He is one of the few good men of Indian fashion: respectful, courteous and ever so polite. His big eyes embody an innate, dignified sense of calm, which often finds its way into his clothes. Raghavendra Rathore, who recently returned to the ramp with the India Bridal Fashion Week after three years, met us for lunch on a beautiful, rainy afternoon at the Smoke House Deli at Khan Market. Over smoked chicken, cheese burgers and not-so-innocent mojitos, he revealed how he put himself through Parsons The New School of Design, New York (selling a $300 car for $7,000 by fixing it himself). And how his early childhood spent in the zenana section of his ancestral palace in Jodhpur gave him the sense of colour and appreciation for the finer things in life.
After completing 25 years in the industry, like many of your peers, how much has Indian fashion changed?
From being just a hobby, it’s become an industry, which is moving in the right direction. The same happened in Paris and New York about 20-30 years ago. Today, fashion is only accessed through boutiques and specific outlets but once retail gets organised and designers are able to reach 150 or more stores in the country, their brand strength will become visible.
How do you see brand Raghavendra Rathore, mostly synonymous with bandhgala that you even patented?
The brand aims to fill up the space which has a value of heritage and some sense of pride. Our clothes aren’t revolutionary or fashionable. They stem from the traditional wardrobe that once existed and to take ownership of that genre was important for us. We are all about being classic. We patented our unique style of tailoring, so it can act as an accurate reference for design students later.
You love electronics and pursued robotics before design. How do science and design come together?
My passion still lies with gadgets and electronics. If you give me a task, I approach it from a technical point of view, which helps with design because I know what’s inside the gadget. Like with Apple, Steve Jobs managed to radically change the surface of the product based on its inside. It’s crucial to understand the bone structure so you can repair the skin. Science gives you a logical approach to thinking. Leonardo Da Vinci was a scientist and an artist, who used the art of science and art of design to create most desirable products. Even Anish Kapoor uses science intensively in his works of design.
Your went to Mayo, Ajmer, after your school got bombed. How did that experience change you?
It was during the Indo-Pak war in 1971 and I was four or five at that time. I remember standing on our roof in Jodhpur and seeing my school go up in flames. Around 105 bombs were dropped that night. Soon after, I was sent to study in a boarding school (Mayo), which gave not only an incredible assessment of my own skills and strengths but also shaped my character and gave me an understanding of the India I was going to grow up in. It was the best judgment system to see where you stood in the competitive arena of life. That incident showed me early about how insecurities can be created overnight. That nothing is done by the book and you have no control over anything. So my approach became more ad hoc and spontaneous. It also made me realise that everything has a shelf life. If you have an idea and you don’t execute it, it will expire, if you don’t care for loved ones in your family, then they’ll soon disappear.
Before studying in the US, you had mostly lived in Rajasthan. How was New York in the ’80s different from Jodhpur in the ’80s? And how did working at Oscar De La Renta and DKNY change you as a designer?
There was an excess of everything. Back then we didn’t have STD booths in Jodhpur. We used to place a trunk call and the operator would hand the phone to you at eight in the evening. So, it was a bit of a culture shock. But it was a really honest place and very grid oriented and I fit in really well there because of my technical abilities. New York was very dangerous in those days with people getting mugged all the time and the atmosphere was very unsafe. In fact my design college, Parsons, was located on 5th Avenue, which was a hellhole back then. But my interactions with this other New York didn’t happen so much. I got a great job with (Oscar) De La Renta immediately, which showed me how fashion is about people. His emphasis on who sat in the front row during shows was huge and the plan was drawn like an army battle plan. I was assisting the clothing designer then and one of my jobs among others was to bring the celebrities from the reception to the studio before the show. And I met everyone from Carla Bruni to Jackie O, you name it, they were there.
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Memories came rushing with the rain
Texting On Stone: As a young boy, I would spend a lot of time with my grandmother, who frequently sat in the zenana with a large paandaan, along with the other ladies of the house. They were always surrounded by the ittar wala, sari wala or someone else with wares. I’d often see a guy come running with a covered slate in his hand. It would contain messages from my grandfather, which my grandmother would read and then respond to on the same slate. The messenger would keep running back and forth all day, carrying these messages like SMSes. It’s still one of my most vivid memories.
From HT Brunch, September 22
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