He is the first designer from this part of the globe to win the International Woolmark Prize that carries a reward of AUD 100,000 and an opportunity to showcase his creations at prestigious fashion houses in the West. T. Krithika Reddy talks to Rahul Mishra about his efforts to make wool trans-seasonal, his fascination for the lotus motif and new-found international recognition

Celebrities and famous journalists from Europe tweeted excitedly about his win. In fact, Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor, Financial Times, asked if Rahul Mishra will be the next Karl Lagerfeld. Winning accolades is a way of life for this young designer whom French style guru Didier Grumbach described as a “talent to watch out for” in his formative years. When Mishra’s name was announced as the winner of the International Woolmark Prize at the Milan Fashion Week recently, the fashion fraternity in India wasn’t surprised. “We knew he would make it,” they said in a cheery chorus, fully aware of the designer’s efforts to engineer an all-weather friendly fabric from Merino wool using Indian weaving techniques. The utilitarian approach to wool teamed with his pared down sense of drama and innovative techniques proved to be the strong points of a collection that catapulted this Mumba-based designer to international stardom.

Despite dozens of interviews waiting to happen, Mishra opens up to MetroPlus in an exclusive interaction from Milan. Excerpts:

You worked for several months on this collection. What was going on in your mind before the award was announced?

I wanted to give the competition my best, so my commitment was 100 per cent. I was very nervous and stressed out before the announcement was made. I just kept telling myself, “Do not expect anything. You’ve done your best, now, it is God’s wish.” It’s a tough competition. I was continuously praying.

You've competed with big labels from across the world. What was the immediate response from the audience when the award was announced?

It was a memorable show. During fitting and rehearsals, many people said the collection looked great and that it was their favourite. Even the seamstresses kept saying “bellissimo” (very beautiful). The show went off really well. The audience loved every bit of it. I actually saw people getting emotional, crying and praying for me. To me, when something is as beautiful as poetry, it touches people’s heart.

Wool is a new medium to you. What were the specific challenges of working with it?

The biggest challenge was to fight the notion of wool being just a winter fibre. I had to change mindsets and convince weavers about my new vision. I think everyone in my team responded really well to this idea and we succeeded.

What are the handcrafts you used on wool?

I worked with Chanderi weavers to evolve a new weaving methodology to make Merino wool trans-seasonal. This led to participation from the handicraft and handloom sectors of rural India.

The ultra-light translucent Merino wool textile is the result of a new design intervention with the old weaving technique of Chanderi where 1/80nm Merino wool weft is used on a silk warp. The hexagon pattern is created by using the extra weft weaving technique, which is like doing hand embroidery with 2/80nm Merino wool yarn on the loom. The result is a one-of-its-kind finest Merino wool blend (wool 84 per cent and silk 16 per cent). Everything from the embroidery to the colour blending finish was achieved using hand skills that India is famous for.

Lotus has been your favourite motif. How do you think it suited a woollen line as well?

I love the lotus motif, especially the graphic open lotus as it sits perfectly in symmetry. There’s great geometry — progressive geometry — about it. It is more like mathematical artistry. Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom, sits on an open lotus. I think it is really critical to get new ideas. To me, the lotus is a source of ideas.

Merino wool is a natural, biodegradable and renewable fibre that’s great for clothing. The open lotus represents purity of wool.

What are the guiding principles in your work?

As a brand, I believe in not just designing a product focussed on CONSUMPTION. I’m also trying to design a system to create more PARTICIPATION. This participation happens with involving craft people who have been working for generations and are masters in their skill. We train them to understand modern design and production methods. I also believe that any handwork or craft is at its best if it stays at the place of its origin. So I keep them in their villages and take work to them rather than calling them to work in the cities. I always think of the three Es when I start to create a collection: environment, employment and empowerment.

How do you think designers can take the concept of sustainable luxury forward?

The focus behind my collection was the idea of sustainable luxury through participation. The idea revolves around the quote by Mahatma Gandhi — “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” I think the best fashion can be created when one looks into the past to create something for the future. The idea of fashion is strongest when a unique design language evolves based on culture and tradition. Luxury is about reinventing traditional handloom textiles and crafts for niche markets.

Besides the prize money, what's the commercial outcome you foresee post-award?

The real hard work starts now as we have to prepare for year-long launches at the most important stores of the world. I will travel to all the places as the launch of the collection will be a strong media and PR-driven exercise. I will have to work extra hard to handle all the orders. I have to plan my year carefully. I also want to show at an international pageant. But before that, I will showcase this collection at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, and expand this line into a bigger one and make it more suitable for Autumn-Winter.

It must be a new experience to see yourself on world-famous fashion glossies, blogs and websites....

The experience has been quite surreal. Hilary Alexander (Fashion Director, The Daily Telegraph) tweeted about my win, Financial Times Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman said, “The Woolmark Prize winner is Rahul Mishra from India. Will he be the next Karl Lagerfeld? All this actually makes me more nervous. All the media and fashion magazines wrote about the win. There are dozens of interviews pending. It’s exciting and I need to make the most of this attention and work even harder.

Has anyone from the Indian government congratulated you on this award?

No, not so far…I don’t know if they are even aware.