VARUN Bahl had a typical Punjabi upper-class Delhi upbringing with all the privileges that came with it. A well-to-do garment exporting family, educated at the Modern School and supportive parents who were very pleased to see him enroll at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi.
“I knew I was going to be in fashion when I was in sixth or seventh grade. At home, I was always surrounded by samples. My parents were such a well-dressed and elegant couple, especially when they went to dinners and weddings. We were a really perfect family, even running all our businesses together, like my brothers’ malls,” says Bahl, 47.
So much of the beauty and perfection that surrounds him has translated into his collections. It is not for nothing that Bahl is called “the couturier of flowers”. His embroideries are rich in beautiful European-style floral motifs, gorgeous embellishments, and now patchwork embroidery and appliqués. Its colors are quiet and refined thanks to its luxurious yet tasteful sensibility. I always say, when you think you’ve seen enough kitsch and bling in Indian bridal wear, turn to Varun Bahl – few make Indian fashion as sophisticated as he is. It’s like a palate cleanser.
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Few remember that Bahl made his fashion debut in 2001, not in 2004 when he first presented himself at Lakme India Fashion Week in New Delhi. Tina Tahiliani Parikh of Ensemble, who has made a career in Indian fashion, commissioned him to create a small collection of capsules for her boutique in Mumbai. “The Ensemble was reopening after several renovations and planned a fancy party. When she invited me, Tina said she had a surprise for me. I was delighted to see my clothes displayed on mannequins in front, followed by stalwarts like Rohit Bal and others,” recalls Bahl. It was giddy and he could barely contain his joy. Wise young Bahl decided to slow down for a while. “I wanted to learn a little more. I wanted to know everything about this business. I wanted to come back ready for it – he assures.
Then in 2004 he was invited to show at Milan Fashion Week and White in Italy. Bahl, who at the time created elaborate and embellished Western clothes, was honored there with the award for the most creative collection. It was the summer line. He was due to make his debut at India’s big fashion week at the end of the year.
There was such a commotion when he presented his first fashion show in India. Fashion Week was a few years old and taking shape rather steadfastly. Sabyasachi had had a crushing debut just a few years earlier, and the country was on the verge of waiting for the next sensation to arrive. Bahl came closest to satisfying this ravenous fashion watcher. His debut collection was sensational.
“I am grateful that my brother persuaded me to perform in India. After Milan, I was already selling in 40-45 stores in Europe, but the market was falling. The fashion client in India was just getting bigger,” he explains.
He switched to designing lehengas, or Indian wedding dresses, which made him money. “It made sense because my work was steeped in Indian crafts, arts and techniques. I never thought I’d be making lehengi, but let me tell you, these are the hardest things in the world to design. I mean, how many times can you design lehengi and make them look like new? laughs. “Indian fashion is a fantastic space. It’s your sensitivity combined with your fantasy.
Bahl collections are now based on beauty with a touch of fantasy. “I like unpredictability in my clothes, I need two days to make a theme that captures my two different moods. It also allows me to have balance in my clothes, there is a balance in color, embroidery and some edge. And yes, there are 50 different techniques in one outfit.”
Bahl started experimenting with upcycling during the pandemic. That’s his mantra now because he enjoyed it so much. “I’ve run out of leftover swatches, so now I’m making swatches to make clothes. I love to combine fragments of my past, present and future. It also makes me ask people to wear couture during the day, to wear them as separate pieces. I like the idea of using one little thing in different ways,” he smiles.
Bahl, despite living in distant Delhi, is a constant favorite of movie stars. He dressed Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Ranbir Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan.
He introduced Rashmika Mandanna to the fashion crowds in Delhi when he invited her to his runway last year. He even launched a successful menswear line with his former good friend Karan Johar. Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri Khan made their catwalk debuts. “It was a wonderful collaboration. It lasted three or four years, and then Karan moved on to his films,” explains Bahl.
Bahl is focused on expanding its label throughout India. He says his luxury pret line will “explode” across India by the end of this year. He also wants to open more stores and reopen the space in Mumabi that he lost during the pandemic. He would also like to return to Aurum, his wedding decorations company, which took second place, taking him away from his first love: making clothes.
Namrata Zakaria is an experienced writer and editor, a chronicler of social and cultural trends. Her first book, dedicated to the Goa fashion museum of the late fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, is due to be published soon. Zakaria is particularly known for her inner vision of fashion, luxury and social entrepreneurship in India. Her writing is celebrated for shaping opinion, debunking myths, gaining reputation, and sometimes putting an end to an odd career. Zakaria is also committed to combining philanthropic efforts in the field of economic and environmental sustainability.
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