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Home » My Kolkata » Lifestyle » The Journey Song: Shantnu Mehra of Shantnu & Nikhil looks back at the decades gone by and looks forward to the neo-luxury wave in fashion


The Journey Song: Shantnu Mehra of Shantnu & Nikhil looks back at the decades gone by and looks forward to the neo-luxury wave in fashion

In conversation with Saionee Chakraborty

Saionee Chakraborty | Published 06.08.23, 10:53 AM
Shantnu and Nikhil Mehra with showstoppers Aditya Roy Kapur and Sara Ali Khan, at Hyundai India Couture Week, in association with Reliance Brands, an FDCI initiative, in Delhi

Shantnu and Nikhil Mehra with showstoppers Aditya Roy Kapur and Sara Ali Khan, at Hyundai India Couture Week, in association with Reliance Brands, an FDCI initiative, in Delhi

Pictures: Sandip Das and FDCI

Shantnu Mehra, one half of designer-brother duo Shantnu & Nikhil, reminded us of that hardworking student who was consistent with preparation leading up to the final exams, when we dropped by at the brand’s Noida atelier a couple of days before they sent 78 looks on the runway at Hyundai India Couture Week, in association with Reliance Brands, an FDCI initiative, in Delhi on July 31. With no signs of any kind of pre-show stress, he took us around showing us a part of the collection, Etheria, that would be unveiled at Taj Palace, describing in detail the focus this year. During our hour-long stay, the calm of the creative process struck us. The same calmness that Shantnu radiated seemed to have permeated through the premises, his team putting the finishing touches without much hullabaloo.

The brothers showcased a line high on oomph and glam. The men smoking hot in their sheers and the women, bold and confident, in plunging necklines and sexy slits. Shantnu decoded the collection that celebrated the modern bride and groom and their freedom to be.


The collection looks striking...

We are moving a little bit away from the draped kurta. We are saying let our groom also be a little bit edgier and we are giving cummerbund in different avatars. Then you have these flared trousers. Normally you would associate a sherwani to be worn with a churidar. We are breaking the norms of that phera groom. It’s relaxed and as the night goes by, this gentleman has the opportunity to let his hair down…. Today’s modern groom needs to feel a bit sexier. It’s not always about the bride. All our cocktail and wedding grooms are given one strong trend. They are traditional but they are also sexy, today’s groom. We played with sheer.

For us, it’s ceremonial all the way this time. We have done jacket lehngas. It has a bustier inside but it also has a jacket. It’s got its drama. We are moving from a little bit of minimalism to maximalism. Our menswear becomes a lot more blingier. It of course has its drama of drapes as well. Also, when you look at it, it’s got a Roman baroque feel to it because the collection is inspired by some of those moments of how you see the Palace of Versailles and we have always been enamoured by the palaces and the craftsmanship you see in Italy. We have done many collections in the past that resonate with that. A lot of the architectural details and geometrical lines are coming straight from the influence of that era, which is more baroque.

We are breaking a bit of familiarity you associate with a tuxedo but all of these are very architectural influences... there is a metallic feel and a bit of shine through Swarovski. Menswear is very glamorous. There are asymmetrical angarkha kind of kurtas. When you look at form, shapes and silhouettes, they’ll all have signature, contemporary, very Roman kind of touch and feel. Then of course, there are our cocktail and draped lehngas and gowns. We are moving to straight-fitted gowns and introducing the glam veil gown, gowns with a veil kind of silhouette attached to them that enhances the entire shape. We are also introducing a three-piece bandhgala this time that will have a bandhgala jacket, underneath which is a waistcoat and under that is a shirt. So, quite a few introductions keeping the ceremonies in mind.

This time we are also moving a bit away from runway to retail, to retail to runway approach, where we are also decoding our functions in a way which doesn’t take anything away from fashion, but directly connects with the consumer. We are doing a cocktail edit and a wedding edit. There is a clear demarcation but at the same time, they are harmoniously aligned with the thought process.

How is couture changing in India?

Couture is very personalised and in India, couture is always about bridals. I would divide couture into two halves — one is bridal and the other is red carpet.... When you look at bridalwear, a lot has already changed and you can already see the changes. The bride has become a lot more contemporary. Last season you saw veils taking over. I thought it would be a fad, but it’s not a fad or it’s a longish fad, if I may say, but dupattas being replaced by veils on the runway is a huge phenomenon and I think brides are loving the way they enter their arena, with a bit of drama.

You are also seeing exaggerated silhouettes. Lehngas will never go out of fashion, but they are becoming a lot more contemporary in shapes. Even if they are heavily embellished, they still feel light because you are not using a lot of flounce and cancan, you are almost cutting it on bias. So, it’s almost like you are wearing a skirt which is embroidered so that you can dance away. Today’s brides and grooms also want to enjoy their ceremonies. Those days are gone when they are just standing and waiting for people to come and greet them. There is that lightness in couture that one can feel now.

