It is 48 hours before the catwalk show, and in a small studio tucked away in Paris’s historic Marais district, Rahul Mishra, 39, is juggling my questions, model fittings and queries about hair, make-up and some pretty sizeable diamond jewellery from the bustling team around him.
The designer has one eye on me and one on the model trying on tuxedo pants and an ivory dress constructed from free-floating fern-like embroideries – a design of great complexity and delicacy. Surrounding us are rails of ravishingly pretty dresses embroidered with dreamy landscapes and naive animals that remind me of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. Mishra is in the final countdown to his debut haute couture collection.
The Delhi-based designer has presented his ready-to-wear collections on Paris’s catwalks for the past five years, since winning the International Woolmark Prize in 2014, attracting significant attention from influential editors and buyers for the way he champions the exquisite handicrafts of his homeland.
The first Indian designer to show haute couture
Then, last December, it was announced that he had been invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (formerly the Chambre Syndicale) as a guest member for the haute couture collections in January. He is the first Indian designer to be welcomed on the schedule alongside industry giants such as Chanel and Dior.
“I was very honoured that monsieur Morand [executive president of the Fédération] explained how everyone supported me and that it was a unanimous decision,” says Mishra. “I value that.”
With his floppy curls and easy smile, the designer is a strikingly humble personality in a system known for producing big egos. And this tall, courteous gentleman has a collaborative spirit.
Championing local crafts
The reason he won the Woolmark Prize and has since been embraced by the Paris fashion fraternity is, apart from his obvious talent, his philosophy. His goals are social and environmental sustainability: to create fashion that benefits gifted artisans in the villages around India, diversifying away from the big embroidery ateliers of Delhi and Mumbai, which are known to supply many prestigious names in ready-to-wear – even if these luxury brands brush that fact under the carpet.
Haute couture is famed for its embroideries from the Lesage and Montex ateliers (now under the patronage of Chanel), but in India, this is a centuries-old tradition. Mishra’s drive in working with local hand-weavers and embroiderers is to design clothes that “create jobs that help people in their own villages”. He takes work to them rather than persuading them to migrate to the city, believing that if villages are stronger, “you have a stronger nation”.
He says fashion, in terms of the environment, “is the enemy of sustainability, because fashion keeps changing. What designers are creating is something that’s made by machine, that might not be employing a human; whereas couture, which is made by hand, will create value for the 1,000 people who are supported by what we create.” He is delivering social sustainability as well as promoting the storied heritage of Indian crafts.
Creating a human pace
Haute couture supports this pace of creativity: it is better to produce these custom-made creations for clients in India (there are two flagship stores in Delhi), America and the Middle East, who are drawn to this kind of craftsmanship and want to invest in it. It is more environmentally responsible to design and make something that a client has ordered, rather than producing something in bulk in the hope of finding customers to buy it. Mass production is polluting the world, in Mishra’s view. “If you create at a human pace, it can be sustainable, as the slower pace gives Mother Earth time to replace its resources – a mechanised pace becomes unsustainable.”
Haute couture is proving viable for the designer, as business is up 50 per cent, which gives him the freedom to work with a master weaver in Kerala, for instance, who may take one month to weave a five-metre length of cloth. This particular artisan, the descendant of nine generations of weavers, has been working with Mishra for eight years, and in that time has moved from a humble hut to a house with an atelier full of looms, and now has money to send his children to school and buy a car. "Fashion provides that social mobility," Mishra points out.
Similarly, an embroiderer from West Bengal was persuaded to return to his village, taking work with him from Mishra, and build a business that employs fellow villagers, creating a circular economy that other local businesses benefit from. In about 15 years, Mishra has built a brand that now employs a vast number of artisans across India.
Recreating nature on dresses
These nimble-fingered individuals have delicately hand-embroidered flora and fauna for his new collection; there is a whole ecosystem on some dresses, inspiration for which is drawn from the underwater scenery of the coral reefs in the Maldives, where Mishra and his family spent time on holiday; or the animals inspired by the film Madagascar, which he reckons he has watched at least 30 times with his daughter, 4-year-old Aarna.
“There was so much happiness in the air around this collection: a shared inspiration becomes a common dream and the artisans put so much into this process, embroidering elephants and animals that reminded them of their childhood.”
Some of the dresses are experiments in 3D embroidery, such as the ivory fern dress or a jungle minidress and bodices with free-floating embroidered foliage and whimsical animals that take a moment to spot. Each piece tells a story – some designs took 5,000 man-hours to make, embroidered separately and assembled into gowns in his Delhi studio. The photographs are subsequently sent to the villages to share the vision with those involved.
Mishra is very conscious of the impact fashion has on the environment, recounting a story about his daughter, who innocently bemoaned how she missed the blue sky and sunshine when the family returned to the polluted smog of Delhi after their holiday in the Maldives.
“It is such a simple thing to want fresh air, blue sky and beautiful sunshine, but that may become a luxury.” Thinking of his daughter, Mishra quotes the famous environmentalist David Brower: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
From humble beginnings ...
The designer's personal story, meanwhile, reads like a script from a Bollywood movie. His beginnings were humble –he was raised in a village in Uttar Pradesh and attended school in a structure that was little more than a mud hut with a thatch roof.
He went on to graduate with a degree in physics, but abandoned that to study at the National Institute of Design in New Delhi, learning about graphics and animation before settling on fashion. “I had no idea: I couldn’t tell the difference between cotton and silk or how to sew a button on. Now I am a tailor. I am a quick learner and as a science graduate was interested in pattern-cutting and tailoring.”
His work was spotted in the Indian capital by Didier Grumbach, the former president of the Chambre Syndicale, who invited him to Paris when he saw Mishra's debut at Delhi's Fashion Week.
“He said call me any time you are ready to do something in Paris, but I didn’t feel ready at the time.” Winning the Woolmark Prize, an accolade whose past recipients include Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, was the boost in confidence that Mishra needed.
His clothes are contemporary, breezily light and flattering, focusing mostly on long dresses and frothy cocktail dresses, but his embroidery is the point of difference from other names on catwalks in the French capital. "I look at embroidery as a way of storytelling, as a way of looking at my personal journey," says Mishra. Given the benefits it has brought to the artisans he works with, it is a worthy story to tell.