 2013. The couple, parents to a young daughter, act as the creative heads of the brand, ideating together with their 15-member design team on which aspect of nature they should explore in what kind of silhouette in the next collection. Rahul, however, likes to put it a little differently: “I am more of a dreamer…. I get carried away with designs. Divya brings me back to reality… she will instantly tell me why a design won’t sell and what needs to be done differently.”

In their journey of over 10 years, the college sweethearts, both graduates of Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design (NID), have solidified their brand internationally, offering couture garments that speak a global language with sleek and modern silhouettes, and celebrating the deftness of India’s artisans, whose heavy threadwork ends up looking soft and fragile on the finished product. They started their brand with five artisans; today, they have 50-plus employees, besides about 200 karigars who work at the Noida, Uttar Pradesh, factory. They say they support over 1,000 artisans across states, including Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Selena Gomez in a Rahul Mishra creation.

Last month, while the world’s eyes were on the Paris fashion week, the two launched their ready-to-wear brand, AFEW (Air, Fire, Earth, Wind), in collaboration with Reliance Brands Ltd (RBL), at the Palais de Tokyo in the French capital. It is a line of lightly embroidered T-shirts, skirts, dresses and accessories such as jewellery, bags and shoes that would be as much at home on the streets of Paris, Delhi and New York as they would in Dubai and London. These prêt offerings come at more accessible price points (from 5,000 to 1 lakh), compared to the couture pieces that start at around 3 lakh.

France's ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain honoured Rahul Mishra with the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in New Delhi, on 12 September

France’s ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain honoured Rahul Mishra with the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in New Delhi, on 12 September
(PTI)

“We want to become the global (fashion) brand from India,” says Divya, 40, when we meet at the Noida factory. “Yes, that’s the aim right now,” adds Rahul, 43, who started his design journey after winning the 2006 Gen Next designer award at the Lakmé Fashion Week.

He has also achieved some firsts for India. In 2014, he became the first Indian designer to win the coveted International Woolmark Prize, an experience he says helped him understand the international customer early in his career. He became the first Indian designer last month to be conferred the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters). The French government honour is bestowed upon “persons who have distinguished themselves by their creativity in the field of art, culture, and literature or for their contribution to the influence of arts in France and throughout the world”.

The Mishras’ aim to be India’s first global fashion brand is not a far-fetched one. For one, no other home-grown designer has launched a ready-to-wear line internationally. It’s a smart way to gain more customers. In fact, many Indian designers, from Tarun Tahiliani to J.J. Valaya, have launched prêt lines in the country in the past few years.

Second, no brand from India has presented as consistently at the haute couture week in Paris, the world’s fashion capital, as Rahul Mishra (he became the first Indian designer to show at the Paris Haute Couture Week in 2020; he has returned every year since).

Early last year, Rahul Mishra entered into a partnership with RBL, one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, for a ready-to-wear brand in a 60:40 joint venture. The partnership has helped in retail expansion as well. The brand is looking at opening more stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, and is exploring international locations like London, Dubai and Paris. Rahul didn’t give any revenue numbers but says the brand saw 85% growth in revenue in 2021 and 100% in 2022. The number of customers is doubling every year, he claims.

“The clever adaptation of Indian craft techniques with a cosmopolitan design narrative has put Rahul Mishra at the forefront of being a ‘must watch’ brand in the global fashion arena,” Darshan Mehta, president and CEO of RBL, had told Lounge at the time of the partnership announcement in 2022.

The founders’ focused design philosophy and talent in smartly combining international silhouettes with Indian craft. “If you ask me, they have already become the global brand from India. No other Indian designer has climbed the ladder so quickly,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). One of the reasons for their success, explains Sethi, is that “they haven’t changed their design vocabulary since Day 1. The embroidery techniques, surface texturing, they have remained true to it. Plus, they have been doing Paris (haute couture week) even when they didn’t have any outside money. Nobody else was doing it back then but they paid from their own pocket and got the international attention. That kind of marketing always helps. You have to take risks… risk is directly proportional to reward.” With the launch of AFEW, Rahul Mishra will now showcase in Paris four times a year (twice each for couture and ready-to-wear).

Of course, Rahul Mishra is not the only brand that has stuck to its design vocabulary from the beginning. The likes of Ritu Kumar and Tahiliani continue to play with the prints and embroidery they started their journeys with decades ago. While each brand has its own trajectory and long-term vision, what perhaps stands out when it comes to a comparatively younger brand like Rahul Mishra is its extreme focus on being on the Paris runway, the mecca of fashion. Designers such as Falguni Shane Peacock have also presented on runways across the world, but no one has kept a razor focus on Paris as Rahul Mishra has.