The embroideries are not necessarily traditional. They are inspired by many fashionable eras, whether it’s the Renaissance or the baroque or the Great Depression of the 1930s and what changed fashion then. You are seeing the craftsmanship becoming a lot more sculpted, more metallic. It is also showing the fierceness of that bride. She is no longer coming with her family to make a decision. She is at best coming with her mother or her sister and then she also brings her fiance. They are creating their ceremonies. The bride tells the guy that he has to match up to her so that they look good in photographs. That’s a huge paradigm shift because it was all about the bride in the past, she has to look good. That’s why there was no innovation in men’s (wardrobes).

Hence, we felt why not make the men look much more fashionable and sexy. So, the drape came in and the layering came in. Suddenly the groom was not fighting the battle of wearing a typical sherwani. A lot of the cocktail flavour started to seep in. Hence menswear saw a lot of dramatic shift and many designers started taking menswear more seriously. Up until 2013-14, there were only a handful of designers doing menswear. It’s also revolutionised the way women are thinking. Because men have become a little sexier in their approach to how they see their weddings and they have become a little bolder, women also have become bolder. They want to have overlapping energies. I am seeing a little bit of femininity in menswear. Through the sheer, you are still seeing femininity. The drapes were doing it and it will continue to play that role, but the whole sheer layering part — sheer shirts and waistcoats — it’s going to bring in a bit of sexiness and femininity to men. That’s where the shift has happened and that has happened in the past two-three years. It is there to stay. Couture has changed from that aspect quite dramatically.

We give ourselves a bit of credit for how we took menswear to a certain level and we continue to evolve there. Whether it’s the military influences, brooches, the drape... it’s constant evolution. Our tuxedos are not typical tuxedos. They are strong in terms of how we portray them to be. Tuxedos were a thing of the past. Nobody touched a tuxedo in Indian weddings, but men wanted bling and they wanted something different in tuxedos. That’s how the men’s market has really blossomed. They are willing to experiment and they have become bolder than women, I feel, and brides are enjoying that bit of boldness in men’s wardrobes. I think that’s giving them confidence.

Even when you see the trend of micro cholis, plunging necklines, bustiers and you are wearing the lehnga without the dupatta, it also goes to show that the bride is in full control of her life and that she wants to enjoy that moment. But, yeah, couture in India is bridalwear and how bridalwear is transforming itself is where the fun and the play is.

A white shirtcan also be couture...

Couture in India is unlike couture anywhere else in the world. Couture anywhere else in the world has always been about three things. Either continue to play the creative story and every collection looks distinctly extravagant because you want to shake the industry. Balenciaga is a great example and there are many such brands that are moving that way. They just want to be provocative and when you are provocative, you are taken a little bit more seriously and every time it’s what next.

West looks at couture to sell their accessories. Louis Vuitton and Dior, they don’t sell clothes... that’s just 20-25 per cent of the business. But they are showing couture to sell their accessories. Then there are Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana who say this is what we do to build our business and connect with our consumers, but that part of couture is just a handful of designers that have sustained and Giorgio Armani is one of them.

In India, couture doesn’t go through three layers because Indian designers don’t harp on accessories and Indian designers in the bridal market don’t have to go crazy on innovations. On the couture runway you are not going to see couture high street. A Balenciaga will show a couture high street and lots of layering.

There is a little bit more revenge in terms of weddings because people feel that if something like this (a pandemic) happens again, we have everything to lose. Weddings have been about rejoicing and a carnival of sorts. It’s a celebration for which you save money ke shaadi achchi karni hai. That’s the culture embedded in the Indian ethos. That I don’t think will ever change.

When you say a white embroidered shirt can be couture, of course. That’s where the bridge-to-luxury market comes in. Our S&N by Shantnu Nikhil is bridge-to-luxury and we do a lot of expensive fitted shirts. The price range is Rs 14,500 to Rs 17,500. By no means it is cheap for a shirt. We are also doing other contemporary Indian stuff which is falling into that bracket where attendees (at weddings) could now start looking good, which is also a big phenomenon.

I think the bridge-to-luxury market still needs to be tapped. If you look at a larger market and what is happening with corporatisation now, I am sure there would be other designers who would wake up to this and launch their own bridge-to-luxury brands, which will address some part of the market. Anywhere between Rs 9,500 to Rs 70,000 is still luxury in this country but it’s more affordable luxury. It’s hugely aspirational.... The shift has to happen where people can go buy a Boss T-shirt and at the same time buy an S&N T-shirt or a Manish Malhotra T-shirt.

What have been the lessons learnt on the way like?

