Designer Ravi Bajaj speaks to Shalini Shah about what ails menswear and why, sometimes, being a fashion designer is embarrassing
“My career has been a very slow and steady one. I’ve never had big breaks. Commercially, maybe, but in terms of my own creative satisfaction I don’t think I’ve had jumps at all,” ponders Ravi Bajaj when we meet in the Capital’s Hyatt Regency. The designer might have just completed 25 years in the industry but he remains nonchalant about personal milestones. “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing it consistently, I’ve been doing it persistently. I’ve known myself very well, always. I know exactly what I want to eat, I know exactly what I want to drink, since I was very young… I’m one of those irritating people.”The designer who set up his eponymous label in 1987 has established a reputation and loyal following that doesn’t necessitate being “seen” at industry events with a regularity that keeps up with public memory. (The last time he showed on a fashion week ramp was at the inaugural edition of the menswear week in New Delhi in 2009.) He’s one of the industry “seniors”, with a niche that extends from cocktail saris on one hand to impeccable menswear on the other. “My career has been a very slow and steady one. I’ve never had big breaks. Commercially, maybe, but in terms of my own creative satisfaction I don’t think I’ve had jumps at all,” ponders Ravi Bajaj when we meet in the Capital’s Hyatt Regency. The designer might have just completed 25 years in the industry but he remains nonchalant about personal milestones. “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing it consistently, I’ve been doing it persistently. I’ve known myself very well, always. I know exactly what I want to eat, I know exactly what I want to drink, since I was very young… I’m one of those irritating people.”
In a nation where menswear designers are few, and generally quiet, being good at it often means being typecast. Has being known as a “menswear designer” ever hurt the other aspects of his business?
“The strange part is, in Mumbai in the past years I’ve only been selling women’s wear, so the Mumbai clients associate me only with saris. In Delhi we sell both, but the general perception in India is that I do menswear because there are very few designers who do menswear. I have no problem with that, I’m quite happy being known as a good menswear designer. Yes, I may suffer a little bit in terms of perception when it comes to an outsider who doesn’t know exactly what I do but knows or has heard that Ravi Bajaj is a menswear designer. Therefore, if they’re doing trousseau shopping they’d think he won’t do a lehenga, when the fact is that we do lehengas, or he won’t do heavy saris, though the fact is we do them. But I don’t think it worries me too much, because people in the know know,” says Bajaj.
Not many were “in the know” about most things fashion 25 years ago, when a 22 year old in Delhi decided he wanted a clothing label named after himself.
After finishing schooling from Delhi Public School, Bajaj decided he would go to the U.S. to study fashion. A denied visa meant the U.K. became the “default” choice; he joined the American College of Applied Arts in London.
Homesickness set in two weeks later. “I started crying like a baby. I’m embarrassed admitting it, but I was 20 years old! I really couldn’t take it. It told my parents I wanted to come back. So I lost one semester fee, came back. The minute I landed at the Delhi airport I was like, ‘Oh, No!’ My fees were paid by my godmother, a Canadian missionary who’s been in our family since before I was born. She was the one who gave me her life’s savings to go study. Then (when I came back) I realised what I had done. Then I called her and asked her, ‘Do you think I’ll get a second chance?’ She said, ‘Sure, but you shouldn’t come back again.’”
Bajaj went back to London and, this time, stuck it out.
On how things were after returning, he recalls, “I started my label at 22. Of course I was ambitious. I wanted to see my name up there. But when I started there was no fashion in India as such. There was hardly a ready-to-wear industry, forget fashion. For branded shirts there were just two brands. It was interesting. The market was about to open… That’s the time I started. It was a green field, so I from day one I became a minor celebrity. People interviewed me. I was 22 years old, a young Sikh boy with a turban. Everybody was really fascinated. Those were interesting times…”
And times have evolved. “Then, when I told my friends I’m launching a label, they were like, ‘Very good, what are you going to call it?’ I said Ravi Bajaj. They said, ‘Who’d wear garments with ‘Ravi Bajaj’ written on them!’ That’s how it was. When I went for my first purchase trip to Chandni Chowk, the guy who was making the bill asked, ‘Haan ji, aapka company ka naam?’ and I said Ravi Bajaj. ‘Nahi, company ka naam’ he asked again. I said, ‘Yahi hai’. Those were the days when a man would walk in and say, ‘Can you make me a dress?’ A dress! That was the terminology. To have a pair each of brown and black shoes was enough. Today in my circle of friends or clients, the men have more shoes than their wives, they have more colour in their wardrobes than their wives. It’s really been a huge change. I was just at Emporio meeting a client. Who’s shopping now? Men. Who’s carrying shopping bags? Men. It’s been a huge transformation, from saying, ‘I have black and brown shoes and that’s enough’ to today, when wives are complaining, ‘Ab aur joote mat lena, there’s no space.’”