Putting together a 15- to 30-minute Paris Haute Couture Week show costs 1-3 crore. And Rahul and Divya were doing it even before Reliance came into the picture with the big bucks. How is it possible to pull off such an expensive show year after year, without any outside help?

“We were putting whatever we earned from couture (a typical RM lehnga costs about 8 lakh) into the shows and paying salaries. It was a hard decision but we were certain about Paris, since it is the place to be,” explains Rahul.

What’s more, their marketing rhetoric has been consistent. Throughout the brand’s 10 years, Rahul has kept the brilliance of Indian artisans and slow fashion at the forefront of his work and media interviews. His recent couture outing, We, The People, had karigars embroidered on the clothing—one outfit was recently worn by Selena Gomez at a red carpet appearance in Los Angeles. In the past, celebrities like Zendaya have also been seen in their garments.

Rahul and Divya talk to Lounge about their early days in fashion, what keeps them going, and why they don’t ever want to be the coolest brand around. Edited excerpts:

How did design become part of your life?

Divya Bhatt Mishra (DBM): I come from a service class family background. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the popular professions were civil services, engineer and doctor. Zyada se zyada you could do an MBA if you wanted to do something different. My parents also wanted me to follow one of these professions. There was little understanding of fashion and design. I didn’t know about fashion and design much. I enjoyed sketching clothes for my Barbies… I liked watching MTV, listening to Britney Spears on cassettes. What fascinated me was how the West was influencing India. I remember looking at my mother’s photographs from the 1970s and seeing her wear bell bottoms and shirts with long collars like (actors) Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman. As a teenager, it had an effect on you, especially if you were from a small town in Uttarakhand… it exposed me to a mindset that fashion can be more than just salwar-kameez and sari. Then you saw Rani Mukerji, Kajol in Manish Malhotra clothes that showed you how Indian dresses could have that Western touch. So, all these things condition you in a certain way.

My father was hell-bent on making me sit for medical exams. But obviously marks nahi aaye (I scored poorly). So the path to design was open now, though I still didn’t know what I exactly wanted to do. My mother and maami (aunt) were supportive. I came to Delhi, did my BA from Delhi University and interior designing as a diploma course from the South Delhi Polytechnic institute. After that, I thought I will most probably get married. But then NID happened…and it changed me. I became ambitious.

Rahul Mishra (RM): My journey has been very different. I didn’t grow up with toys. The first 10 years of my life were difficult in every possible way. I lived with my mother, sister and uncle in Malhausi (a village near Kanpur) in a kacha ghar (mud house). No electricity for days, no TV. I went to school for the first time at the age of six. Within the first week, I was shifted from class I to II because I was good in studies…my mother used to home-school me before that. Then the next week I was shifted from class II to III. In class V, I topped my class. My family thought I was really smart and decided to put me in a better school in Lucknow, at the age of nine. English toh aati nahi thi (I didn’t know English), so I failed in the half-yearly exams. But I studied hard and then topped the finals. I discovered my love for drawing there.

I used to draw a lot in the village. That was my pastime, drawing cows, dogs, people, flowers…there was nothing else to do, besides playing. I am talking about the late 1980s.

In Lucknow, I started drawing biology/ physics diagrams, chemical drawings. I used to ask my classmates if they would like me to draw diagrams for them. After class XII, my family wanted me to do BSc, so I did that from Kanpur University. But I was much more interested in design, though I had no idea how to pursue it. Someone who knew about my interest came home with the brochure of NID. I was excited; it had these photos of models…I was, like, design karne ko milega (I will get to do design) and a glamorous life. At that time, I didn’t know what fashion was really. My family was against it.

They were, like, “hamara bacha tailor nahi banega” (our son won’t become a tailor). So, during the third year of college, I ran away from home. After that, I applied to NID, took fee money from my bua (aunt), and that’s when the journey started.

It was a life-changing experience. I didn’t even know how to sketch properly…I used to spend nights with my classmates, watching them make drawings on a computer. I made many horrible collections before the first collection that I presented.

How did you come to present your first collection at Gen Next in 2006?

RM: It was funny and rewarding. I had 10,000 and the show was in Bombay (Mumbai). So I took the sleeper-class train (from Ahmedabad), put my collection in a carton. I didn’t have shoes for models to wear, so we got Kolhapuris from Colaba, and made the models carry bells in their hands as accessories (laughs). And the show received a standing ovation.

Did the attention go to your head?

