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Manish Arora, India's king of colour

Indian designer Manish Arora has built his name on bright, busy and exotic creations, writes Tessa Chan

 

MANISH ARORA IS dressed from head to toe in black when we meet at the Joyce store in Central. The only clues to his colourful character are the oversized, Bollywood bling-style gold watch with a glittering dollar sign, the jewel-encrusted bird's talon hanging around his neck and gold rings on his fingers.

The last time we saw him here he had just been appointed creative director for Paco Rabanne - a stint that lasted only two seasons. "I wanted to put the same time and energy into my own brand," says Arora. "So I started a second brand for India after I left. Because India is such an evolving market right now and there is a lot of buying power."

His efforts have paid off; in two years 'Indian by Manish Arora' now has five shops on the subcontinent, and is selling in 35 other stores, as well as online. His main line is going well, particularly in Hong Kong, where he has just signed an exclusive contract with Joyce. "From all the places I sell, as a city Hong Kong sells the most. More than Paris, more than anywhere else," he says.

Arora has been showing for eight years at Paris Fashion Week, and remains the only Indian designer with a consistent presence on the international circuit. "It's a country of 1.3 billion, and I'm the only one," he says, adding that he finds the lack of big Chinese brands there even more surprising. "But Indian designers are very content selling only in India. It's easier. It's the same shapes every season."

Arora, however, had bigger plans in mind. "I wanted to make a point, bring out something that had not been done before. This explosion of colour, the over-embellishment, the excessiveness - I wanted to show that to the world. I believed in it and I still do; this is my fashion and I will not stop that. And, somehow, when you believe in something really honestly, things fall into place."

Visualise flappers from the roaring twenties, dropping acid and going to a rave, and you might come close to understanding what Arora has in store for spring-summer 2014. Art deco interiors and perfume bottles, lipsticks and bananas (from famous showgirl Josephine Baker's costume) inspire psychedelic prints. Glitzy drop-waisted silhouettes are updated in soft, sporty fabrics, while sequins, beads and embroidery adorn an eye-popping fluoro palette.

"I'm a Goa freak," he says, eyes twinkling. "I've just come back from there. I've been going there since I was 17. Now I'm 41 and I've not missed a single new year to date. I love trance music. I don't listen to it all the time, but once a year I like to go there, to all the raves on my scooter, and just let go of the year and go wild."

It's also a celebration of female independence in the '20s. "Lipstick was invented at that time. Women started having keys to the house. They started smoking." Even the sideswept hair of the models at his Paris catwalk show is a tongue-in-cheek nod to what Amelia Earhart's hair may have looked like after her fatal plane crash.

The same theme inspired his first short film, Holi Holy, which swept three prizes, including the Grand Prix, at Diane Pernet's festival, A Shaded View On Fashion Film (ASVOFF) in October.

"In India, traditionally when men die, their widows are discarded from the family. They are sent away to Varanasi, where they have to spend their whole lives wearing white," says Arora. "They're not allowed to celebrate or enjoy life, they're supposed to just suffer. It's so ridiculous, honestly. And of course, the Holi festival is all about colour. But in 2013 they actually got to play Holi for the first time. I saw that in the newspaper, and I was like 'f***, this is the movie that I want to make'."

British Indian singer Bishi Bhattacharya models his clothes against a gloomy Varanasi backdrop, which provides a striking contrast to the explosion of Holi colour. "I always wanted to make films before. If I wasn't in fashion I'd make films," says Arora. "And you can do so much with five minutes: you don't have to make two hour films anymore to express yourself."

Throughout the shoot, he recalls, there were at least a thousand people on the street watching them. But they had bigger logistics problems to deal with. "It's a very dirty city, it's all full of cow dung, animals on the street," says Arora. "And the city was flooded. It was terrible. Our hotel was under water to the first floor. We could not leave the main entrance: we had to go through the back with a ladder - literally swim out.

"There were these big, old-fashioned electric transformers all over the place, and at one moment we were standing there, knee deep in water, shooting, and I looked up, and there's this transformer and it was on fire. I was like, Ok, this is it."

But here he is. And now that it's all just an anecdote, he agrees cheerfully that part of India's beauty is precisely in its chaos. "I love it. It's the same with my work: it's so disorganised, but there is a method in the madness."

He's already got his mind on his next film, which he plans to work on the moment he finishes this month's show in Paris. "The first one came out so innocently, because there was no expectation. Now, the second one is going to be a bit of a pain in the ass," he says. "For me, fashion is best explained with a story. And it's going to be a very personal story. Of course it will be over the top, and it will be shot in India."

Now he splits his time between Delhi and Paris, flying back and forth once a fortnight, we hope that Paris' understated chic doesn't rub off on him and tone him down. "People may not be dressed extravagantly there, but they do understand pure talent," says Arora. "They are open to any kind of style. So in fact it gives me more confidence to go further."

He doesn't like to be pigeonholed as "exotic", but admits that being different has its perks. "You should never forget your culture or where you come from; that's what makes you stand apart from the rest. If I was to show in Paris and be like any other designer in the West I would have been lost among the thousands of them."

In 2005, he was spotted at India Fashion Week, by a representative from the British Fashion Council, who insisted that he apply for a spot at London Fashion Week. He did so and was immediately added to the roster.

He has hardly paused since. Arora has lost count of the collaborations he's done (about 45 to 50), covering everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Barbie. "I'm quite sharp with these things. My work is all fun and colourful and happy, but in the office I'm quite boring. I'm the kind of person who's at work at 8.30am. I work religiously, strictly. I'm quite a horrible boss sometimes," he adds, with a chuckle. "But my assistants like me because they know that I'm right."

While celebrities such as Katy Perry, M.I.A., Rihanna and Lady Gaga are fans of his eponymous label, he also has a more accessible mass market brand, Fish Fry, that caters to a younger crowd. "I want to reach everybody. I'm not the type of guy that's exclusive," he says. "I think everybody should have a piece of Manish Arora."

tessa.chan@scmp.com

 

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