From L-R: Varun Dhawan, Kareena Kapoor and Manish Malhotra
From L-R: Varun Dhawan, Kareena Kapoor and Manish Malhotra

There’s a magic to Manish Malhotra and most of us have been touched by it.

It enthralls, in the glint of a metallic purple lehnga shimmering on Kareena Kapoor, or sequined florals twinkling beneath a diaphanous pink cape worn by Jacqueline Fernandez, or swathes of silver embroidery on black tapering down Deepika Padukone’s willowy waistline.

It’s pure, unadulterated Bollywood magic that we’re all familiar with, where fashion meets glamour meets movies. Manish’s ethos is defined as much by the clothes he makes as by the stars that wear them.

“I like making clothes that are timeless classics,” says the designer, in an exclusive conversation with Dawn, Images. “Clothes that would make a woman feel and look beautiful.”

He may not be one for edgy dresses for the high-fashion soiree but instead, Manish is renowned for weaving dreams into a well-crafted sari or lehnga that one would cherish for life. His statements are more beautiful than out-of-the-box, and his clientele appreciates this.

Fashion designer Manish Malhotra continues to work his creativity onto heady, elaborate design, gets excited by new challenges and works incredibly hard while cinematic acclaim and commercial success simply tend to follow

Every Bollywood star and starlet wants to be dressed by Manish Malhotra, as does every high-profile, Bollywood-smitten bride in India and beyond.  A smattering of his customers also exists in Pakistan, aficionados who tend to meet up with him in Dubai’s platonic middle-ground.

“I actually have roots in Pakistan,” he says. “My mother is from Sargodha and my father, from Rawalpindi. Ten years ago, I was part of a show in Karachi but that was when my label was relatively new. I would love to showcase again in Pakistan now.”

“I recently dressed actress Mahira Khan for the ARY Film Awards,” he says. “I haven’t met her but I think she’s beautiful. I am familiar with quite a few Pakistani actors, being an insatiable film buff.”

Reinventing Bollywood

Manish’s conversation tends to runs full-circle to the passion that initially brought him into the field: a love for the movies. Starting his career as a model, he stumbled into costume designing 26 years ago, a profession that hadn’t hitherto existed in Bollywood.

With a veritable Midas touch, he shook off Indian cinema’s tendencies for blundering, implausible fashion faux pas and reinvented the Indian heroine into a statement maker. Suddenly, she knew what suited her and admirably fought away her earlier impulses for pink taffeta frocks and multiple layers of make-up.

In 1995’s Rangeela, Manish dressed Urmila Mantondkar in risqué knotted tops and sarongs and Filmfare promptly created the Costume award and presented it to Manish. The award was the first of many — 35 to date — and Manish Malhotra had arrived. He became the costume designer du jour for every big budget Bollywood extravaganza, friends to the stars and a star in his own right.

Spiralling on to more than two decades later, there is now more to Manish than merely Bollywood’s all-encompassing gloss.

“My brand has evolved beyond cinema and fashion weeks,” he observes. “I launched my label 10 years ago and people come to my stores because they like my designs, regardless of whether they have seen stars wearing them or it has won rave reviews at fashion week."

"A few days ago, a girl in her early 20s came to place an order with me and she commented that, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you designed for movies as well.’ It was the biggest compliment for me and it made me so happy. It meant that my label has an appeal of its very own.”

Designer du jour

Movies, though, continue to be a part of Manish’s DNA. “There was a time when I would be involved in multiple projects but I’m quite busy with my business now and only take on about two movies a year,” he says.

These movies usually tend to be high-profile, star-studded productions, with Manish easily slipping into the glamorous route that is his niche.

In recent memory, quite a few of the designer’s cinematic statements have proceeded to go viral: the sari worn by Deepika Padukone in the Badtameez Dil song in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Kajol’s sultry look in the Gerua song from Dilwale or rewinding further into the past, Priyanka Chopra jiving to Desi Girl in a slinky, shiny number and Kareena Kapoor’s shalwars in Jab We Met.

