One of India’s first designers to bring out a menswear line in the eighties, Krishna Mehta says she feels for the fabric

Thirty-one-years ago Krishna Mehta made heads turn with her debut, a defining menswear fashion line. She continues to do so with her innovative collections. “Innovate or evaporate,” says the chic, soft-spoken designer who was in the city to launch her resort-wear collection at boutique Collage in Panampilly Nagar.

Her first cut was at a time when fashion had little to do with the Indian male. It was a time of shirts in “polyester fabric stitched square”. This was subsequently followed by a range, another first—a line for working women. It was need-based and had as much sensitivity and thought as her debut collection. It caught the flow of the retail market immediately.

“In the 80s women still went to work draped in a sari. I am from Mumbai and a very observant person. I could see and sense the difficulties of wearing a sari and boarding a bus or an auto. It is not the easiest of garments to look and remain fresh in. I designed tunics, an extension of men’s kurtas,” recalls Krishna who paired the tunic with narrow knee-length trousers, added a collar and did away with the long dupatta. That was it. It became a rage.

After making a mark with these two innovative products, Krishna moved on to design women’s couture, bridal wear, elaborate menswear and spread her wings across the country. Eponymous stores began dotting cities around the country. In 2003, stretched and overcome by the market demands, Krishna took a four-year break from the fashion scene in India and moved to Paris to learn and work with international fashion houses. She worked with Chloe, Alexander McQueen and other big names. But her roots called her back. She set up an export unit in Mumbai which produces embroidered fabric catering to the western market. “The international market is very different from ours. We like colours, they don’t. We have the sun, they have grey skies,” she says, almost sounding like a poet whose creativity is through fabrics instead of words, with the knowledge and experience of a professional who’s seen the industry inside out.

Ask her about her maiden design venture—the menswear line—which created a stir and she says, “I have always broken rules. I wanted men to break out of the rigidity of a uniformed look.” Krishna used the simple Batik fabric and enhanced it with her trademark stitching details and her Mother of Pearl buttons. It was a challenge, she recalls. Once the line began moving off the shelves, Krishna grew bolder. She bought “Madras checks, the lungi fabric” and added the designer touch.

A man designing for a woman was never looked askance upon but vice versa the case was different. Krishna says, “When a man designs for a woman, he designs for an aspiration he seeks. But when a woman designs for a woman, she goes into her psyche. She is her.”

Being in the industry for over three decades has given Krishna the experience of knowing the industry inside out. She has morphed and moved on to newer, fresher textures. But what remains as her mark is the strength of the fabric she uses. She allows the fabric to speak rather than drown it with superfluous embellishments. Elegance, the understated look and straight silhouettes make her lexicon. “I am more of a textile designer. The fabric is the soul of a garment. If that is enriched you don’t need to do anything. I want somebody to compliment the person not the garment. Designer wear should not drown the personality. It should say everything without speaking,” says Krishna who is working with weavers in Imphal to bring the rare and unique weaves of the North East to the world’s runways.

Krishna works obsessively. She speaks of a designer like a scientist behind her desk, of continuous permutations, combinations and innovations. This she feels is lacking in the new generation of designers. “They lack passion and sincerity.” She attributes the changed scenario to the heady times of fashion, modelling and films. “The glamour factor is very luring and fashion schools are churning out students who don’t feel for the fabric. I work seven days a week and not a day has passed that I don’t feel the bounce in my step. The day that happens I will stop, stop designing,” she says, with a charming smile.