THE FIRST INDIAN designer to have been invited to showcase at the apogee of custom-made fashion — the Paris Haute Couture Week — Rahul Mishra, a physicist by education (before picking up his pinking shears as a student of fashion design), has been exploring the metaphysical. Time dilation, time travel, and relativity are not concepts one normally sees brought to life on the ramp — but on this Parisian January afternoon at the Salon Imperial of The Westin — the outfits — gowns, pantsuits, dresses, jackets — on display meld a million universes into a tiny microcosm. Especially, with Rahul’s trademark 3D embroidery; entire worlds, an underwater ocean with colourful critters, to a galaxy with a giant multi-hued jellyfish and glistening algae, to planets like Saturn in a constellation, meeting up in a sartorial explosion.

“Big or small is relative,” says Rahul. “That happens in a black hole. The universe was created in a big bang, from an infinitely small particle — and there are zillions of atoms in a human body — this is the mind-bending alternate reality.”

But what is not part of an alternate reality is the fact that Rahul Mishra, born in a village close to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, is now firmly entrenched in the firmament of haute couture — this was his seventh season there, plus 13 seasons of ready-to-wear in Paris. “It’s beautiful how we maintained our slot on the opening day of the week,” says Rahul. “You had Schiaparelli, Dior, my show after, and Giambattista Valli ending the day. You can get overwhelmed, as you put your heart and soul into it.”

A panel showing an underwater fantasy world
A panel showing an underwater fantasy world

This temple of haute couture is also a showcase of the world’s best craftsmanship — much of it Indian. “It isn’t just me (an Indian designer) showcasing haute couture over there,” says Rahul. “Christian Dior, Chanel — they are all showcasing craftsmanship. So, it’s important to look at ideas that are unique to you as a design house, yet those which emanate from India.”

Beyond the ornate and the opulent, what is the aesthetic that emanates from a maison like Rahul Mishra? Unlike the Japanese designers of the 1980s, who were about minimalism and deconstructivism, Indian design celebrates the opposite. “It’s the idea of maximalism that is very India,” says Rahul. “Go to any monument in India — any temple in the south or the north — it is maximalist. In the south, even if you wear a white mundu, you will deck it up with gold jewellery. The more I learn about India, the more I realise that the idea of mimimalism has been a scam — how rich nations were producing machine-made things (the T-shirt is a good example) so that they can increase consumption.”

Rahul represents thousands of weavers who hand-embroider each garment in villages across India. “I’ve done more shows in Paris than in India,” says Rahul, who won the Woolmark Prize in 2014 in Milan, which propelled him to international recognition. “A fashion show is part of one’s business promotion, and you need to invest a certain amount of money (the Paris show cost him approximately half a million dollars, compared with the tens of millions that some of the French maisons spend on average every season, a lot of it to pay for A-listers sitting in the front row, who can charge up to $1 million per appearance),” says Rahul. “But the money has to go to the embroiderers, the craftsmen, the weavers, everyone you employ.”

A headgear made of embroidered birds and dragonflies.
A headgear made of embroidered birds and dragonflies.

He launched a programme called ‘Reverse Migration’ in 2013 to employ craftspersons in their hometowns or villages. “As a handloom guy and a slow fashion advocate, I moved on to embroidery, which is even slower,” says Rahul. “A weaver may produce 5 m of a plain weave in 2-3 days (2.5 m a day), and this employs 1-2 people a day, but when you hand-embroider 2.5 m of a dupatta, it may take 1,000-1,600 human hours of work. It’s 200 times more work.”

Rahul has championed the cause of his karigars. In the middle of the pandemic, during India’s first Digital Couture Week by the Fashion Design Council of India, he put his craftsmen at the fore as the real heroes of his collection. “Handcraft loses its voice because it doesn’t have rich stakeholders,” says Rahul. “It’s more labour intensive. If you travel around India, even a simple door handle would have a carving, nothing is simple looking. That is what the world was once all about. But India still has held on to its maximalism — and you see that — in weddings, lehengas, consumption, saris, handlooms — everything is about the motif — the paisley, beauty, richness — of textile, material, and craftsmanship. That is what the idea of India is right now, and we have held on to it. I want my products to create value for the customer, because when she’s buying a piece, she knows there is so much workmanship and art that’s gone into it.”

As a fashion designer, Rahul is bound by his duty to create something that gives a sense of space or place where it comes from. “At the same time, it should be so beautiful, so that every continent in the world wants to have a piece of it,” he says. “You need to have a clear understanding of your roots, but at the same time create something that is global, and acceptable, which no one expected out of India.”

Rahul’s Spring/Summer collections 2023 — jellyfish gown (left) and starfish in water gown (below). Both are part of his signature Cosmos collection.
Rahul’s Spring/Summer collections 2023 — jellyfish gown (left) and starfish in water gown (below). Both are part of his signature Cosmos collection.

With dramatic touches at full volume, with a hint of the Baroque — giant padded shoulders, lots of gold and drama — it’s difficult to miss the grandeur of Rahul’s vision. “Every season we try to showcase something new — a new shape or silhouette, a new way of using 3D embroidery, so that becomes a creative accumulation of sorts,” he says. “My collection has to be commercial, yet creative enough to invite curiosity.”

The fact that some of the world’s richest people have held on to Rahul’s bridal lehengas proves its real value. “What we create is not disposable, but it’s worth the extra effort and cost, because at the end of the day, it’s empowering the craftspersons.”

“Via our programme, we asked hand-embroiderers to go back to their villages, and that we would set up units in those villages, so they can work from there,” says Rahul. Several pieces of his Couture Spring Summer 2023 collection were made in villages in U.P. and close to Delhi. “We are able to empower and employ 1,000 people in villages across India, giving villagers who never went to school, power and livelihood.”

Even his burgeoning ready-to-wear line (in partnership with Reliance Brands), cannot escape the swathe of maximalism at its core. “But this will be more accessible. Much as I love couture, I want to dress up my client 100 times a year, compared with 20-100 times if they were to choose occasion wear. This collection will take care of that.”

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