“I actually have roots in Pakistan. My mother is from Sargodha and my father, from Rawalpindi. Ten years ago, I was part of a show in Karachi but that was when my label was relatively new. I would love to showcase again in Pakistan now.”— Manish Malhotra

“I always read the script to a movie before I devise costumes for the characters,” explains Manish. “They need to fit into the story. Some of the most challenging projects I have worked on involve dressing up multiple stars."

"For Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, I remember that I was simultaneously figuring out wardrobe, hair and make-up looks for everyone, from Amitabh Bachchan to Abhishek Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta.”

“Right now, I am looking forward to seeing how Karan’s upcoming Ae Dil Hai Mushkil turns out, where I have designed for both Anushka Sharma and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan.”

How does he manage to successfully style multiple stars without riling egos or causing insecurities? “I am very dedicated to my job and people respect that,” he shrugs. “I have built my career purely on the basis of work rather than through socialising and pulling the right contacts."

"I am an early riser, I don’t smoke or drink and I have never texted an actor or a client, asking them to recommend me or give me work. It’s helped me build lasting friendships.”

“Last year, Preity Zinta came to me and told me that she may be getting married this year and wanted me to design her wedding dress. She asked me not to tell anyone and I didn’t. I’m not fond of gossiping to get attention and my friends appreciate that. Today, I can design anything I like for an actress and she will wear it for me, on the catwalk or in a movie, no questions asked. I have always loved cinema and would never want the actors I am dressing to look bad.”

The affection is quite mutual, as was evident on the cover fashion shoot of Indian Vogue last November, where Sri Devi, Karisma Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Kajol and Alia Bhatt posed together, paying homage to Manish’s 25 years as a designer.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ace designer in the Bollywood industry, all of his fave Bolly ladies came together to make it even more special
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ace designer in the Bollywood industry, all of his fave Bolly ladies came together to make it even more special

The actresses, among many others, have also often walked as showstoppers in the designer’s fashion week showcases and wear his clothes at ‘it’ launches and parties. Faced with such adulation and respect, how does Manish keep his own ego in check?

“I used to paint and sketch when I was young and had never imagined that one day I would become a model, then progress to becoming a costume designer and eventually have my own label,” he confesses. “I’m happy with the way my career has evolved and there are, of course, plenty of perks."

"I recently moved to a five-storey house in Mumbai which is right next door to Dilip Kumar’s house. It is surrounded by greenery — something that is rare in Mumbai — and I can see Dilip sahib’s garden from my home. People ask me how it feels and of course, it feels great. But it doesn’t change who I am. I’m 49, I live with my parents and am constantly excited by my work. That’s all that matters.”

A business in fashion

And there is plenty that’s exciting in Manish’s life, work-wise. He has a first-of-its-kind 9,000 square feet store in Delhi and another, 85,000 square feet store in Mumbai. He is a regular feature at multi-label boutique Studio 8 in Dubai, and he’s in the process of setting up a store in multifarious London. His clientele is perpetually burgeoning, particularly in the lucrative market for bridal wear.

“I love craft and the elaborate detailing that goes into bridal design,” he says.

Do fashion weeks and his celebrity showstoppers help in building business? “Celebrity showstoppers add drama but my business is not dependent on them at all,” he says. “My collection at Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) last year, Blue Runway, was a success even though it didn’t feature any stars on the catwalk."

"My business has even surpassed the need for mileage via fashion week. I am on the board of LFW and I regularly showcase my work because these events bring together the fashion industry as a whole. But people would come to my store regardless of critical acclaim at fashion weeks.”

“I like to believe that we sell dreams through the catwalk. Critics may crib about my penchant for pretty clothes but they are my signature and I prefer to stay true to it. And what I show at fashion week is available at my stores the very next day. That’s very important.”

As a veteran, what is his impression of India’s ever-expanding fashion industry? “I think that even though we have many designers, a lot of them are merely social media sensations,” he says. “They need to move beyond the hype and focus on doing actual business. When a designer begins to think that he is the best, it spells out the death of his creativity. I see that happening quite often.”

It isn’t happening to Manish Malhotra, though. He continues to work his creativity onto heady, elaborate design, gets excited by new challenges and works incredibly hard. Cinematic acclaim and commercial success simply tend to follow. He deserves it.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 26th, 2016