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The word "iconic" is overused in fashion but Varun Bahl, who effortlessly balances craft, creativity and global relevance, is just that. Renowned for weightless lehengas and saris detailed with fresh floral embellishment, his clientele swear the ensembles are heirlooms because of their classic sensibility and the finest quality. In conversation with the couturier.


What do you believe is the future of haute couture, in India?


Haute Couture is a completely new devision for which a designer has to be a member of Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The Indian market is really far away from haute couture!! By itself, couture in India is a mature industry fed not only by designers but by skilled craftsmen and artisans. If one explores the sectors of Banaras, with respect to brocade and jamdani in Gujarat, the couture culture will rapidly expand. That said, over the past few years, the changes that we have seen in the couture landscape have been what we would — in the larger scheme of things — call 'visual'. For example, the average Indian consumer of couture and bridal wear has become more experimental in terms of color and cuts; newer fabrics are accepted and lehengas are no longer sold by weight!


The process of designing a couture line is intricate. Are the challenges involved an adrenaline rush?


There are indeed a lot of challenges while designing a couture line. However, it is only a challenge if you treat it like work. For me, creating is as necessary as breathing. Till my last breathe I will continue to create no matter the hurdles.


Your shows narrate a strong well-defined story. Tell us about the design process.


I begin with the techniques I want to highlight for a particular season. Our embroideries are our strong point. Then comes my other love — pattern-making. I bring these two together. Our color combinations are also unique and timeless and that gets added to the mix. My style of working around a collection is a bit like 'method-in-the-madness' and that's how I function at my creative best. As any designer will tell you, what you conceptualise in your head, what you sketch and what eventually gets made are all very different! I try to play around with what happens between these processes.


When you are requested to design a bridal or debutante ensemble—the client-couturier relationship is special. How integral is it to the framework and final creation?


It is paramount. There is nothing more important for the designer than to have a complete, clear understanding of the girl or woman he or she is designing for especially if it is a personal order. I spend time with the client to understand her tastes, likes and dislikes, her lifestyle, her quirks, her joys and how she moves, her favorite colours and fabrics. And then I transform her dream into reality… through a practical application of my knowledge and experience as a designer.


Research is important to your work. What were the influences when designing your newest collection?


I love nature and I find myself incorporating elements of it in my collections. Flowers in particular are very versatile and I love experimenting with them. Moreover, each collection I design is a continuation of my ongoing love affair with culture. I absorb so much on my travels across the world and take my inspiration from several sources. This fuels my creativity. My trips to Europe have always been about exploring architecture and paintings by Czech Art Nouveau painter and artist Alphonse Mucha and his masterpieces—like Le Pater, The Seasons and The Flowers. So, my newest couture collection has influences from the Victorian era, with a fortification of ruffled necks and sleeves, combined with baroque art nouveau- structured traditional paisley motifs, textural appliqués and floral embellishment.


You have a stellar journey, Varun. Do you have a memory that stands out?


Designing each piece is an experience in itself. The process of making a couture garment is extremely intricate and requires patience particularly when you are trying to achieve perfect balance in each ensemble. Years back I made a collection where I married Indian and Japanese design! That till date remains my most cherished creative exercise.


Varun, sustainable fashion is the need of the hour and a gargantuan task. As one of the most senior designers, what advice would you share with design students and fashion designers on mindful fashion?


I believe that sustainability cannot be achieved in a day. It has to be changed gradually; for example, changing the manner in which a fabric is dyed and processed, keeping in mind the steps of how to wash garments in a certain way. Pollution and electricity are two things, which if we work on, we will gradually be able to move towards sustainability.


What is your advice to those of us who want to shop responsibly or build an ethical wardrobe?


Invest in a line that add solid design value to your wardrobe and enhances your personal style, a line that is trend-less and versatile so that each piece can be styled in different ways, from within the existing wardrobe. Anyone who wishes to dress in easy, well-designed, well-finished modern Indian clothes is my target client. And it's my commitment to offer them well-made clothes that they can wear again and again.


Is there a difference between the Indian market and the rest of the world when it comes to the acceptance of sustainability?


I think the consumer is better informed now and able to make more precise choices about what they want to buy and wear. It makes me strive to always do more in terms of design development, garment quality, creative research, styling flexibility, and of course, pricing. And ultimately, these are the things people want from the clothes they invest in today. As I grow in the Indian fashion ecosystem, I am becoming more aware of what we, as designers, require to build sustainable businesses. By this, I mean brands that are not just creatively unique, but also commercially successful, can continue to employ the best artisans—weavers, printers, dyers, embroiderers, tailors. To do this, we need to adapt to the rapidly changing style requirements of our customers while also educating them about the amazing treasures of textiles and embellishments that are our collective legacy as Indians. To do so, I plan to concentrate on designing trend-less versatile pieces that can be styled in a variety of ways, and include our luxurious handwoven fabrics and fantastical embroideries — in modern cuts, motifs and styles.


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