THE MAVERICK OF Indian fashion — an enfant terrible of couture, à la John Galliano or Vivienne Westwood (both of whom sit high on his most admired list) — Gaurav Gupta is basking in the glow of his success at Paris Haute Couture Week even as he prepares for his July Paris couture collection.

“It honestly felt super exciting,” says Gaurav Gupta, about his first show in the official calendar of the Paris Haute Couture Week for Spring Summer 2023. “It felt really natural. We were prepared as a team. I live for those moments, being up until 4 a.m., with 20 people working at the showroom the night before the show. Stitching last-minute dresses and altering them, understanding the system, and having these supermodels from all over the world.” The show was attended by the likes of singer Luis Fonsi (of Despacito fame), celebrated fashion columnist Suzy Menkes and a host of international influencers.

The New Delhi-based designer, known for his sculptural lehengas and gowns (and a whole lot of ruffles, much of it in tulle) and credited with inventing the now ubiquitous sari-gown, started his eponymous label 18 years ago. Today, his gowns are worn by celebs like Sharon Stone, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Kylie Minogue and Lizzo — for film and music award shows.

From bridalwear to western couture (what was shown in Paris), to his lighter, ready-to-wear westernwear, Gaurav’s brand is on an upward trajectory. “We are at a stage where everything is growing,” he says. “Indian couture (also bridalwear) more so. We are one of the big players there.”

With prices starting around ₹1.2 lakh for sari-gowns, gowns and tuxedos, Gaurav credits the beauty of each piece to karigars at his atelier. “My techniques are zardozi, hand embroidery and sculpting that we have developed as a brand known for its draping, apart from embroidery using bugle beads from Japan or Korea and metal coils from India.”

Gaurav identifies himself as part of the world tribe. “Anthropologically, I belong to India and have that ancestral knowledge to subliminally delve into it and celebrate it,” he says, “But I don’t have a reference point from India. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. I look at things conceptually —such as zero (Shunya was also the name of his first collection at Paris Haute Couture Week), which was discovered in India.” And it is this exploration of subconscious and ‘shunya’ and the place where zero was discovered, India, that Gaurav Gupta wanted to showcase in Paris. “With discovery of zero, infinity got a stronger meaning,” he says. “The boundlessness and depth of India resonates with its fantasy. I wanted to make it about escape, time, tangents, possibilities–expanded into infinity,” says Gaurav, who’s been obsessed with surrealism ever since his days as a fashion designing student at Central Saint Martins in London. To inspire his final collection, he put up pictures of Lord Ganesha, Narasimha and Lord Brahma on a lotus.

With 35 looks for his Paris collection, he dove right in. “I was in that shunya zone, making wind-like infinite sculptures of swirls come in,” he says about frozen, sculpted gold and silver handwoven tissue outfits at the start of his show. “I then went into electric blue indigo sculptures (in satin, chiffon and organza), an almost futuristic representation. It then went into a darker, elemental space with volcanic, kundalini embroideries (dress with snake-like forms) I can’t explain. The kundalini then morphed into yellow, a kind of trippy acid.” He has even referenced the ancient culture of Egypt in his black and gold offerings. His pièce de résistance? A dress worn by two models “like Siamese twins made to wear one dress”; it shows all beings are connected.

With an aesthetic that’s future-looking, yet rooted in the past, he calls it ‘future primitive’. Gaurav has been in the vanguard of India’s fashion scene. “Since I started the brand 18 years ago, there’s been a cultural shift in India,” he says. “There was nothing against the grain except maybe Manish Arora but he was celebrating kitsch. People thought my sensibilities were European, but they don’t belong to a particular place.” He says the big win came when Instagram bloggers from Turkey and Korea interpreted his concept of shunya and the universal language of freedom and fantasy that he was using in an abstract, artistic way. “It was definitely a proud moment for me and for India. In some ways, I do represent India, but for me it’s more about the art.”

And his art reflects inclusivity. He’s had transgender models in his shows in India — recently at Lakmé Fashion Week in partnership with Fashion Design Council of India as well as at his Parisian foray. “For me, it’s an assumed thing,” says Gaurav. “We live in one world where there are all genders, colours, sizes. It comes naturally to our brand. It’s important for us as brands to represent everybody. We are public figures, we just aren’t talking about it enough. We are aspirational for a lot of people in small towns. More representation would make them feel more confident when they see a plus-size or a trans person or a girl with vitiligo.”

And with stars such a Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo embracing his couture, Gaurav feels part of a cultural movement. “I’m happy to be one of the drivers from this part of the world,” he says. “It’s the right culturalists who are resonating with the brand. I don’t see them as stars or celebrities, they are cultural icons.” While he says that the couture on show is more for global image and brand-building and he doesn’t expect some of his more outré concept dresses to sell, Gaurav Gupta Couture is in demand. A global expansion is also on the anvil. “We’re launching in Neiman Marcus this May-June with our full collection,” says Gaurav, who opened his swanky Mumbai store earlier this year.

Back home, his lehengas, while flirting with all the flamboyance of conceptual design, are getting more commercial as brides buy into his idea of fantasy and freedom. “When someone wears my sari-gown or lehenga, she’s part of a new-age world, all the while getting a silhouette with all the twists and turns I’m known for — be it sculpted shoulder, glistening embroidery of glass beads or the way the lehenga fits.”

Even his menswear, a growing segment, offers that edgy, sophisticated, wearable fantasy. “Once you give men choices, they will go for it,” says Gaurav.

India’s maverick designer, who credits his innate curiosity and original creative process for his edginess, believes an artist does his most original work when he is true to himself, citing the groundbreaking work of the likes of Hussein Chalayan (whom he interned with in London), Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, John Galliano and Balenciaga, as well as Raja Ravi Varma in India. Gaurav sees himself as someone who would love to design homes, buildings, cities and movies. At the moment, he sees the ready-to-wear market growing exponentially in next few years, and menswear doubling every year.

“Our packaging comes from recycled ocean plastic or landfilled plastic,” he says. “Each one of our jacket covers says, ‘I used to be a plastic bottle.’” And that’s being part of a responsible future.

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