fashion Designer Suneet Varma digs into the archives for a book that coincides with his completion of 25 years in the industry

There are few chroniclers truer than photographs. While clothes are the direct, tangible product of a fashion designer’s creative process, photographs — a collaboration between the designer, photographer and model — serve a higher purpose, that of putting in a context things that would otherwise have been lost with time. Coinciding with Suneet Varma completing 25 years as a fashion designer is the book Suneet Varma (Niyogi Books). Four hundred photographs amassed over more than two decades bring to focus the people who planet Varma’s orbit — photographers Vibhash Tiwari, Farrokh Chothia, Bharat Sikka, Tarun Khiwal and the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, models Madhu Sapre, Malaika Arora, Shyamolie Verma, Milind Soman, to name a few — with the designer’s creations being the catalysts that bring them together. Interspersed are interviews with people who’ve witnessed Varma’s work closely, including fellow designers, muses, set designers, fashion editors, choreographers, and photographers — the text is by journalist Nishat Fatima — as well as sketches and close-ups of details on garments. Model Tamara Moss, who Varma once described as “a rare beauty”, graces the cover.

“I had started work on the book over a decade ago with Prabuddha Dasgupta,” says Varma. “In fact, he and I started to work on our books the same time and he was very keen that I do a fashion/ photo book with him. I liked the idea very much as I’ve had a long relationship with books; probably one of my most satisfying relationships has been with my books. Starting from age 3 or 4, looking at all the art books that my father collected from all over the world... Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse were part of my growing years. I guess fashion, like painting, is best captured in imagery. After 25 years of working I finally felt I had a body of work that I could share and also one that will track the growth of the Indian fashion industry — from the earliest models, fashion writers, choreographers, industry persons, and corporate houses that helped us reach where we are now.”

With a bank of over 10,000 images at hand, the task, he says, boiled down to the edit. “I have always been very careful to document all my work, so we have the negatives, contact sheets, digital images, transparencies, etc, all marked per photographer filed away in boxes segregated by collection name and year. I selected over 700 images that I liked, and that represented what I was trying to achieve for every collection, then I had to narrow it down to 350 to 400 images as the book is only 290 pages and we had to be very hard on the edit. I worked with a very good team of editors — Malini Saigal and graphic designer Diya Dasgupta — who gently taught me the process of editing one’s own work,” he explains.

In the process, he says, there were also certain revelations about his own work graph.

“I can easily track the times I was more inspired than the others. I think I’ve grown, as has the industry, but some things remain the same — I still love strong women characters, I like to be inspired by the arts, music and history, and have a European sensibility even though I am Indian at heart. I see this thread running through my work of 25 years. The changes I see are in the techniques that I developed, from embroideries, to printing to handmade accessories. I notice that change in my styling of a collection as well.”

There are some iconic images, a black and white photograph of Feroze Gujral taken in 1989 by Prabuddha Dasgupta, for instance, which a young Suneet Varma was convinced into posing for; that of Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre in outfits from the designer’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’ collection; or Shyamolie Verma posing in a metal breastplate inspired by Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. “I’ve always loved that painting (The Birth of Venus) and have stared at it for hours. The image of Madhu and Milind, from ‘Madame de Pompadour’, was also an exciting time. Madhu and Milind were dear friends and indulged my crazy world of theatrics. So I’d tell them you are my Madame de Pompadour and Robespierre in a dangerous liaison. They would act the part... The white-haired wig was flown down from NYC just in time for the shoot and I hand-painted the moustache on Milind with an eyebrow pencil which, even though a bit crazy, made all the difference to the image,” Varma recalls.