I would feel somewhere down the line, we purposely chose that path of being very creative on the couture side of our business because from Day One, we were contemporary in our look and feel... which meant we took a painful journey because the market wasn’t ready. We knew the market would be ready. So, the first 13-14 years, it was making sure that everything we do is different. We played that provocative game and stood out for its fearlessness. The consumer patterns were evolving and you suddenly realised that there was acceptance... but it was challenging to an extent because no one was doing gowns and sari gowns, but we did it, but the bride at that point wasn’t ready.... But we stayed true to it. So, that was one battle we won.

Then the second decade, which is 2012 onwards, we started becoming much more resilient with what we were offering and we added a bit of a commercial approach. 2013-18 was also a time for innovation for us, bringing in military influences, minimalism and focusing a lot more on menswear. The first two decades have been about making it a signature brand to go to when it comes to contemporary couture and ceremonial (clothing).

Now, with our brand being invested into (Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited announced a strategic partnership with Shantnu & Nikhil in 2019), it has given us the opportunity to make our brand reach out to a wider audience. Hence S&N by Shantnu Nikhil... there’s also Shantnu Nikhil Cricket Club, which is now under S&N, but will have its own identity and will become the third brand which will be a notch or two lower than S&N by Shantnu Nikhil, more sports-meets-lifestyle brand. The third decade will be building more on SNCC, making sure S&N evolves as a lifestyle and contemporary ethnic brand because we are making a lot of changes in S&N. SNCC has started that lifestyle conversation and is a big success and it’s only going to get more evolved.

Looking after three brands and giving them wings to fly and reaching out to a wider audience, leave aside the digital mayhem these brands require.... We are creating that maison Shantnu Nikhil hybrid feel now. We are also creating aspiration within our ecosystem for one person to jump onto the other layer.

There will be a lot of play on accessories too. It’s already started with SNCC... there will be a lot of effort into creating a good enough accessory repository.

How have you kept the focus going?

We were one of the few lucky ones because we started our journey at the beginning of 2000. There was a lot of forgiveness at that time. You could make mistakes. The idea was to build a brand... the industry was looking for a bit of freshness. Sabyasachi (Mukherjee) came in... we made our debut in 2002 on the Lakme Fashion Week runway. I think the industry was waking up to this new avatar of fashion. Up until then, it was restricted to niche clients and private showing. Fashion started getting commercialised because of Lakme and there were those 10-12 designers showcasing. So, it gave us an opportunity to innovate and innovation as a pillar is probably the most defining moment to create a brand. I think we had that luxury at that time. That kept us going.

When you look at today’s day and age... there are so many brands, and sometimes I feel sorry for many of these talented artistic designers making their debuts on fashion week runways, but I feel it’s so competitive, where do you show your X factor?... The market has evolved so much and organised retail has gone 10 notches higher. Finding retail has become so expensive. I think the newer designers are feeling how do we scale it up.

But yes, the undercurrent is to watch out what is happening. You have to be relevant all the time. There have also many brands that have died a natural death because they couldn’t cope with how quickly the market evolved.

As brands and businesses, sometimes you have to let go of egos to say that we have started off doing something, but can the signature find relevance (to today’s times)? We have focused on the socio-economic factors. Where is this country headed in terms of age and population and what are demographics looking like? Do we have the wherewithal to be flexible and become a little bit more relevant? That is one of the biggest and most important things for a brand. You look at Hugo Boss, a legacy brand becoming Boss, which is more accessible and street. If Gucci can align with Adidas and create a line which is super luxury... these are becoming relevant collaborations.

We are also seeing a preppier market and we are also seeing what the international brands are doing in the country at those price points and still finding acceptance. It’s about being a little bit more fearless and at the same time logical about where the industry is moving. There is flexibility in design and versatility. With corporatisation happening and investments coming in, I think the industry has also started to take Indian fashion more seriously, which is also increasing our risk appetite. You take some of the strengths that they have to offer and scale up. We also scale up keeping sustainability in mind. We don’t overburden ourselves by creating drops. We are not fast fashion and we’ll never be... for us sustainability will be producing lesser samples.

Who have been the icons you have learned from?

I have always said Maison Armani has been the cult. Complete understanding of creativity meeting commercial success and it is the only organic brand which has grown without getting any investment. You look at their repertoire of brands. It is one of the first early brands to have created a pyramid that started with Giorgio Armani, going into Emporio Armani, Armani Exchange, Armani jeans... made Armani so much more accessible.

Where is luxury headed in India?

The next form of luxury will be neo-luxury, which will come through bridge-to-luxury brand incubation. I am sure this will happen because otherwise investments in designer wear wouldn’t have happened. That would be a defining moment because right now S&N competes with a PRL (Polo Ralph Lauren), Boss, Brooks Brothers, Ted Baker, Hackett, Paul and Shark and The Collective... this is where bridge-to-luxury funnelling is already being done, but by international brands. So, already there is a clear indication of where the market is moving. So, the moment we have organic growth with Indian brands coming in, it’s a nice competition to have.

Last updated on 06.08.23, 10:54 AM

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