Fashion’s creative directors, stars even before their appointment at a legacy brand, have to deal with too many expectations these days. How well can they communicate with millennials (or now, Gen Z), and mastermind unexpected collaborations? Are they comfortable addressing gender, identity and other issues? How soon can they turn a sluggish label’s fortunes around? Virgil Abloh, artistic designer of Louis Vuitton menswear, set the tone for the above. Five years after being appointed as Gucci’s head, Alessandro Michele is relentless with his high-concept ideas. So while one cannot compare Satya Paul, the 35-year-old Indian sari brand with a printmaking heritage, with these global fashion houses, it is fair to say that one is curious and hopeful about the plans of its new creative director, Rajesh Pratap Singh.
For well over two decades, Singh, 51, with his eponymous label, has built a reputation for innovative fabrics and often architectural or stark silhouettes. For his white shirt, indigo-dyed denim and R&D with khadi , ikat , wool, or even aluminium and steel in his fabrics. Research for his first collaborative collection with The Woolmark Company back in 2013 gave him a fine understanding of yarns and weaves across the country. And this will be relevant at a time when the coronavirus impact on Indian crafts and handlooms calls for many saviours.
- “At a time when fashion and the tailors, embroiderers, dyers, vendors, and many others who are dependent on it, are teetering on the edge of survival, it is good to have thinking, feeling designers like Abraham Thakore, Ritu Kumar and Rajesh Pratap Singh to take the industry safely forward,” says Laila Tyabji.
- “We need courage as well as introspection, readiness to find new directions and reject old stereotypes. I was excited at Rajesh’s appointment for Satya Paul and look forward to some truly creative and inclusive churning in the way corporate retail works.”
In The Voice of Fashion ’s recent Rebuilding Report, Dastkar’s Laila Tyabji writes that designers will have to “move out of their comfort zones and work with craftspeople in distant clusters all over India, rather than just piggyback onto familiar master craftspeople already in the market”. Singh has been doing just that for a while now, acquainting himself with “different looms and addas ”. But the NIFT graduate with a high-profile clientèle that goes well beyond Bollywood, prefers to let his work speak for itself. Often reluctant to be interviewed, he tells me over the phone from Delhi, “I’m not a very articulate man and I am not very good at expressing myself.” He admits that there have been a few changes at Satya Paul, some “decluttering”. “Mr Satya Paul had initially done a lot with Indian textiles. I want to visit that again and make it more relevant to the times,” he says. How have earlier collaborations prepared him for this stint? “Collaborations are projects. This not a project. This is a major commitment, an energy exchange,” he says.
The thing about sustainability
Happier with the term ‘modern’ rather than ‘minimalist’, Singh has begun with a capsule collection of linen shirts for men (₹4,995) onwards. Jungle themed, they have names like Happy Hummers featuring hummingbirds or the Mangal Shirt with tropical leaves and monkeys. “These shirts are a taste of things to come,” he allows, adding that saris are next. “When we started talking about the collection, the fires were raging in the Amazon and Australia. We had few episodes in India as well. From that point of view, there were discussions in the studio: on nature, our relationship with it and how irresponsible and ungrateful we are.” Which brings us to the designer’s uneasiness with the term ‘sustainability’, even when his own company has been lauded for its environment-friendly practices.
- “During lockdown I read a lot. And I discovered a jungle in Delhi (laughs). Its location is a secret but I can tell you it has lakes, small hillocks, rock faces for climbers and a lot of indigenous trees. Like the Dhau, which is native to the Aravallis. And the Salai (known for its aromatic resin). They are such beautiful trees, so beautiful that when they are in bloom, you will cry.”
When receiving GQ magazine’s Fashion Sustainability Award in 2018, his short acceptance speech was about sustainability not being a fashion or a trend. I ask him about this. “It’s when you start using these labels that you start restricting yourself. We can’t be the messiahs of sustainability,” is his response. He adds, “To sustain the business we have to be commercially sustainable. There are balances which we have to make. I don’t have perfect answers, and that’s why I don’t like to use these words.”
On the job
We talk about him leading the two labels and how challenging he expects it to be. “The process and the core remain the same, and it is just the visual language that will change. There will be a lot of experimentation.” Will we see signature details like motorbike sleeves on kurtas ? “It is a different language in that sense. I have to respect the DNA of Satya Paul. The brand is much more than who I am. Luckily for me, the [Satya Paul] team is fairly large. It is more guidance, and I will act as a filter. It is a more holistic approach,” he explains.
It helps that RPS is known for creating fabrics that are tailoring-worthy. “Probably that is one knowledge I can bring to the table with Satya Paul. We want to work with the finest weavers, the finest printers, craftsmen and the process has already started,” says Singh, whose network includes the Bhutti weavers in Kullu and craftspeople in Maheshwar and Kumaon. It is why Shefalee Vasudev of VOF says she is looking forward to Singh’s synergy with “the completely different, almost contradictory DNA of Satya Paul as imagined by its founder and creative directors so far”. I couldn’t agree more.