“We knew we had to be a bit anti-trend in our design ethos”: Couturier Shantnu Mehra
Shantnu and Nikhil need no introduction to fashion enthusiasts anymore. The designer duo, specializing in womenswear, trousseaux, menswear, bridal wear and bespoke accessories, is a name to be reckoned with. Their aesthetic remains unmatched, as they bring a unique blend of “structure and fierce glamour” to their garments.
Recently, designers have added another feather to their cap by launching a flagship store in the Mehrauli district of New Delhi. For the same, we caught up with Shantnu Mehra for a free-wheeling conversation, where the fashion designer shared fascinating insights into the ethics of their designs, the importance of innovation in fashion, sustainability, the effects of the pandemic on businesses, and much more. Edited excerpts:
Why did you choose Mehrauli as the space for your new store?
When you look at the Mehrauli course, especially the Sumbawa complex, it almost looks like India’s version of Rodeo Drive. You have some of the biggest luxury brands, some of the best fashion designers in the country retailing from here. It is a natural choice for any designer to be part of this ecosystem that has been built over the years. So for us, surrounded by India’s history, with the iconic Qutub Minar and the ephemeral modernity that comes with the story that this space lends itself to, it was a natural fit.
You were the first design house in India to incorporate contemporary silhouettes into lehengas – a departure from traditional heavy embroidery and continuing the tradition. Can you tell us about your design philosophy?
It’s our signature style statement. From the start of our brand journey, we knew we had to be a little anti-trend in our design philosophy. When I say anti-trend, we want to talk about another story of India, a story that doesn’t necessarily talk about textiles, heavy textiles or heavy heritage. All the embroidery, but, the shapes, the silhouettes, the details, the decadent tones, the decadent color palette, which lays beautifully against dark skin. From the start, we tried to break the stereotypes attached to Indian fashion. And, I think we could do it very early in our careers, because we were only a handful of artists and design talents. We have tried to create a very hybrid approach to Indian fashion that incorporates all the ingredients of Indo-Western and ethnic influences that are part of our design DNA. And for us, curtains have always been the pillar around which everything else pretty much revolves: structure meets fierce glamour.
All of these factors gave us the opportunity to look at some traditional silhouettes with a little more playfulness. A lehenga does not necessarily need the cholis it is known for but can be worn as a voluminous skirt with a drape with a blouse, which does not necessarily need the burden of the dupatta. All of this has been done with the young urban Indian sitting in front of us in mind. The youngest of these fearless and confident grooms who are decision makers and opinion leaders. I think that’s the market we’ve been working towards for so many years and I think the market is now where we wanted it to be. Now, the modern bride and groom don’t want to be burdened with tradition. But at the same time, they want to keep the nuances of Indian heritage alive but with a lightness in form. This is where the silhouettes, the minimalism, even in formal wear, becomes all the more interesting.
How has your brand responded to the sustainability movement, which has become a big part of the industry?
Sustainability has different connotations to different people and different brands respond to sustainability in their own way. When I look at it from my lens, and when I speak as a seamstress, and for other seamstresses, I think we’ve always had sustainability going for us. We are a bespoke brand, so for us, everything is bespoke, everything is very confidential in its approach, which means that we are not fast fashion and can never be fast fashion. You invest in a particular season with many styles and silhouettes, then you take orders on them, and then the next season. You’re actually doing two big seasons!
It’s different from fast fashion, where you basically do six collections a year. I think by default, designers around the world and most who are in India, we’ve always been enduring in that aspect.
What were your main design influences?
I think we’ve always had this approach to legacy meets spunk. Of course, our heritage comes from certain decadent architectural values. All over the world, when you look at architectural value, there are certain geometric shapes, influences that we bring from our design philosophy. I feel it works. We are not very Mughal-inspired architecture, but rather Art-Deco, playing with geometric shapes. If you look closely at Mughal architecture, you will find certain shades of very geometric shape and I think we present that.
There’s always been this legacy undercurrent in the cum. Then the spunk came with silhouettes and shapes and drapes and I think we’ve always experimented with that. We were also the first in 2013-14 to introduce the hybrid form of the sari through a sari dress concept. Instead of making lehengas, we started in 2009, making a version of dresses. Voluminous dresses, inspired by the volume of a lehenga, a cholis and how a lehenga can become a dress for us. We gave volume dresses a way for lehengas! We tried to be as experimental as possible, and then dresses suddenly became this new rage, from 2010 to 2015. In fact, even now, when you look at that, dresses have really replaced one or two traditional silhouettes and that’s has become a mainstay for functions in India. If we look at the Indian celebration, we are looking at four to five functions in a row. The blouse has become a must-have for at least one, or even two functions.
It’s a bit of fearlessness, it’s a bit of keeping Indian heritage alive, but also making it a bit more flirtatious and playful, without ignoring the market and still relevant in the ceremonial side of the business. I think we pretty much set the tone for the veil when we introduced men’s drapes in 2015 or 2016. So that’s when we changed that and introduced a bit of innovation in menswear, which was in a traditional Nehru collar ecosystem. So we thought about how we could bring a feminine touch to a very masculine shape. I think it also brought a bit of gender fluidity into our DNA brand ethos and our men became a bit feminine in terms of how we layered them, which was beautifully accepted. Our curtains began to be copied everywhere else, which also makes it clear that when you innovate with us with market acumen and then marketing acumen, the world follows. I think through that we were able to add a bit more masculinity to our womenswear, a bit of a chic patriotic flavor came in, a bit of military influences came in. I think today we are in a good space where there are feminine and masculine energies overlapping between men and women. I think that’s something that has allowed us to move forward in terms of innovation.
You mentioned that your clothes were flowy in nature. Can you elaborate?
With our new S&N brand, if you ever look at this collection you will always find a very powerful woman, a woman who works almost shoulder to shoulder with a man and both wear decadent tones in a similar color palette. . There are similarities in the way we bring this heritage in both forms. This path to gender fluidity already started about four years ago. In fact, it fits in nicely with our sewing side of the business as well. When you see our womenswear and our menswear sitting together, there’s a language they both speak. There’s this bit of strength that goes into our men’s clothing, and then you’ll see a similar resonance of softness happening. You see this overlapping energy in your product and you will continue to do so, in our journey into the future as well.
Has the pandemic affected your way of thinking and the whole process of creating your creations?
No, in fact, the pandemic as much as it is said has been a spoilsport, I feel like there was a deep cleaning needed in the system. Innovation was a big dud – there was so much commercialization of fashion before COVID that we forgot there was something called uniqueness or innovation. I feel like with the arrival of COVID, this has come back with a vengeance.
There’s a lot more value placed on design now, on a process where a design starts at a certain point and ends at a certain point. There’s a great revisiting of classics and the timelessness of those classics, how they can be reinvented and brought with a bit of newness. I feel like the “less is more” concept is coming back again.
We’ve been part of this innovation ecosystem since 2012. So for us, the pandemic wasn’t really a challenge, because we were already disrupting ourselves as fashion innovators, always challenging ourselves to be a slightly ahead of the market. This is how we started our career. So for us, COVID has fundamentally reinforced that everything we’ve been doing for the last five or six years has been the right thing.
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