Much like his peer Sabyasachi, a Manish Malhotra outfit is instantly recognisable. You don’t have to be a design student to know that the saree Katrina Kaif wore in the Tip Tip Barsa Pani remake was by Manish Malhotra. High glamour has always been his mainstay. No wonder, then, that he counts Kareena Kapoor Khan and Karan Johar in his list of besties. Though he’s just turned 55, he doesn’t look a day over 40. He has his well-manicured fingers in multiple pies - movies, design, jewellery, beauty, technology and now, film direction.
We spoke to the maverick designer about all things fashion and style...
A designer, a costume designer and now a director - how do you manage to play so many roles?
I love what I do; ventures and collaborations are a part of the journey. I view fashion as an integrated look that encompasses design, styling, and makeup. My love for cinema enabled me to create some iconic looks on-screen while mounting a whole brand simultaneously. Now I’m fulfilling my childhood dream of sitting on a director’s chair, bringing the magic of fashion, films, and fun to life.
You’ve had the kind of longevity in fashion and cinema that very few have - what do you think is your secret sauce?
Have fun, experiment and most importantly, find something you’re truly passionate about. You wouldn’t be just working but genuinely enjoy the journey and bumps on the way.
You always seem like you’re up to try new things, open to new ideas - is that a learned experience or were you always like that?
I have always been like that. I love change. Change for me means moving ahead with the times. It never hurts to try something new. With the required efforts and long-standing experience, I can transition from one segment to another while maintaining my signature aesthetics. Being in fashion, I’ve always looked at the bigger picture beyond fashion. My fashion inspiration is the outcome of innovative research, which, in turn, is an essential part of my design.
I don’t know about trends; what I did in 2000 is trending now. For example, sneakers with lehengas and Kareena’s Poo looks resonate with today’s Y2K fashion and some memorable runway designs that reflect today’s generation's aesthetics. I can never let go of my classics as it witnesses their existence in every weave amidst the constant stream of fluctuating trends.
What is your design philosophy?
I run my business out of pure passion; the lines between my work and play have blurred. My work trips are often accompanied by personal recreations, such as travelling, discovering cultures, art, and architecture, and meeting old friends and new people. Every experience is linked to my design expressions. However, my wearer’s delightful personality brings out multiple variants of philosophy.
Everyone gets styled these days, whether it is for the airport or just a simple dinner - what’s your take
As they should, fashion should always be viewed as an integrated look. It doesn’t necessarily pertain to one style, but you can keep reinventing and experimenting with alternative accessories or silhouettes.
Who is the one Bollywood celebrity you think has a good sense of style?
Everyone has a unique style and persona; I couldn’t name anyone specific. They’re all lovely. However, for me, Rekhaji will always be that classic beauty with a style that is eternal.
Do you think celebrities are losing out on their unique sense of style, given that they are all getting styled?
I started as a costume stylist, and it was my job to use my creative skills to produce visually appealing displays. Primarily, it’s essential to identify your client’s style and then integrate your inputs, so they feel comfortable embracing a more refined look. It’s all about amplifying their self-expression. And I see so many upcoming stylists doing an exceptional job in reinventing and delivering impressive looks on and off-screen.
One person, past or present, you would love to dress?
Meryl Streep is at the top of it all; I would love to dress her.
Do you think celebrities are more open to trying new stuff nowadays? If yes, can you give an example?
Why only celebrities, everyone’s open to trying new stuff today, especially the youth with their open-mindedness. They tend to be more creative and imaginative, as their inspiration is just one Google tap or Instagram scroll away. The world generally dislikes routine; everyone identifies differently and tries to experiment within their domain. For example, Sara (Ali Khan) loves a Kurta Suit, yet she never shies away from experimenting with vibrant contemporary looks. Alia (Bhatt) and Deepika (Padukone) are big on sarees, yet they can pull off a pantsuit like none other. The younger lot like Shanaya (Kapoor), Ananya (Panday), and Suhana (Khan) have an impressive Y2K style, yet they dress impeccably well in Indian Sarees, gowns, and Lehengas.
If you dress good, you look good and you feel good - how much do you agree with that statement?
The importance of appearance depends on an individual’s style. Internally, it’s the person’s self-confidence and when a person feels good about their appearance, regardless of the dress, they would feel good. A good outfit would just elevate that feeling I feel, but I still maintain it’s the person who wears an outfit and not the other way around.
How different is your current collection from the ones you’ve done before?
Diffuse is a bridge line, a new segment, and a new vocabulary. It’s consciously priced, therefore more attainable, and accessible to the younger demographic. The formal silhouettes join forces with youth-centric celebrations with eclectic gender-fluid editions of sweatshirts & zipper jackets, a new diaspora of business. The line primarily features distinct geometric patterns & eccentric prints peppered with metallic details. There’s street-style-meets-glamour-athleisure wear and spunky blazer sets with overcoats. And of course, my signature elements like sequins, sequins, metallics, feathers, fringes, tassels, and mirrors to glamourize it all.
What is your take on sustainable fashion? Is it here to stay?
I think sustainability is one of the most critical factors coming in. As a label and as a first-tier designer today, I believe it is imperative for me to consider factors like technology, sustainability, and empowerment. For enterprises that are so trusted, or for any company, it is necessary for us to move with these values. We are working on imbibing all of them in our journey. We work with an NGO for empowerment and are very particular about electricity and water.
The pandemic was a tough time for all industries but it significantly impacted the fashion industry. How did you cope with it?
The pandemic was unfortunate and unprecedented but we did manage to adapt to the new standards. In this fast-paced technological world, the pandemic propelled us to take our long-overdue avenue of virtual store and consultation to offer a seamless and safe shopping experience. We were the first luxury brand to launch a 360-degree virtual store in India. Now our customers are willingly giving orders online. Also, to answer your question, the fear of being at the rough end of business stints doesn’t hold me down for long. Change excites me as I have never been averse to adapting to changing times.