Inside Rahul Mishra's ethical fashion empire
Designer Rahul Mishra, who has just been named a brand ambassador of Istituto Marangoni, has a dream. To one day employ one million people and, with the help of Amazon, his fashion house is already employing 700 people, and feeding nearly 5,000 folks in their extended families.
“I create clothes, but our house’s primary goal is not consumption but to create beauty and provide people with employment,” insists Mishra, who has built a revolutionary structure with his critically acclaimed brand.
Pointing to a halter neck dress in a kaleidoscope of bold embroideries inside his Paris showroom, he notes that it took 2,000 hours to embroider, “which meant a livelihood for 20 days and for 10 families.”
Ever since 2014, when he won the Woolmark Prize – whose most famous former winners include Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld – Mishra has been a name to watch. The first ever Indian winner of Woolmark, with an award for 100,000 Australian dollars, he calls his style 'Impressionist Poetry'. From bomber jackets with abstract mountain ranges; to sweatshirts with floral embroidered forests in which three zebras march; to superb flouncy silk tops covered with pointillist patterns worthy of Signac.
“I wanted to be an artist all my life so I would never have to work a single day. So, I replaced paint and brush with needle and thread,” says Mishra, who sketches with great ease.
Few designers excavate their own culture as much as Mishra, from cotton dresses from Kerala in reversible handlooms, to shimmering metallic silk Bhagalpur silk cocktails. However, his business model is far from traditional. Where many Western brands source their embroideries from artisans living in Slumdog Millionaire conditions in Bombay or Delhi slums, Mishra outsources this work to artisans in their native villages.
“Now, 85% of our production is done outside my factory by people in these villages. Amazon is highly efficient in India and has changed everything. We send fabrics and cut-outs to the farmost villages across India – and I can take bigger spaces in villages and everyone is happier. It’s very positive reverse migration,” smiles the 38-year-old designer, who proudly shows a photo sent by his wife Duvya of a middle-aged embroiderer surrounded by grandparents, wife and three kids. “It’s families like that we serve,” says Mishra of his artisans who earn about 15,000 rupees monthly, and whose social security and medical assurance paid by his fashion house, despite its modest revenues of just two million euros.
Since winning Woolmark, Mishra has shown seven collections in Paris, and won a loyal following in forward–thinking boutiques like Harvey Nichols, Canary in Texas, Storm in Copenhagen and Colette, where he has starred in multiple windows.
“Moda Operandi sold out my latest order. They did more than €100,000 in one week, for €5,000 gowns that will be delivered in three months, with 50% paid upfront,” he beams.
Born in a rural village, his headquarters are in Delhi, where he also boasts a flagship boutique and showroom in the happening luxe shopping destination of Mehrauli.
Mishra made his runway debut in 2006 in Lakme, before winning a one-year scholarship to the Istituto Marangoni in 2008. “I loved living in a city like Milan. Coming from India where I had never literally seen any fashion brands. I was so intimated by idea of a fashion brand. And when you are studying across from the McQueen showroom that is very great as exposure. Same thing when I come to Paris – my eyes open so wide. They soak up the smallest of detail,” explains Mishra, who has a two-year-old daughter – called Aarna, after the goddess of wealth.
That morning, he began his brand ambassadorship of Marangoni, lecturing to students in its Paris campus this week on sustainability.
“They had kids from Australia, China, Belgium, London, Italy, Mexico, Spain, USA, Canada and, of course France – 25 amazing students and really bright,” says Mishra, a classically friendly and optimistic Indian gent, whose pearly white teeth and ready smile beam out on a gray day in Paris.
By now, he has staged more than 20 collections, including in Indian Couture week. And collaborated with high-end, Indian mall chain Reliance, with a ready-to-wear using handmade techniques called Rahul Mishra for Project Eve, which he describes as “quite ethnic.” Alongside an embroidered leather shoe collection Rahul Mishra for OCD.
A classic entrepreneur, he rarely leaves the office before 8PM, accepts invitations to fashion functions but barely stays a minute, and often works to midnight completing calls and emails to the US. In terms of inspiration, he reveres: Dries Van Noten. “His collections look so effortless, and also flawless as if he just touches the material and make a garment.” And the late departed Azzedine Alaia: “I loved everything about his proportions; his graphic ideas using laser cutting and eyelets; his playing with leather together with knit or opacity with transparency; a fanatic and a magician.”
Personally, he wears jackets by Troy Costa from Goa, and, as it’s cold in Paris, a five-year-old Zara, gothic lapel top coat. His Woolmark winning collection wowed precisely because of its remarkable diagrammatic embroideries by Kolkata craftsmen, influenced by Dutch graphic legend Maurits Cornelis Escher. Though, Mishra confesses his greatest inspiration is animation - from old school manga to something suitably French, considering we are lunching on the Avenue Montaigne. His favorite movie - Ratatouille.
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