Today, I bring to you Niki Mahajan, the veteran Indian designer who has been in the industry for three decades now and also serves on the board of governors at the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). In the interview she gets candid about her comeback couture collection being showcased on 14th September 2013, in which she revives the dying craft of Badla (note at the end). She also talks about her secret to making it successful, the struggle that she faced when she started out and also what sets her apart.
So trust me on reading this interview, to get inspired, awed and learn. This is for you, if you are a fashion entrepreneur, a budding designer working on your own collection or anybody looking to achieve something in life but needs some inspiration. After all Niki Mahajan is a designer whose eponymous label sells from popular stores like Anthropologie, Bloomingdales, Harvery Nichols amongst others. Excited much?
Interview with Fashion Designer Niki Mahajan
The Creative Bent: Tell us something about your upcoming Privé collection and what makes it special?
Niki Mahajan: The collection is inspired by a figure from our history – Hazrat Mahal and the way she lead her life. She was one of the strongest freedom fighters in the revolt of 1857, but stands forgotten now. My collection is not just a Bridal show, but it showcases the journey of her life. It opens with white depicting her early years, transcends into jewel colors like turquoise and blue, then it moves to her marriage with reds,which is a prominent sequence, vintage colors depict her exile and then finally black for when she dies – which is unique in itself, ending a collection with Black in India. But it is not a collection of historic costumes, as one would assume. The collection is very modern and it showcases 216 types of embroideries.
TCB : 10 years internationally and 3 decades in India – You started your career when the fashion industry was barely beginning. Any experiences of that time that you want to share with the new generation?
Niki: To be honest, when I started out the industry here wasn’t even alive. There was nobody except for Ritu Kumar and Nalini. I was a bright student and gold medalist at school and an LSR scholarship was waiting but I wanted to be a fashion designer.
So, I went around Delhi looking for a design school but there was only one polytechnic. And that time, only students who did not pass or did not get good marks went there. So, I had to pursue my English Literature at LSR. I even got married at the age of 21, had my first child at 22 and second at 23.
But, I have a super encouraging husband and in spite of all odds, I laboriously climbed my way up to where I am today. And we had no internet, no study material like you have access to, today. There were no International magazines either as no one would buy them at Rs. 1000. But now, if I have to make a collection I can visit pinterest, instagram, style.com or travel blogs and my inspiration is done in 2 hours. Plus we no longer live in a dark box, and have other designers around to get inspired from as well. I would be fake if I said my fellow designers don’t inspire me.
TCB: So are there any challenges when you do get inspired from your fellow designers?
Niki: Yes, like designing this collection was difficult as everything that I would design will look like a Sabya, a Manish, a Tarun or a JJ or a Suneet and all these are my very close friends. But you have got to look different, my clothes had to be Niki Mahajan and I did manage that in the end.
TCB: So, what sets Niki Mahajan apart?
Niki: I have decoded my collection and apart from a few heavily embellished pieces, I have tried to keep my collection uncluttered, trying to break away from the norm of doing a lot on a single piece. So if I have border, I only have one border and not multiple; or only the sleeves or the collar will be embellished and likewise. Plus, I am using the Badla craft that nobody else is doing. I have revived and resurrected it in my collection.
TCB: We are eager to know more about your association with Badla.
Niki: Badla is a metal embroidery craft originally from Lucknow. From metal inglots (gold, silver or copper plated by gold/silver) being melted, beaten, thinned down and later flattened and twisted with silk or cotton thread – it is a time consuming process. Due to which only a handful of artisans were left doing it, but I have set up a unit in Lucknow and employed them to keep the craft alive.
And this is the first time I am using this craft in my clothing. In the past I have been known for printing, and not just here but globally in the 110 stores that sells my own label is. But this collection is all about embroideries, not printing.
TCB: Since you mention the International Markets, what is your secret to making clothing with Indian Crafts but still keeping it global?
Niki: Actually there is a simple logic to that. When I got my first Japanese order, which was one of the biggest stores in Japan, I went on and stayed in Japan for a week. I studied everybody – how the people look, what they wore on streets, in fancy restaurants or while eating fast food, what their department stores had and so on. This is how you get a good idea of the culture and lifestyle of people in a place. And after studying that only do I take upon a new country.
You could be doing the best of embroideries, you could be having the best of prints, but if the silhouette and style does not suit the people, you won’t sell. So fit and form is very important and then of course how it looks. A gorgeous kaftan may work in the middle east but in Japan, they will appreciate its beauty but not wear it. I have been selling internationally for almost 10 years now and that is the secret.
TCB: And who according to you is the perfect Niki Mahajan Privé woman?
Niki: Ah! I can’t help but say Deepika Padukone. Not because of what she is today but because when I saw her do her first show at the age of 16, she was very nervous and scared back then. Standing at the bar I told her that you are gorgeous but she seemed unsure. And she hadn’t been offered any movies by then but I told her, that 10 years from now we will be standing at the same bar and you won’t even look at me. So she still tells me that I blessed her that night.
So, for me the fact that from a scared girl to a confident woman now, she has covered the distance in a span of 6-7 years without letting success get to her head. So, that is the kind of person we Indian women are. We start off by being in a cocoon, and then we get exposed to all kinds of things, we fight against odds and emerge with a winning spirit.
TCB: Very well said, but finally as a last question – essence of history and heritage reflects in all of your collections. How do you manage to re-invent this theme each time?
Niki: Today, many young people would follow and make their collection similar to the designer who has the most buyers that season. But where I come from, maybe its old school but we stayed in our circle. We knew our style and worked with that. It is very challenging to re-invent but not so difficult when you believe in your style.
For example, I am known for my embroideries and block printing, so I could be doing a collection on Gujrat this year. And next time it could be Rajasthan or Spain or Istanbul or Marrakesh. I do a lot of groundwork on civilizations and within my span of embroideries and printing, I bring in a new culture which gives the twist. So, inspiration makes the difference. I am already working on my next collection for Lakme India Fashion Week called Gulaab (Rose) so from basing a collection on a figure head to a flower, re-invention happens.
The Craft of Badla
If you are still curious about what it looks like, after Niki talked about it before – here are some visuals for you. And, for the record the last stage of the metal being flattened and twisted with yarns is called badla, which finally becomes kasab.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram if you fancy looking at Niki Mahajan’s collection as it happens on Saturday! And also, you can visit her website here. Be sure to check out the collections page as it will take you back in time to 1987 Indian Fashion! The journey is awesome.