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Reinventing menswear in India and more

Excerpts from Sartorially Speaking with Kunal Rawal

Anannya Sarkar Published 10.08.21, 11:50 PM
Kunal Rawal

Kunal Rawal

Menswear in India is a tricky thing to ace and among the few designers doing it right is Kunal Rawal. In a freewheeling chat with Anannya Sarkar on the Sartorially Speaking series on t2 Instagram Live, the popular menswear designer spoke about men’s fashion in India and more. Excerpts...

What about menswear interested you in the first place and were you ever worried about the acceptability or the appetite for fashion amongst the average Indian man...


When I started, fashion was not being taken very seriously as an industry. So I’ve seen fashion become the industry it is and it’s the same with menswear. So when I was in college, at London College of Fashion, I wasn’t very sure that menswear was the direction that I wanted to take and I remember back in the day taking up courses for visual studies, accessory, design and multiple different courses because I was trying to find where my interest really lay. And I won’t lie there was a selfish tinge to it when I realised that with menswear there is such a gap in the market. When we used to come back home after I finished my schooling, menswear in the Indian context had a lot to do with brands. You had the labels like your Van Heusen, Raymond and things like that, and you had a handful of designers. Even with wedding wear, there was so much, in my thought, not going correct when it came to putting out the right message fashion-wise that I just felt that that’s the gap that I want to fill.

Talking about my journey, it all started at the GenNext show at Lakme (Fashion Week) and it was the first batch that I was lucky to be a part of. It was sponsored by Aza and out of thousands of entries, I luckily got in. It was amazing because from the first season onwards I was retailing at Aza; I started a contemporary Indo-Western label called Dstress and at that time, I was lucky to have a really nice retail outlet in Juhu in Mumbai. Within six months I found a franchise for a second outlet. It felt amazing, it had a lot of hand-painted shirts, very detailed wash-out kurta shirts — completely against the grain of what was happening at that time.

But very early on I realised that retail was a different animal. I was 20-21 at the time and you know it all becomes about the sales you could do per month, per square foot as when there is retail, there is a business side to it and I think I was too young to jump right into that.

So about two years later I had a serious chat with my dad, and one of the strongest pieces of advice he gave me was that a designer’s career is long so prep yourself for the first 10 years with the experience that will help you build the label and build yourself, going ahead. So that was what I tried to do. I dabbled in a whole bunch of things because honestly, you have to try and find what your true calling design-wise is. So I got a bunch of collaborations, western collaborations, I had my label Dstress, worked on different product lines, we worked with Salman (Khan) bhai for Being Human, it was like an art collaboration. The idea was to try and change the way India dresses.

So how do I contribute to the fashion sense of India as a whole? So then I was working as the creative head of Provoke for a year, it was a very successful label at that time. So trying to understand how my headspace and designs could make a change in the way India dresses. Then I moved to doing a bunch of IPL collaborations with on-field and off-field merchandise ranges.

So soon enough, I realised that movies and costume design is again a very legit way to have a say in the way India dresses when it comes to trends and things like that. So I got into doing movies, did my first film Aisha and then just followed my heart. Wanted to do one commercial, a proper film with a proper A-list actor, so went and did Desi Boyz with Akshay Kumar and John (Abraham). Wanted to do a period film so got into doing Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai, worked on Teri Meri Kahaani, which was a movie set over three different eras and then said that boss, I have to do one gangster movie. (Laughs) So then I got into doing Shootout at Wadala. So you know, I just went with the flow and before you knew it, I was working on a whole bunch of movies and also dabbled in creating a bunch of uniforms for a restaurant in London. I designed a collection for a British car racing brand called Ginetta. In fact, not too many people know that I had the opportunity to work with Topman as a menswear designer before it came back to India. So just a bunch of experiences trying to prep myself for the rest of my design career.

Then my dad also told me, ‘You come to me when you feel that you are prepped enough and set enough, and you’ve got enough experience’. By then the scenario of menswear was changing slowly, but it was changing. And I felt that the timing was right, say a few years back, to get into doing Indo-Western wear and push my retail, get into the wedding market and tweak the things that I felt were not working correctly.

