As Narendra Kumar Ahmed gets noticed in Esquire’s list of top menswear stores in the world, the designer talks to T. KRITHIKA REDDY about his two-decade engagement with style, why men need help with their wardrobe, fashion education and more…
Even as his light and versatile “new-age bridal” creates a stir in the crystals and sequins dripping wedding wear market, Narendra Kumar Ahmed’s name features along with the iconic Barney and Paul Stuart stores (in New York) in Esquire’s Big Black Book of Style in the United States. “I’m honoured and proud to see India find a place in the global menswear design map,” says the Mumbai-based designer, who completes two diligent decades in fashion. When designer wear was hardly known in the men’s fashion circuit, he gave it lots of “shirtitude” (shirts with attitude) and made fashionistas take notice of his cutting edge styles. Besides a flourishing retail business in India, styling assignments for Bollywood, teaching at top fashion institutions, the designer is surprisingly pushing the idea of fashion democracy. Excerpts from an interview:
Indian designers are usually not associated with menswear. So Esquire’s mention must have come as a huge surprise…
Yes, I was surprised when a friend called and informed me about my store being mentioned in Esquire’s list in its prestigious Big Black Book of Style. For two decades, I’ve focussed on the fundamentals of men’s clothing — which are cut and fit. You get them right, and you can survive the blustery winds of fashion.
Most Indian designers concentrate on women’s wardrobe, but you give equal importance to menswear. Was it easy when you started out to get men to accept the idea of designer wear?
The logic is simple. Men need help with their wardrobe. They must think beyond clichéd cuts, styles and colours. It took a while for them to open up to the idea of designer wear. Now, it’s really caught on. I would also attribute the trend to gym-hopping men who seek torso-clinging clothes. When they started looking for slim fits and cuts that could enhance their personalities, the recognition came automatically. John Abraham wore my shirts in No Smoking. Films such as the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Aladdin, the underwater blockbuster Blue and the much-hyped Fashion followed. Initially, it was a struggle to do menswear. But I believed it was right and went ahead. I introduced creative touches on the collar and cuff. Subtle embroidery and other forms of embellishment transformed simple shirts into elegant eveningwear.
You’ve been a strong advocate of fashion democracy. What have you done in this direction?
Sadly, in our country high fashion remains with some ten people! How do you reach ten billion people? Offer good looks for less. I had tied up with retail chains and created special low-priced pret lines in a trans-seasonal palette and with mix-and-match options. Now, I’m looking for more meaningful collaborations in this direction. I’m keen to offer high-end value for a mass market. The future is about economically-viable collections and bigger numbers. I already see many young designers aspiring to do that.
You belonged to the second batch of NIFT, New Delhi. Now, you give lectures on style. How has fashion education evolved over the years?
When I studied, most of our faculty was from abroad. Sadly today, a majority of lecturers come from conservative backgrounds. Fashion is about expression. Unless you are allowed total freedom to express, you cannot create. I’ve seen lecturers trying to force their thoughts on students. It can limit and stifle creative thinking. Also, I’m not for too much emphasis on marks and attendance in design schools. Instead of giving freedom, we exercise controls! If we are regimental, we cannot raise the bar of education. I continue to give lectures and mentor young designers. The first thing I tell them is to open up and think original. Fashion is frontier-free.
You’ve designed extensively for films. Where do you think fashion is headed going by Bollywood trends that percolate mainstream?
There’s been a whole bunch of young stylists and film makers who have changed the way Bollywood personalities look on and off screen. Yes, Hindi films are a major influence on mainstream trends. But it’s not just films. In the current context, the Internet and social media sites are a greater influence. What’s on the ramp in Milan today finds an echo on what’s in the mass market in Mumbai tomorrow. The Internet has changed the way we see, buy, talk and discuss fashion. We find ourselves in a whole new world. Having said that, I still believe fashion is about individuality. It’s up to every individual to give his/her own spin on trends. Otherwise, we’d all look like templates!
Suddenly, there’s too much happening on the bridal fashion front. You too came up with a new-age bridal look recently…
Travel and exposure have drastically changed perceptions about bridal. I’ve edited fashion magazines such as Elle many years ago. I understand how tastes have evolved. From 500 grams of cloth many years ago to 500 kgs of crystals in one garment nowadays… that’s not my idea of bridal. A bride must look like a supermodel, not like a sumo wrestler. It’s not a costume; it must be something that gently reflects your culture. Fashion is not theatre to use costumes. To me, a collection tells a story. My new-age bridal line is based on light fabrics, subtle embellishment and versatile clothes that can outlive wedding dos.
It’s been two decades in fashion. How would you describe your journey?
I’ve been involved with different aspects of fashion — journalist, consultant, teacher and designer. So I’ve had the rare chance to see fashion from different perspectives. I see every endeavour as a learning curve. There have been lots of ups and downs, but on the whole, it’s been a wonderful journey. Fashion is a fickle industry. When I joined the circuit, I had few friends. I still have only few people I can call friends.