Manish Malhotra, who is best known as a designer for Bollywood stars, has been stepping up his retail footprint in the last two months — opening a new stand-alone store in the southern city of Hyderabad, and adding another 6,000 square feet to his New Delhi store, to become a 15,000-square-foot flagship.
“The growth of my stores is a big focus for me at this time,” he said, adding that the way ahead was to do more than just collections but become a brand that houses his own collections of jewelry, makeup, furniture and other products — all of which he has launched in the past six months. His makeup line also sells in other doors, including department store chain Shoppers Stop.
This season, Malhotra added another turn to his business, targeted more toward Millennials as he did the opening show at Lakme Fashion Week on Aug. 20.
The five-day fashion week, which ran Aug. 21 to 25, marked 20 years of showcasing Indian designers, and Malhotra’s show was tied to the launch of a new brand from consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd., a subsidiary of Unilever. The launch, targeted at the premium fabric segment — especially for silks and fine materials — inspired Malhotra’s use of different fabrics for the 70-piece show with its voluminous sleeves, and flowing styles. Popular Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif walked the runway and the front row was filled with film stars wearing his creations, including heavily sequined saris.
Malhotra has worked as a costume designer for films for almost 30 years and has worked on more than 500. Many of these have been big hits and it is well-known that films have set the trends in India for many decades, well before the advent of YouTube and Instagram.
The combination of film and fashion that Malhotra espoused became a winning formula, particularly with his focus on glamour. His own designer label, Manish Malhotra, is 14 years old, with a focus on the premium and increasingly innovative wedding market.
“I was the first designer to step in from the world of costume design to mainstream fashion, and merge the two. I have had that edge as the first person doing this, I have gone through the journey of being critiqued for it, but I think India took a lot of time to understand it, to accept it. Now it is a very big part of the fashion fraternity and the fashion industry,” he said. “Fashion is a happy space for me, I enjoy it, I am very single-mindedly driven by it, I enjoy the glitz and the glamour and I’m not apologetic about it, and I definitely don’t look down upon it.”
Malhotra, who is slim and boyish at 52 and full of energy, said that he also has the unique situation of having worked with several generations of film stars — Bollywood has seen a trend in which the children of film stars have won quick acclaim and coveted roles. “I’m really proud of the fact that I’m now working with the fourth generation of [Bollywood] actresses — Ananya Pandey, Tiger Shroff and Jahnvi Kapoor — and the fact that I can relate to them and how they relate to me is good,” he said.
Internationally, Malhotra has designed for Reese Witherspoon in Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair,” for Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Kylie and Jermaine Jackson.
He has long been a favorite for leading actors in India like Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, Karishma Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Alia Bhatt, and Manisha Koirala. “A lot changed with the way costumes were done as the locale itself shifted — from a setting in Hyderabad, to Switzerland to London, with the styles changing as rapidly.
Malhotra uses the word “glamour” liberally while talking about his work. “Glamour is not necessarily embroidery. It can be the cut, it could be the backless back, it could be the craft, the embroidery. It could be different forms of storytelling; I love things that are pretty, that leave a little trailing sense with you, the shimmer, the sparkle, a little more celebratory. ‘Sparkling’, ‘awake’, ‘pretty,’ those are the kind of words that make me happy,” he said.
Trends have changed substantially over the years — and some have been more daring than others. Malhotra’s designs for his runway show, which had plunging necklines and low backs, are an indication itself of the change. But he noted that films always had an edge on more daring styles.
“If you see the 1970s — the cabaret outfits the Indian actresses wore were just so fabulous, the way they were tailored, with stockings, some net on the stomach, and just an itsy-bitsy panty-like skirt and a bra-like top, with feathers in the hair — clothes like these have always been there. In every decade of fashion in India there has been a kind of a bust shape, a certain kind of a fit, to highlight the contours of the body and present a sensuous shape. I think that’s always been there because women are beautiful. And now men are also posing as much as women,” Malhotra observed.
His men’s line was launched nine years ago.
But what is the essential creative difference between costume design and his own label?
“The costume design is when you’re giving a look to a character, as conceived by the screenplay writer, and a lot of time the director has their own look to it, it is their vision, too. In a collection, when you are a newcomer you are a new designer, you have to see the market, what is selling, what isn’t, decide how much to push your brand, how much to experiment, how much to push your buyer to look at newer things, it is a study.”
Malhotra has been passionate about his role as a designer, and is prolific, having done more than a dozen elaborate runway shows last year.
“At Lakme Fashion Week, too, the shows have become a lot bigger, the venues are different, the show gives a different experience. I think fashion has become about the experience rather than just the product. The music, the set design, the look, the jewelry, the clothes, everything, all of that is much better. I love doing shows — planning the sets, the music…,” he said.
Textiles also are telling more of a story these days, he observed. “We have also done a lot of collections with bandhini, phulkari, handlooms from Banaras, fabrics from Kashmir and Kashmiri embroidery, we’ve done handlooms from Rajasthan. But this collection is not about handlooms,” he said, referring to the opening show of Lakme Fashion Week. “There is a lot of soft cotton, velvet, textured velvet, a lot of silk, lots of chiffon, a lot of textured cotton. I like fabrics that are smooth, and flowy, rather than those that are stiff.”
Designing for the red carpet continues to be one of his strengths, living in the heart of Mumbai where star-studded events are common. “The greatest thing is that people are enjoying change — wearing handloom on one day, bling on another, Banarasi sari on one day, and an embroidered gown on another. People are really enjoying experimenting and are no longer committed to keeping a single style. Sensibilities are changing all over, whether it is your client, or the retail, there is so much more accessibility to knowledge, to world customs, to clothes, fabric, jewelry,” he said.
As Malhotra plays with colors, it is clear that both better fabrics and bling are here to stay, and while many retailers are downsizing and closing stores, he plans to continue the retail march.
“I think retail is in a transformatory moment. Consumers have a lot of choice, and with the changing economies, the whole business has to be looked at with new eyes. There are a lot of things to look at, from shoes to bags, to clothes — there is a lot of movement towards experimental, indigenous dressing, a lot of mixing,” Malhotra commented. “Nothing is wrong today. That’s what makes it so exciting!”