Through all your collaborations, you have been breaking the notion that menswear is not just about shaadi, and fashion doesn’t have to be limited to that…

That’s the thing — shaadi is not a bad word. Shaadi fashion, wedding fashion, occasion wear is so cool because the bank of silhouettes and the bank of craft that we have in the country is unbelievable. It’s used by every designer across the globe as almost everybody produces in India. It’s about time that Indian designers took this product on to the main stage and on to the Western stage too. So I think that the younger designers today are definitely making Indian wear and occasion wear very very cool. And honestly, there’s so much in this country. Back in the day, I remember in school, we used to have this chart paper of you know a Punjabi couple, a Gujarati couple, couples from different states in India and their individual garbs and their traditional attire — so I have always wanted to contemporise each of those silhouettes because nowhere else in the world do you have every state having a different language, every state having a sort of different clothing. So there are two sides to it because it also makes it a very very difficult country to please. But it makes it so exciting that it keeps you going. And when I wanted to get into occasion wear, especially with menswear there was so much that upset me.

At that time men had zero luxury of options, you were expected to choose out of a small rack never out of a larger selection and before I got into my retail about three to four years ago, I did a lot of R&D and a lot of studies and what I found was a lot of guys had so many takes on the Western side of their wardrobe. When it came to occasion-wear, they had not much interest, somebody else decided what they wore. The answer I got was that my mother decides or my fiancee or my sister or my brother, or somebody in the family decides. I mean how wrong is that? How can you let somebody else choose what you should be wearing? So that was one of the thoughts that really riled me up at that time. So from then onwards, I’ve always tried to pique interest in what we do. So the points that really irritated me at that time were lack of optionality for men, men not having enough to choose from, not having interest or involvement in what they wear and also guys not dressing according to their mood, how they feel. There was no transitional clothing, it was always the Western side of the wardrobe and maybe a bandhgala set and a kurta that every guy had, that would go for dry cleaning and then they would wear the exact same thing for the next function. So I wanted to put out a product that was transitionary. Something that fits in the middle of your wardrobe. Something that’s so versatile, that can be styled into Indian wear and Western wear. That’s the reason I don’t like bifurcating our label. We do menswear, we are a menswear design house and we cater to everywhere from modern luxury and Western red carpet functions to deep-rooted tradition. So that’s the complete spectrum we like to cater to.

File photos from Kunal Rawal’s Bennie & Clyde collection

File photos from Kunal Rawal’s Bennie & Clyde collection

As you mentioned, that’s a very nuanced take on menswear. You play with textures, you play with tonality, it’s not just the silhouettes that you concern yourself with. So what is your relationship with craft, how do you go about maintaining that balance?

For us, I have a strong take on anything and everything, especially when it comes to our aesthetics. Another unique thing not spoken about that much is we like to take inspiration from grunge and industrial and then create luxury. Each thing goes into this bag which is the KR World and we’ve been building on that world for a few years now and that has become a signature for our story. So coming back to every collection, this aesthetic, you know we always think of what is the voice of the collection, what is it that we want to say with the collection... who is going to wear it, where are they going to wear it, how, why.... So these are the questions that I keep asking because I’m from LCF (London College of Fashion) so I believe in wearable art, in pret, so you should be able to wear what you create because there is so much maza on the inside, which you get to see only when you experience a piece — the fits, the cuts, the patterns, so yeah.

With the pandemic changing the scheme of things right now, has that changed the design process? You have recently designed for Jasprit Bumrah and Varun Dhawan’s weddings, so how was that experience?

Bumrah at his sangeet and Varun Dhawan at his mehndi , wearing designs by Kunal Rawal.

Bumrah at his sangeet and Varun Dhawan at his mehndi , wearing designs by Kunal Rawal.

To be honest, it’s been a learning year. These last two years have been like living an entire life. I have felt that I have lived every emotion — good, bad, ugly, all of it. It’s been a challenge. I like things being not very digital, I believe trial and error is the key for creating anything in our industry, design-wise. It’s not my ideal way to work but we had to do what we had to do.

The advantage was that I had a lot more time so I got to do mood-boarding, R&D, literally how we used to do stuff back in college and back in the day. Chasing a thought and creating but doing that whole process alone. I really, really missed my team because sampling was such a mess through this whole process.

But life moves on and we figure a way out. You know, I was talking to somebody today about how being from Mumbai already preps you for so much because through the year you are used to so much because of the pace of the city. So we managed to crack this digital working sort of space, but it’s not for me, man (Laughs). Work from home is I feel tough for our industry, especially on the design and sampling, production, that side. So can’t wait for things to sort of move past, stabilise a little. But these weddings, working on them, the process was slightly more tedious because a lot more time goes into the back and forth and things like that but like anything else the show must go on and we managed to crack it, and we managed to work on the correct timelines.