RM: It did. You are in college, in your 20s, it gets to you…you start thinking you are a star. Yeh bhukhar jitni jaldi utar jaaye utna achha hota hai (it’s best to detach yourself from “fame” as soon as possible), otherwise you start repeating your designs, you start looking for formula. I made all these mistakes. After returning from Milan (post the Woolmark competition), I started working on similar handloom collections…each time I would pick up traditional textiles like Maheshwari, ikat, and do similar designs with them. In Paris, I repeated my Wool- mark collection in a way, and an international publication wrote something on the lines that Mishra’s collection was not very different from the previous one and maybe that’s what he likes…because he believes in slow fashion. They criticised me without being too harsh (laughs) but they were right.

That instance taught me a valuable lesson: Success is the biggest enemy of creativity. When you succeed, you start finding a formula for success. When you fail, you try to change. I really feel like it is important to have divine discontent. You need to be not satisfied with your previous collection. Thankfully, I have Divya, who’s very difficult to impress. I will show her a collection, saying this is the best I have done so far, and she will point out all that’s wrong with it.

DBM: It’s not about what’s wrong, it’s about you need reality-check shake-ups every now and then. We are product people. We can design a house as well as an office building. We are not fashion designers. We are designers.

 

From the AFEW Rahul Mishra first collection

From the AFEW Rahul Mishra first collection
(Courtesy Instagram/AFEW Rahul Mishra)

What do you mean?

RM: Design needs to be a goal-oriented problem-solving exercise. Like, for example, this bottle (picks up a small plastic water bottle in front of us) is a beautiful product design but from the perspective of eco- friendliness, it’s the worst- ever design (people will buy more small bottles and generate more trash compared to, say, a bigger water bottle). Intent is important in design.

When you look at fashion, it’s not just about creating clothes. You also have to consider who’s going to wear it, how it can improve the life of the wearer and the people who participated in creating it. Instead of creating luxury with the view of only consumption, it’s important to design a system that can create more participation. A lehnga that took 8,000 hours can help sustain the lives of 50 people. It can take care of their children’s futures and enable them to live their dreams. That’s the power of design.

Was that the thought when you started the label 10 years ago?

DBM: We started like a startup. We were in Mumbai in 2013, and newly married. We didn’t want to do a 9-5 job with a designer. Both of us knew we couldn’t work anywhere. Luckily, an opportunity came to work with an export company on a partnership basis. They gave us the infrastructure, we had five tailors on the outskirts of Mumbai.

RM: It was a great learning experience; we were doing well but there was this desire to do more, to do couture. So, a few months later, we moved to Delhi, and, fortunately, the tailors decided to continue to work with us. In fact, many of our karigars today are those with whom we started our journey. We have been also able to support reverse migration. Growing up, I know from personal experience how people would go to cities, live in poor conditions there, just so that they could build a pucca makaan back home in their villages. If my karigar will work from his village, he will save more, help in building the economy of the village since he will buy his utilities in the village itself, and stay close to his family.

One of the reasons for starting AFEW is also that it will allow us to generate more employment. Of course, it will help us commercially and gain us more customers. But if AFEW is well accepted, it will mean us employing more artisans.

Isn’t creating a ready-to-wear brand very different from couture?

DBM: It’s luxury everyday wear. We want to make everyday-wear special. It’s a hundred times cheaper (than couture).

It’s for those who believe fashion is not a temporary moment. Also, it’s about mindful buying. Even when I am buying for myself, I opt for brands I know are good investments. Like Nicobar; it’s one of my favourite brands. I want to invest in their pieces because I know I will wear them on special occasions, for years. You won’t find everyone wearing them on the street. That’s my client also…people who want statement everyday pieces.

RM: I don’t like the term “luxury prêt” which is being used everywhere for AFEW. The brand is easy to wear and it’s luxury. Our lehngas require a dramatic occasion. Even if you are super-rich, there are only so many shaadis in a year that you can attend in a heavily embroidered dress. Here, we are selling clothes that you can wear 100 days a year. And it’s still luxury, because buying clothes in the 5,000 to 1 lakh range is also a luxury. In a way, AFEW stands for a few more thought processes from our philosophy, a few more occasions to add to your life, a few more nature elements to add to your wardrobe.

Nature has been a consistent part of your creations, couture or otherwise…

DBM: That’s what you see the most, no? A lot of people say they go into some sort of a trance to think of an inspiration. For us, design is an intentional process. The aeroplanes, the buildings, everything that exists today is either nature or a by-product of nature. People don’t talk about it much but nature has a profound impact on how we think. When it comes to Rahul and me, inspiration comes from a disciplined state of mind; we don’t have to get into a trance.

