One on one with Manish Malhotra in Dubai

We sat down with Malhotra, who talked about the importance of staying relevant, working with Bollywood celebrities and his plans to open a boutique in Dubai.

Models walk the runway during a fashion show put on by Indian fashion designer Manish Malhotra at the Address Dubai Marina. Sarah Dea / The National
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Indian fashion designer Manish Malhotra showed some of his newest creations at The Address Dubai Marina hotel, during a glittering event on Thursday that was packed with local celebrities.

Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor – who the designer “has known since he was 5 years old” – flew in from Mumbai to walk the ramp.

Malhotra, 49, who this year celebrates 25 years in the industry – and the 10th anniversary of his label – showed pieces from The Empress Story and The Gentlemen’s Club collections, which were revealed at recent fashion weeks in India. The Dubai show, by Jaipur Gems and Studio 8, featured a mix of pastel-­coloured bridal wear as well as evening gowns and shalwar kameezes in rich, earthy hues, some of them incorporating a distinctly western influence.

We sat down with Malhotra, who talked about the importance of staying relevant, working with Bollywood celebrities and his plans to open a boutique in Dubai.

Tell us about your early years in Bollywood as a costume designer. Most people didn’t even know what costume designing was, so how did you know you wanted to do it?

I loved watching Hindi films growing up and I was good with art and painting. When the time came for college, I started modelling and working in sales in a boutique, where I practised my sketching and worked on the clothes. Many designers had just launched their new collections and I knew I didn’t have the means to study abroad, so I thought I would be noticed if I worked in movies. I met a photographer who took me to [actress] Sridevi and we did a photo shoot with her. Soon after, I styled a song in the movie Swarg [1990], with [actress] Juhi Chawla. I was diligent about styling a cohesive look for all my work, and I started meeting a lot of directors. Everything took off from there.

How has Bollywood fashion evolved?

Bollywood clothes and make-up used to be styled differently. I implemented a rule where, if the film is being shot abroad, the clothes must come from that place. How can the actress look different from the world her character is from? So the term “styling” is what I really introduced to Bollywood. I was the first costume designer to join mainstream fashion and I think when you’re the first person to have that vision or take that chance, you always enjoy the perks the longest.

Who inspired you and helped you reach the position you are in today?

Lots of people. All the actresses I’ve ever worked with, from Sridevi to Kajol, Urmila Matondkar to Karisma Kapoor. Also the filmmakers and clients who always believed in me.

Your fashion shows are a unique experience, where you introduced the concept of showstoppers. How did you come about this idea and who is your favourite showstopper so far?

At my first fashion show I wanted Urmila Matondkar to walk – on emotional grounds. We had worked together on the film Rangeela and that was the first time they had given an award to a costume designer. So I didn't really think about it – I just really wanted her to be part of the show – and that's how I introduced the term showstopper to Indian fashion. Urmila holds a special place since she was my first showstopper, but I deeply appreciate everyone who has taken time out to come and walk for me.

Who are your muses?

So many of the actresses I work with are my muses. So are the beautiful brides that wear my clothes on the most special day of their lives. To think I am a part of those special days makes me feel great. I’ve been working with some people for almost 25 years.

What do you think sets you apart from other designers?

The fact that after all these years I’m still relevant. I work with young actors of today, such as Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor. Staying relevant is the true test of any profession. Ups and downs are there in any profession, but the fact that my work stands the tides of time, to me, is an achievement bigger than anything else – beyond money, beyond awards. I also think my professionalism sets me apart. My focus is not on backstage drama or politics, but solely my work.

Tell us about the Empress collection and the Gentlemen's Club.

The success of my label made me think it would be fun and interesting to do some gowns with more western influences. It’s the first time we’ve done gowns like that and it has received a phenomenal response, because I think youngsters are looking for more versatile outfits, with variations.

Where do you think the Indian fashion industry is headed?

I think it’s got a great new feel. There are a lot of new stylists and designers and a lot of interesting work. I think that the ones doing bespoke, edgy stuff will eventually have their own brands and appeal to people worldwide.

Who are some of your favourite designers?

Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Armani, I like what Christopher Bailey has done with Burberry. I also like Kenzo.

What advice do you have for designers trying to break into the industry?

They need to stay focused. The power of sustainability will be the true measure of success.

Which movies are you working on?

Dilwale for Kajol, Fitoor for Tabu, Ki and Ka for Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor, and Karan Johar's new films with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

What’s next for Manish Malhotra?

I am looking to open a flagship store in both Dubai and London next year. I’m looking towards a more international line in the London store, with western influences. Dubai is one of my favourite cities, I can’t wait to open my store here.