Whenever you’re working for a groom and customising for a wedding, it’s so important because it’s one of the most important days of their lives. It’s so important for us to use all that we have to make it as special as possible for their day. So, it’s very important to know what the function is like, where and how are they going to be wearing it, is it correct for the occasion, is it too much, is it too less, and what the size of the wedding is.

Thankfully, our look is a little bit more about tone-on-tone, touch, feel. There’s so much detailing and storytelling that goes in, but because it has to be wearable and we believe in versatility and stuff, all our storytelling gets minimised. It goes more into micro-motifs rather than into motifs. And in Covid, weddings are a lot more intimate, a lot more about seeing the clothes up close, that’s something that works very well for our label.

Earlier it was about standing out and shining through a room of 800 people and 1,200 people but as of today, it is more about up-close. So focussing on textures, focussing on colours, keeping the setting in mind, keeping the personality of people that are wearing it in mind.

Varun loves colour and he loves trying something out of the ordinary, so we worked on a very interesting way of beading for his Mehndi look. That look was one of my favourite looks of the season. We wanted it to look a little more abstract rather than pronounced. Seeing Varun and his love for colour, we went for a bright mint and highlighted it with a red, but the beading we did in a very abstract way where we took two colour-three colour beads and just left it and whatever comes wherever is where we stitched it on. So that gave a really, really nice textured detailed look, it had three layers of embroidery on it, it was really really fun.

Coming to Jasprit’s wedding, I got the chance to meet him a couple of times because it was between the two lockdowns and we got to play with one of my favourite silhouettes in the colour tone that he loves, which is navy, and I’m a big big fan of blues. I think the darker blues we do are very special because it is very different in terms of colour. For his Sangeet, he had a bunch of movements that he had to make and they had some dances and I thought it was perfect for our deconstructed silhouettes because it’s a very functional silhouette that we put out. It’s something that could look like you’re wearing a complete sherwani but it’s broken up into two pieces, so we chose that. He was also very fun and very happy to go with the flow when it came to the hems and the cuts because we customise our cuts and hems depending on the person and the body type and his lean athletic figure is something that worked very well.

Campaign shots from Kunal Rawal’s latest collection

Campaign shots from Kunal Rawal’s latest collection

Your personal sense of style is also very distinctive. Do you see that transcending into the work that you do?

You are absolutely right there is a lot of synonymy between the way I think and dress and the label and that is something that I always make a point to question, you know, would I wear it? I feel one of the strongest advantages we have is that in this elusive wedding-wear market I think I’m one of the younger, or the youngest designer catering to this market, so everybody I’m catering to is around my age group. India has changed phenomenally over the years. Every year India changes, since the last decade the India I have grown up in is a bit different from the decade before and the decade before that. So I think the way I think is very close to the person I am catering to.

Grooms that are getting married are more or less around my age group. So putting in details, thoughts that I believe in, I think helps a lot in connecting with the groom today. So we love incorporating that and mixing and matching stuff. Mumbai is a big big part of my inspiration, Mumbai and the street style of Mumbai is so authentic and so original. It incorporates all the elements that I like. I love grunge, I love military elements because I’ve seen so many movies growing up and that’s a big part of the inspiration — armour, warrior movies, Gladiator, Troy; also I am a lot into sports and the races so that translates into my style and the label.

So yeah I think my personal style is very impulsive, it’s put together. I’d never pick up a mannequin look. I will always pick up pieces that I gravitate towards and then mix and match and try and make different looks out of and it’s definitely comfortable so that is a factor that I keep in mind when I am working with the label too.

What can we expect from you in the immediate future? What have you been working on?

I am raring to go because we’ve had so much time, we’ve had a lot of sampling, a lot of collection prep and we’re just waiting for the right time to put things out there. There are multiple product launches that we are working with — apparel and non-apparel — that we are going to be launching within the next few months. The thing is that when it is business it’s so difficult to put something out there with variables like the third wave, not knowing what’s happening around us, how long is this pandemic going to last, so just waiting to not launch anything fresh till we know what’s sort of happening at least as soon as three months from now.

Transcribed by Faiza Hazarika (t2 intern)

Pictures courtesy: Kunal Rawal

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