Shows at two Fashion Weeks, a brand new prêt label, a scaled-up national presence and a book of poems… Rehane is on a roll. T. Krithika Reddy tracks the career of the designer

Ease meets precision. Sheer fabrics flatter structured silhouettes. Effervescent tones share rack space with placid pastels. Eastern embroidery complements Western styles. Dressiness has a dialogue with practicality…

Style is about contrasts. So is Rehane. Chirpy this minute, serious and introspective, the next. It’s creativity and commerce, humdrum matters and dizzy philosophy — all in one breath!

“Isn’t life extraordinary,” she asks. “I was at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, then the Lakme Fashion Week, and am now in Chennai, designing Re, a prêt label that’s to be launched soon.”

Words flow like water from a designer faucet. Lounging on the deep purple sofa that’s set against a gilded backdrop in her standalone store in Nungambakkam, she switches to flashback mode to the Italy of the 1980s — where it all began. And how the beguiling world of fashion became her full-time passion…

“Cobblestone pathways, gurgling fountains, quaint buildings, idyllic parks and a city entrenched in style! Rome was the perfect place to be at 16. Every corner seemed to tell a story. I had left India under trying circumstances. My parents were separated, and my dad was posted as India’s Ambassador to Italy. It was a troubled mind that was gradually overwhelmed by beauty.”

Imagine having Franco Zeffirelli, Nastassja Kinski and Valentino as neighbours. “It was the beginning of a tremendous journey,” says Rehane. “After I completed school, my friends forced me to drop some of my sketches in the mailbox kept outside Valentino’s villa. I did that. And guess what, there was a call from his secretary, who felt I had it in me to become a designer. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet the master.”

Taking his word seriously, Rehane enrolled at a fashion institute in Milan and pursued her other passion, photography, as well. “I was so much in awe of Valentino. I used to wait outside my home to catch glimpses of him in his swanky car. A lot of what I learnt style-wise has a Valentino vibe — edgy, feminine and playful.”

A few years later, it was on her way to Australia via Chennai that Rehane was introduced to leather exporter Yavar Dhala. Love happened, and at 21 she was married. “Imagine after the fashion frenzy of Rome I was here in Chennai not knowing what to do! Every time I saw something relating to fashion on television, I used to feel depressed.”

Boredom was finally broken in 1996 when Jacquelyn Varghese, one of the Miss India contestants, came knocking on her door. “I was taken by surprise when she asked me to create some Western outfits for the pageant. I obliged, and guess what? I won the best designer award.”

That was the turning point. “All along, design was in my mind. It was time I took the plunge. The Asrani sisters of Studio Saks offered help. Thanks to them, I set up my unit with a borrowed sewing machine. I couldn’t afford a full-time master and had to keep overheads to a minimum. My first line featured mulmul block printed kurtas.”

At that time, the city’s fashion scene was rather staid. Ritu Kumar was probably the only designer who had a standalone store. Ffolio, the multi-designer fashion house, was a huge draw among the cognoscenti. By the late 1990s, Rehane was ready to launch her own store on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Chennai’s high-fashion hub. From then on, her career grew by leaps and bounds — creatively and commercially.

A foothold in Chennai meant at least a toehold in the national fashion scene. So in 2002, Rehane made her first appearance at Lakme. “It was not easy breaking into the Mumbai or New Delhi fashion circuit. But I had to do it for Chennai. To me, the city has been like a mother. It embraced me and I accepted it wholeheartedly. I’m perhaps one of the few people who don’t make holiday plans in May. You know how hot it is. You don’t know whether you are going for a bath or stepping out of the shower! You are perennially wet,” she jokes.

Now, a regular at Fashion Weeks, Rehane says it’s time to rethink her retail strategy. “I’m suffocated by orders. After 15 years of retail, I have to look at markets outside Chennai where the response has been fabulous. A boutique in Mumbai has taken all my clothes for a shoot after the LFW show. People are hoping for business tie-ups in Hyderabad and New Delhi. But I don’t want to play with other’s money. Designers are creators. We do a lot of things, ad hoc. Those who have been tremendously successful — like Sabyasachi Mukherjee or Tarun Tahiliani — speak the retail language as much as they do the design language. Others have business associates to strategise. The biggest challenge for us is to make that huge transition from designer to brand. Otherwise we will go the dinosaur way,” says the designer pragmatically.

Besides looking at an effective retail strategy that would strengthen her national presence, Rehane will launch her e-retail business soon. “But that’s after introducing Re, the much-needed stylish-yet-affordable label that will appeal to youngsters.”

This year’s agenda also includes publishing a book of poems. “I’m a closet writer. I realised I’ve written a lot. I have no dearth of inspiration. Whether it’s writing or designing, I’m in full flow. I read a lot of history and am fascinated by kings, queens, the Mongols... I don’t understand why. But when I close my eyes, beautiful scenes from history unfold…”

LIFE COMES UP ROSES

Floral motifs — particularly the rose — are a recurring metaphor in her repertoire. “I like the rose, because a thorny stem holds a beautiful flower. It’s symbolic of life — beautiful with some thorny situations!

UNFORGETTABLE…

When my tailor printed “Rehane’s Tailor” below his name on his wedding card. I was touched.

CHENNAI SCENE

It’s tough for designers to survive in Chennai. First, we have all the mainstream multi-national brands giving tough competition. Then we have a slew of designers from Mumbai and New Delhi trying to make their presence felt in Chennai. We must take pride in the city and its people. There are so many big corporates and textile houses in Chennai. They must come forward to give aspiring designers a chance to prove their worth.

KIDS CENTRAL

My three children have adapted so well to my work schedules. I wish I was little more available for them. But I guess that’s the typical guilt of all working moms.

SUCCESS MANTRA

Make it mantras! Life’s short, live it up. Tough times don’t last. But tough people do. I’ve seen the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. Thankfully, there’s been one constant in my life — beauty.