Several fashion houses are trying to develop and market a specific silhouette as their own, the way a JJ Valaya has been working on the ‘Alika’ jacket a few seasons now, or a Gaurav Gupta has a USP in the sari gown.
Ravi Bajaj calls his the ‘navigator kurta’. “I like construction, whether it’s a jacket or a sherwani. A silhouette that’s been working very well for us the past four or five years has been what I call the ‘navigator kurta’. I started doing it five or six years ago. It’s a happy meeting point between what a kurti for women and a kurta for men. It’s very versatile, and can be worn with jeans, trousers or pyjamas. I do it in several avtars. I call it the navigator kurta because it has several epaulets, pockets… the whole uniform feel. We do it season after season. For summer we do it in linen, for winter we may do it in corduroy, in suede, or with leather trims, or wool. That’s something we could be associated with. That’s our hot-seller in menswear. There’s, of course, the cocktail sari,” he says.
While eight years ago Ravi Bajaj got into the F&B business by opening a café in GK I in the Capital, he diverged into the home segment by launching Fashion Living by Ravi Bajaj, covering aspects of interior design as well as architecture.
“That’s the space I’m trying to grow into, which I find very interesting, because I’ve had a very architectural mind always. Even my fashion is about symmetry, ratio, proportion. And I enjoy doing interiors because it needs a certain amount of depth of knowledge. I’ve learnt a few things about that discipline. I can’t draft, I have an architect for that. But I’d like to do that. In fashion you work with fabric. Here you work with wood, metal, stone, glass… so many mediums. It’s very vast and very interesting, and the scale is bigger. Unlike a fashion collection which is maybe a few lakh rupees, this goes into crores in one apartment. Your thinking has to be on the dot. You can’t say like you do in fashion, ‘Yeh phool achha nahi laga, change kar denge’. Once you’ve laid a floor, you’ve laid it. That’s what’s exciting about it, and that’s what makes it difficult as a threshold. Anybody can become a fashion designer, but anybody cannot get into architecture. Like I always say, anybody can become a fashion designer but anybody can’t become a doctor or engineer. So that’s why I have respect for those disciplines. I’ve come to a point where I’m almost embarrassed to say I’m a fashion designer. Almost. Because there’s no value. In this country, everybody you speak to is a fashion designer.”
There was much talk after the FDCI-organised men’s fashion week, which had its debut just three years ago, was cancelled this year due to sponsor issues. Ravi Bajaj, who showed in the event’s first edition in 2009, says the problem lies in the attitude to menswear in general. “In India, all the organised sector in clothing is actually menswear. Think about general brands… Van Heusen, Allen Solly, Louis Philippe, anybody; they’re all menswear. Can you name any such brands in women’s wear? No. In women’s wear, the bigger brands, like Biba, would be of 200 crore rupees. Each of these (menswear) brands is around 4000 crore. Each of them. Yet, the Indian audience, media included, is obsessed with women. It’s got to do with that fixation. When I opened men’s fashion week, it was the middle of the day, it being the first slot. It was noon. It was an extremely rainy day, September 11, and I thought nobody would come. I was lucky people showed up. But nobody wants to go watch men on the ramp. Everybody wants to go see women at fashion shows. That now nobody wants to go see a fashion show is a different matter. If the glamour quotient is missing, and the media doesn’t come, and if the media doesn’t come sponsors don’t come. Although the media tried its best to give coverage to that week, somehow they couldn’t sustain it the following year and the year after that. I think everything revolves around how much eyeballs you can get.”