It's a week before Thanksgiving and Indian designer Suneet Varma, holding court at sculptor Michael Aram's Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan, is dishing about Goldie Hawn. Though he's in town to accept the award for Designer of the Year at the Bollywood Awards in Atlantic City, N.J., over the weekend, right now, Varma is busy thinking about a filmmaking mecca of an entirely different sort: Hollywood. And there's a good reason. Varma, who has his own made-to-order collection as well as a ready-to-wear one called Le Spice, has recently been tapped to design the costumes for Hawn's latest movie, "Ashes to Ashes," about a woman who travels through India to bury her husband's ashes. "It's a drama but a comedy, too," says Varma. The comedy part? Hawn loses the remains along the way.
"I'm trying to do more movies over here," explains Varma, who designed costumes for Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding." In fact, going Hollywood is his way of approaching the U.S. market, rather than going retail first. (He already has five freestanding stores in India and is working with a local fashion retailer, Kimaya, on a 15-store expansion there over the next two years.) "I'm still wetting my feet over here," he adds. "If I get the opportunity to sell at Bendel's or Saks or Neiman's, that will be a transition that will happen via films." But Varma, who is a celebrity in his native New Delhi, isn't turning his back on Bollywood yet; he also just signed a three-picture contract with an Indian production company, Tips Industries Ltd.
"Designing for a Western film versus a Bollywood film is very similar," Varma says. "The thing is that the Indian films would have more song and dance, so the [costuming] would have more bling. And those dance sequences, you know, they take six to eight days to shoot. The costumes have to have at least three replicas to make sure they don't tear easily."
Balancing East and West is nothing new for Varma. He graduated from the London College of Fashion in 1986 and subsequently worked with designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Nicole Farhi. He has designed for the Geneva Opera as well as for the Metropolitan Museum of Art boutiques, and has consulted for numerous fashion houses, including Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera and Nicole Miller. Varma is in talks with Judith Leiber about designing a fashion line and, just last year, signed with Hewlett-Packard India to design an upcoming series of laptop bags.But he has proven he can do lavish traditional Indianwear, too. Varma dressed the wedding party for the $60 million Versailles nuptials of Vanisha Mittal, daughter of steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, in 2004. "It took me one year," he says. "I worked night and day so every day was two days." According to the designer, he has done about 70 weddings, the most recent for the son of shipping magnate Lal L. Chellaram, Vikram. The ceremony took place at Vienna's famed Hapsburg palace. "As an Indian, you can't take color and embellishment out of my system," Varma remarks. "We really understand the success of excess."
And what does Varma think of Western designers who mine his own heritage for inspiration, like Jean Paul Gaultier, who recently created an Indian extravaganza at Hermès? Did Varma bristle at the thought of the Frenchman doing his take on the traditional sari? Not at all. "I think the man is a genius," says Varma. "I see the madness of color and jewelry — Gaultier captures it beautifully. The other person who's done the most incredible India inspiration is Armani. [His collections] remind me of the old Cecil Beaton photographs and that whole Thirties, Forties Indian-princess look." Not every designer is so lucky; Varma admits he wasn't a fan of John Galliano's spring 2003 Indian foray, partly inspired by the festival of Holi.
Varma has no problem with luxury giants moving in on his home turf, either. "Whether they're spending on Gucci or Suneet Varma, the fact is that they're spending, which is great," says Varma. "I think it's a winning step when people feel the need or want to be able to spend freely. Clothing and luxury are becoming an established norm. And it gives us a fantastic platform." He notes that Indian designers like himself will be keeping tony company, with neighbors like Louis Vuitton and Dior. "It's fantastic to be in the same viewership," he says. "These guys will keep us all on our toes."
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