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A stitch in time to keep up with the times

Mumbai, March 30: Dresswalla boutique stands quietly elegant in a corner on Hill Road in Bandra, like many others across the country’s fashion capital.

Inside the wood-and-glass store sits a designer couple amid exclusive blouses, tops, trousers, heavily embroidered sarees, sherwanis and silverwork ties which are meant to set you back by a few thousand.

Nothing extraordinary there. But ask Girish Dresswalla and the story comes tumbling out — the story of Bollywood fashion. The boutique is an offspring of M/s Maganlal Dresswalla, the leading costume provider to the film industry from the 1930s-70s.

Well before the age of Manish Malhotra and Neeta Lulla and till the 1970s, when films were unself-consciously filmi, when heroines were nicely plump and didn’t bother about custom-made cocktail dresses, when vamps were happy with anything georgette and sequinned, and designer labels were a distant dream, Maganlal Dresswalla was an institution.

He supplied film after film with all the clothes they needed. “My father set up the business in the 1920s. He was the first to start costumes for films in a professional way,” says son Girish.

The old costume factory in Juhu still exists, but now its only big-time client is Krishna, the teleserial. So Dresswalla, the boutique, was set up to lure back business from Bollywood.

Girish recalls the days before his father set up business. “There were only darjis (tailors) then. But we began to work with a team of tailors. We did some very well-known films.”

Maganlal worked on legendary films, right from the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, to “Homi Wadia’s Hunterwali, Sohrab Modi’s Kundan and Jhansi Ki Rani”. There were numerous other films which Girish cannot remember now.

Unlike his son Kalpesh and daughter-in-law Purobi, both of whom are Nift graduates and in charge of the new boutique, Girish was a class XII student when he joined his father’s business.

“We used to do costumes for the entire film, including all the actors and extras. We also did their shoes and jewellery. There used to be this person called the ‘dressman’, part of the film crew, those days whose job it was to coordinate between us and the actors,” he says.

“We were the leading name in the business. We made costumes for 20th Century Fox, too. But I forget the name of the film.”

Maganlal catered to Bollywood stars such as “Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam”. “We did all the costumes for Dev Anand’s Johnny Mera Naam, too.” Helen had sizzled in the shimmery dresses Maganlal provided.

But things started to change from the 1970s because “our speciality was historical films. There were many good historical films till the ’60s... from the ’70s, our business began to lessen”. “The last big film we did was in the ’80s — Manoj Kumar’s Kranti,” Girish recalled.

According to him, the films changed with the transformation in people’s tastes: they no longer wanted to watch historicals and costume dramas. But then, Bollywood itself was undergoing a sea change at the time.

With the emergence of Rajesh Khanna came a certain modernity and a new spruceness, intolerant of the older home-grown or heavy period look. When Amitabh Bachchan came, action spoke louder than the outfits.

Only with the launch of the 1990s did fashion designers invade Bollywood, making over the leading men and women in their designer-label outfits.

Maganlal Dresswalla, with its piles of ghagra cholis and dhoti kurtas and brocade sherwanis, hit a dead end. “But I didn’t want to give up,” Girish says.

“Though we had started an export business and a retail store, I was determined to keep the family business. So when my son wanted to go to Nift and did well there, we set up this business.”

Last month, Dresswalla boutique organised a fashion show of its latest collection, clearly aimed at bagging film offers. According to Girish, the store that was set up last year has been “doing well, though we are yet to get a good offer”.

The change, however, has been for the better. “This generation is so different. At their recent fashion show, I saw them taking so much care over the fold of a blouse. We didn’t bother so much then. What has happened is for the better,” Girish said.

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