RM: Intergalactic space is also nature. A microorganism is also nature. It’s about what excites you the most as creators. Each collection should be able to tell the history of the brand, while at the same stand on its own. But yes, nature is a consistent theme in our creations, even in AFEW.

 

More couturiers are getting into the luxury prêt segment. Is this the new direction for the Indian business of fashion?

DBM: People were asking us (for a ready- to-wear line). We started our journey with prêt and we were selling in top international stores like Saks Fifth Avenue (New York), Matches (London), David Jones (Melbourne). But then we got interested in couture and moved towards it. At present, there’s no single Indian ready-to-wear luxury brand that has become global, or is catering to the global customer; it’s a big hole. We have global CEOs from India but not a global (fashion) brand.

What does it take to build a global brand?

RM: Several things. But one thing I would like to highlight is that there’s a disconnect between what makes a brand happy and what the customer wants. We need to ask a very simple question: What’s missing from a wardrobe?

I was recently reading about James Dyson. He created a vacuum cleaner at a time when vacuum cleaners were everywhere. What he wanted to offer was a vacuum cleaner with a transparen

A karigar at Rahul Mishra's Noida factory

A karigar at Rahul Mishra’s Noida factory
(Pradeep Gaur)

t container that showed all the dirt after it was used. Initially, everyone said it won’t work because it would make for a disgusting sight. But eventually, it became a hot selling product, because all that dirt gave people satisfaction that they have cleaned their room. Steve Jobs is another such example (of people who put the customer first while designing).

 

You have to essentially get two things right. First, what is missing for the customer. Don’t look at what is missing in the market. Instead, look at how you can improve customer experience. If your customer will enjoy wearing that one T-shirt, they will tell their friends, family about it, and eventually that T-shirt will be bought by more people. Why, is your intent, and how, is your action. If these two aspects are addressed strategically, success becomes a by-product.

Indian fashion and craftsmanship are being celebrated more openly on the global stage. Do you believe that has helped your brand create a more solid base as well?

RM: Sab ka moment chal raha hai (everyone is having a moment)… Korea ka bhi moment chal raha hai (is having a moment) because of K-pop, K-beauty. Australia is having a moment; Zimmermann has become a global brand. Earth has become flatter; there’s opportunity for everyone, irrespective of where you are from. Anyone can become a global brand.

Was that always the vision for you two… to become a global brand?

DBM: There was no vision; there was an ambition. I still remember this incident in 2005 or 2006, when we were sitting with friends at a chaiwallah outside our college (NID), and Rahul said, “One day I will showcase at Paris,” and we laughed. Now that I think about it, it was more like a manifestation. We don’t come from business-class families. We never had money in a way that we could establish our brand instantly.

He won the Gen Next award and then Woolmark (the International Woolmark Prize in Milan; 2014)…. Different milestones kept happening. It has all happened step by step. There were times when we were doing everything—from making challans to cutting patterns. We both know the micro and macro of the business. Of course, we manifested it but we also worked towards it.

RM: It’s easy to sell clothes. After Woolmark, I could have returned to India, tweaked the collection for the Indian audience and made money by making collection after collection. But selling doesn’t guarantee success; with time, shoppers’ choices also change. You can have 50 stockists on your résumé but you will only remain a label…you won’t become a brand. It’s easy to replace a label, but difficult to replace a brand. That’s why it’s important to invest money in branding exercises and keep experimenting with your work.

That’s why the participation in the Paris couture week year after year?

RM: So, couture is becoming more like a creative space for us and ready-to-wear will eventually become an expression for couture in a more practical kind of way. Paris is expensive and we were paying from our own pockets. Whatever we were making from couture was going into staff salaries and the Paris show. It was a risk, but we had a vision.

Now, of course, there’s Reliance support, so things are easier, but we have always tried to ensure that we participate…it pushes us to experiment, to keep changing our approach to craft. Paris is like an artist’s lab for us…it gives us the freedom to play. We (the design team) sit in a room together and ideate; we don’t think about what others are doing (in terms of design) and how it will look on Zen- daya or Beyoncé. If you start thinking about these things, then true creative expression takes a back seat. You have to take risks.

Is that your work mantra?

RM: In entrepreneurship, when you take risk with lesser fear of failure, there are more chances for being successful. When you fail, at least you know where you are lacking. My three partnerships failed before I started Rahul Mishra. We are a small company but we are solid.

As a creator, it’s important to look at the past and the present, and connect the dots. We are getting a new generation every three years, instead of 10 years, which was the case earlier. Being the coolest brand (the most popular, or the “it” brand of the moment) is a bad idea, because then you are short-lived, like Supreme. You need to be a work in progress, always.

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