Manish Malhotra doesn’t travel light. For his first catwalk show in the UAE in two years, he flew from his Mumbai base with twenty-four suitcases, to be exact, holding 200kg of uber-glamorous designs.
Manish, who despite looking decades younger, will soon be 52, was in Dubai at the end of September to headline the Design One exhibition, which featured the work of over 55 local and international designers, some of whom were showing their collections in the UAE for the first time. He wrapped up the event with a grand catwalk show, presenting 85 pieces from his collections; Bollywood stars Kriti Sanon and Sidharth Malhotra walked the raunway, as did as Manish’s long-time friend and collaborator, director Karan Johar. On the night of the show, Manish was the calm, collected and charming host, waiting on the runway to personally welcome the 600 guests who invited to get a glimpse of his latest designs.
The evening before, however, Friday saw the other side of Manish – the hands-on couturier involved in every tiny detail of putting the show together.
‘I always work with the top fashion models in India,’ Manish tells me, as dozens of models – most of them flown in exclusively for the show – swirl about him during the final fitting session at Emirates Towers, the venue for the show. ‘These girls know what they are doing and understand my brand so it was very important that I have girls in my show that know how to walk in the clothes and make them work.’ Some of the models are Dubai-based, he adds, ‘but the Indian girls, they understand my brand because they know it well’.
Then again, after decades in the Indian fashion industry, there are few that are not familiar with is work – even if it’s only through the film costumes he’s designed. In Dubai, Manish didn’t present one collection, but pulled from his ranges for a mixture of cocktail dresses, evening gowns and wedding attire for both men and women. ‘The collection is more of an amalgamation of all my collections this season. My emphasis is to show a lot more of the Indian contemporary clothes. I want to share with the world what is current in India and how it can fit with what they are doing.’
‘My work is more contemporary than ever this season, but I’ve also been focused on traditional embroidery,’ he says; traditional Indian embroidery is something quite close to Manish’s heart. He sources his materials from all around the world (include velvet from Dubai), but he tends to find as much in India as he can. ‘We do a lot of Indian crafts in a small village where the local people hand weave for us,’ he says. ‘We employ a lot of people who do Indian crafts. It’s very rewarding for them and for me and we get amazing results from it.’
Contemporary may be his focus, but the Manish Malhotra style – glamour, glamour, glamour – is clearly there. ‘The signature Manish Malhotra style... is something that you wear and you feel like a princess, or for a man, a prince. It is Indian in its roots but it has a contemporary twist to it,’ he explains. True to his word, he’s pouring the models in gowns with detailed embellishment, beautiful layering, feathers, tassels, sequins – traditional in style but finished with contemporary materials. These outfits would have taken hours to make to ensure that even the most intricate details stood out on the catwalk. As the fitting takes place, Manish is exceptionally busy, but never loses his cool. ‘Before a show, I am quite calm. I wake up really early and make sure everything is running smoothly. But about 45 minutes before the show, I start to panic and think I’m going to have a heart attack!’ You would never know – when I meet him on the runway the night of the show, he is calm: An expert showman and entertainer – but inside I know he is panicking. ‘Everything about a show worries me,’ he says.
After a two-year hiatus, it is fitting that Manish has chosen to show in the UAE, as talk swirls that he will soon open a store in Dubai.
‘I look forward to opening a flagship store in Dubai and I look forward to opening it in 2018,’ he says, confirming the news. But we want to know what’s taken him so long – there’s no doubt his designs are popular in the region, so why have women previously had to travel to India to get their hands on his designs? The reality of the fashion business is decidedly less glamorous than his gowns, but there are some fabulous plans in the pipeline. ‘As an independent designer, I don’t have investors, so while there are so many orders and work going on, it does get really difficult. Because it is me doing everything, it takes a lot more time.’ For women looking to buy designer Indian clothing in Dubai, it is difficult – while there are a few boutiques, they are hard to come by and often very expensive. ‘I think what happens with international designers is that fashion houses back them. They take over the legalities, the day-to-day business and of course the funding. That is why you are seeing western brands in Dubai but not so [many] Indian designers. It takes time and a lot of money to open a store.
‘But I do plan to expand as well – to Dubai, to Hong Kong, Hyderabad and London.’ He’s also launching a make-up line and a homewares collection. ‘I want to start opening more stores and take my work to a lot more places. There is a two-year plan in place – I will have to have time [to accomplish it], as it’s something I really want to do.’
He goes on to discuss why now is the right time for his store opening and why we can expect to see a lot more of him in the UAE. ‘I think the way Dubai is emerging and evolving into a global hub is amazing. They have the best restaurants, the best brands – it’s so fascinating. There’s so much going on that I think it is a great space for a global fashion hub to evolve. It is especially important for Indian fashion, as I think that is changing and evolving, so hopefully they can evolve together. Each time I come to Dubai, I go back [to India] thinking that nothing is impossible. Dubai is a very special place to me; I want to spend a lot more time here,’ he says; ‘if I was going to be based anywhere other than Mumbai it would be Dubai.’
Fashion’s changing in India – ‘There’s a big influx of young designers, which is changing the industry. I think the people are also taking the next step and wearing what they want to wear. There’s a lot of global influences coming into Indian fashion, so the designs we are seeing are much more mixed.’ With so many new designers coming through, could being an established designer have a negative effect on Manish? He thinks not. ‘I like change and I want to work with the changes, so for me I think it’s important that I constantly do that. My focus is purely on what I’m doing and I think that’s why I can stay fresh.’
With 2.8 million followers on Instagram, he is moving his brand forward with social media, taking it beyond the Indian market, calling social media ‘one of the biggest factors in letting everyone out there know what you’re doing’. It’s an exciting – and in his words, fearless – time to be Manish Malhotra: ‘The whole world knows what I’m doing. I love this whole movement of the craziness. Design is fearless – it’s being what you want to be and doing what you want to do and that’s what so many designers are doing at the moment. I’m seeing this with brands like Gucci and it is inspiring – everything is being mixed together and somehow it works. Designers all over the world are keeping their soul and their voice but they are starting to say it in a different language.’ Something we can expect to see more of from Manish, as he combines influences and materials from different cultures and styles. ‘What I’m enjoying is mixing everything together – fringes, crafts, tassels, feathers and fur – to make beautiful garments.’
Modest fashion, too – a major talking point in the fashion conversation today – doesn’t escape his attention, or his praise, because of how it’s opening up the fashion playing field even further. ‘Firstly, it depends on what you consider to be modest – something can be modest but still be very opulent and have a lot of shimmer and sparkle, which is what you’ll notice many of the international brands have done. There is a pattern that’s happening and it seems to be working.’ It’s all part of the global fashion evolution – whether it’s modesty, seasonality (or the lack thereof), where people buy their clothes, and how they style their purchases with individuality.
‘What I find fascinating today, and different from a couple of years ago, is that today things survive. No matter how contradictory or different things are, they survive together. People are not fearing to be different.’ But how does this change things for him as a designer? ‘It makes it great, because more people are accepting the glamour that I love and I think there is becoming more of a demand for it. Of course, the person who has always wore glamour is trying different looks, too, but the person who always wore different looks is now trying glamour. So for me I am getting a new type of customer. It is an exciting time.’