A striped vest featuring a medley of clashing colours, from red and bright green to fuchsia, yellow and turquoise, seems almost too safe a style choice for fashion designer Manish Arora, who is famed for his extravagance. I had expected something a little more outlandish.
Arora’s unashamed flamboyance has led to him being nicknamed “the John Galliano of India”. He takes this as an unequivocal compliment. “To be honest, [Galliano] is one of my favourite designers ever, and I don’t think it’s fair for me to be compared with him,” he says when we meet in Dubai. “Of course, we have a common factor, which is flamboyance.”
Excess is the defining feature of Arora’s artistry. As fashion writer Amy Verner once said: “Scale back the embellishments on Arora's designs by half, and they would still qualify as maximalist by most standards.”
I clearly remember my first introduction to Arora's creations. I was in the Valleydez boutique in Dubai's Sunset Mall, and came across a sheer bomber jacket decorated with picturesque clouds, roses and spaceships, some printed, others embroidered, in a palette consisting of pistachio green, blush pink and lilac. Assuming it was the creation of some obscure Japanese label, I eyed the tag and was astonished to see an Indian name on it – Manish Arora. Unlike many other brands hailing from the subcontinent, Arora's work cannot easily be pigeonholed as "eastern" or "traditional" – his output transcends conceptual cultural norms on a number of levels. While there may be folk-inspired touches, such as the ornate Indian jewellery prints on his spring/summer 2013 garments, and interpretations of traditional lehenga skirts on his spring/summer 2016 runway, Arora's designs can hardly be classified as ethnic.
Still, he doesn’t shy away from his heritage, either. Arora, who today lives between New Delhi and Paris, embraces his roots with gusto, going as far as to claim that he’s one of the few “authentic” Indian designers out there. “There are Indian designers here and there globally, but they are more American; they studied in America, or lived all of their lives in the United Kingdom, so you can’t really call them Indians,” he says. “When I was travelling and showing my work internationally, there’s one thing I knew: that I had to take my culture with me. My fashion culture is all about textiles and embellishments, and who would know it better than me – it’s my identity.”
Arora was raised in Mumbai and studied at The National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, rather than travelling abroad for his education. When he graduated in 1994, he earned a Best Student award for his efforts. Soon after, he launched his label and started participating in fashion weeks in both India and Hong Kong. By 2005, he had bagged spots at both London Fashion Week and Miami Fashion Week, and in 2007, was invited to showcase at Paris Fashion Week, where he has been presenting collections, biannually, ever since. In fact, this year marks the 10-year anniversary of Arora showing at Paris Fashion Week. “I’ve finished 20, no, 21 shows in Paris,” says Arora. “I’ve survived, and I’m still going on.”
In 2001, Arora partnered with Reebok and debuted a sportswear-inspired diffusion line called Fish Fry, and in 2012, he started a two-year stint as the artistic director of Paco Rabanne, during which time celebrities including Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez sported his designs. Last year, Arora received the prestigious Chevalier de la legion d'Honneur from French ambassador François Richier, becoming the first Indian fashion designer to receive the award, which applauds both French citizens and foreigners for their accomplishments and service to the nation.
When we meet, Arora is in Dubai to launch an exclusive Middle East collaboration with Kuwaiti-owned fashion label Riva. The collection presents Arora’s signature, vibrant aesthetic, but pared down for a more wearable, mass-market appeal. Naturally, a hallmark of the capsule collection is the bright embroidery that decorates collars, necklines and jacket-fronts. When I point out that embroidered motifs have become something of a global style trend of late, Arora is quick to point out that they have been a key element of his brand since the very beginning. “It may be in fashion, or not, for others, but for me it’s a constant feature in my collections,” he says. “I’m from India, and it would be very silly of me not to do embroidery because if anyone can do embroidery well, it’s the Indians.”
And yet, most people, Indian or not, would never think to take embroidery to the extremes that Arora does – his recent autumn/winter 2017 collection, for instance, offers an inimitable combination of embroidered elements, including both culturally inspired paisleys and futuristic, galactic icons such as planets, clouds, rockets and shooting stars. These are all coupled with intricate beadwork, on garments like a long-line quilted bomber jacket in orange, or a flared midi-skirt in iridescent silver.
For Arora, a fashion show is much more than an opportunity to parade clothing; – it’s an entire production. He says that if he hadn’t become a fashion designer, he’d like to think he’d be making films. Which makes sense. When conceptualising his collections and catwalk shows, Arora puts on his director’s hat, and is known for his theatrics, like sending a blue-dyed Pomeranian dog down the runway in the arms of a model.
“Fashion, for me, is not just clothing; – it’s the whole character. I build these fictitious characters in my mind right from the beginning of the collection. I make them up in my mind, and work towards that personality that doesn’t exist. It’s a fantasy character, but I imagine what that person would be like, and that’s the end result that you see in the shows,” he says.
At times, Arora’s models are given contemporary Indian-inspired makeovers, with sindoor sprinkled through their hair partings and oversized bindis painted on their foreheads (but in a shade of hot pink, rather than the traditional vermilion). At other times, their cheekbones are decorated with star- or cupcake-shaped stickers and sequins. Feathered eyelash extensions, embellished shower-cap-contraptions, spike-adorned headpieces and massive pom-pom ear coverings have also been part of the styling for Arora’s shows.
Although his clothing is categorised as ready-to-wear, it’s loud, exaggerated and borderline avant-garde. His sales are strongest in China, with the Middle East sitting in second place – something that the designer attributes wholly to his ostentatious approach. “[People in] the Middle East and China might be very different in their aesthetics, but they have a very similar mental situation where they like to stand out and are quite adventurous with style. They aren’t afraid of colours, they like embellishments and they like everything a bit over the top, and that’s exactly where I fit in,” he says.
Though his current collaboration with Riva gives Middle East-based customers a conservative, watered-down taste of his eccentric universe, with loose silhouettes, longer sleeves and hemlines, and just a smidgen of his beaded embroidery work, don't imagine for a second that Manish Arora is calming down. He was a New Delhi fashion student who, within a decade and a half, reached the esteemed echelons of Paris Fashion Week, and his stamina and enthusiasm show little sign of wavering. The designer still feels like he has a lot to achieve: "I would love to design a building; an architectural building; that would be my dream, or to do costumes for Cirque du Soleil, or to be the creative director of Burning Man."