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Aiming high Suneet Varma at his residence in New Delhi
Aiming high Suneet Varma at his residence in New Delhi

Anuj Kumar dissects the fashion scene with style guru Suneet Varma

“There was a time when things were well done, then came the time when things were badly done. Now we are living in times when bad things are well done.” These are the indicting words from the original style guru of Indian fashion – Suneet Varma.

Somebody who talks about costume history and costume sociology, this Delhiite is in a minority in his fraternity. “I feel things were much better in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At that time we used to have debates on design. I remember Co-optex called me to work with the master weavers in Varanasi. Fashion is not just about dressing. It reflects the social mores of a society at a point of time. How they did their hair, how they behaved in a particular clothing…today we are moving from one collection to another.”

He says 1930s were the best when the likes of Amrita Shergill sparkled in muslin saris. “Those were times when subtlety ruled, the focus was on textiles and instant gratification hadn’t even touched our lives.” The worst, he continues, were the ‘70s when polyester was at its prime and safari suits and cut-piece culture hit the country. “Those were hideous and perhaps that is the reason glamour girls Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi kept their clothing to bare minimum!” Suneet calls the ’80s as the revivalist period when people like Pupul Jayakar and Rajiv Sethi took the Indian craft to the world stage.

Emerging sync

A keen follower of cinema and music, Suneet feels with sense returning to Hindi cinema, more and more filmmakers are willing to move beyond the clichéd costume designers to fashion designers and stylists. He is working with Rakesh Roshan on his ambitious project Kites directed by Anurag Basu. “For long there was no sync between what we were doing and what Bollywood was offering to the masses in terms of fashion. Now a chemistry is emerging thanks to actors like Hrithik Roshan. If I offer him fancy boots, he refuses as they don’t match his character in the film. I assume this was not the case earlier. Anurag is so specific that he got the look of Hrithik and Kangna (Ranaut) ready a couple of months in advance. Now I am going to Los Angeles to design for Barbara Mori (she plays an important role in Kites).”

Known to keep his designs practical and functional, Suneet says he is among those whose designs are most prone to piracy. “I have come across owners of sari stores, congratulating me for their business. I ask them where is my royalty!” He insists what keeps his creations young is his 150-odd team. “The oldest is 31 and the youngest is 21. When I recruit them, I ask why do you want to work with me? I get different answers but when this 21-year-old came to me he just said: Suneet you are awesome! I was left gaping. That’s all! This is the vocabulary of the new generation which reflects in its clothes. I remain apprehensive that his low rise jeans will fall any moment but he is cool about it.”

Less-travelled path

This takes us to his youth and Suneet reflects on his parents who allowed him to take the less-travelled path. “My father was a textile consultant. He was open to discuss everything but there was zero tolerance for indiscipline and morals. He wanted me to take up arts. I was interested in sculpting and went to London.” He did a foundation course in sculpting and painting but slowly his interest veered towards dressing those sculptures and ended up graduating from London School of Fashion in costume history.

Morals, however, didn’t come in the way despite his proximity to people from the fraternity, where personal preferences are varied. “All were welcome in my home. Yes, female body fascinates me but I believe sex is the outcome of true love. I don’t attach the word sexy to a female form. To me a smile, a dish could be sexy as well.”

Back to the present, Suneet was recently offered the presidency of Fashion Design Council of India, but he refused. “I don’t want to get into a muddle. I am a founding member of FDCI but I have never been into the Board. I may not even participate this year, as I have two big shows coming up around the same time.” A brand ambassador of BMW in India, Suneet reveals he is doing two opera-based shows with the automobile major. Putting things in perspective, he suggests youngsters to focus on the domestic market. “See, BMW has shown faith in me because I am a known face in India. For the rest of the world they have many to invest into. But the youngsters have their own set of problems. Today nobody can start out with 5000 rupees, a machine and two assistants, the way I did 15 years back.”

The need of the hour, he sums up, is to revive the debate on design. “In Japan they have Metropolitan Museum, where the entire costume history of the country is preserved. I had a vendor card of the museum. You can enquire about how even a sequin came into being. There is nothing like it here. Till date only sari and Indian motif has been able to make an impact on the world. It is for the media, which seems obsessed with Bollywood, and designers to work together and rekindle the design debate.”

( anuj@thehindu.co.in)

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