On a sunny afternoon in Mumbai, Suket Dhir’s room at a mid-town hotel offers a panoramic view of the city, the imposing skyline offset by stretches of green cover. Minutes before, though, Dhir and his wife (and business partner), Svetlana, were fidgeting with the switches in the room, trying to get the blinds up. “These things are so confusing. Ah, finally!” he says, as he finds the right button. There’s an unassuming charm about the designer that immediately puts you at ease. He doesn’t revel in luxuries, and insists that he’s a “small-town boy” at heart.
Until a few months ago, Dhir was just one of many low-key designers in the country, working out of his studio in Delhi, and retailing his menswear creations at Good Earth stores. In January, he was propelled from this relative obscurity into global fame, as he scooped up the prestigious International Woolmark Prize (IWP) and became the toast of the fashion circuit.
The IWP celebrates designers who showcase the beauty and versatility of wool, and Dhir became its second Indian recipient (Rahul Mishra won it in 2014), placing him in the league of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and the likes. His winning menswear collection included tailored jackets, relaxed-fit trousers and long kurta shirts, all crafted out of wool and fused with traditional techniques like ikat and kasuti. “It feels surreal. I’m still coming to terms with the attention we’re getting. When I think that I’ve managed to do something for India on a global scale, goosebumps aa jaate hain,” he says.
The NIFT graduate grew up in a cloth merchant family in Banga, Punjab, amidst heaps of the finest mulmuls, wool, cottons, silks and other natural fabrics. “My grandfather was an astute dresser, a man of great style and stature. At his shop, he retailed brands like Digjam, OCM, Merino wool and even Raymond,” he recalls. To have an affinity towards eco-friendly textiles therefore came naturally to Dhir, who works with fabrics like cotton, linen, silk and muslin. “Our family used to wear only natural fabrics. They believed that terricot and polyester lead to body odour as these materials don’t let the skin breathe,” he says.
In fact, his love for craft and detailing led him to develop his own fabric for the Woolmark competition; he worked with weavers in Telangana to create a special kind of summer wool using handloom. “Wool is usually meant for winter, as it’s a bit fuzzy. To make the wool good for summer, we needed a special kind of yarn,” he says, adding that he collaborated with Raymond to create it. The next task was to convince weavers, who traditionally use cotton or silk, to work with wool. “They believed that wool doesn’t weave, and we had to tell them that this one was different,” he adds. The wool was then painstakingly hand-dyed, to get the gradation of colours right. The collection was a labour of love.
While designing came naturally to him, the process of discovering that he wanted to be a designer wasn’t quite so, reveals Dhir. After school, he enrolled in Delhi University for a BCom degree, failed, took up computer applications and then web designing, before giving it all up for a job at a call centre. Finally, he took the entrance exam for NIFT, Delhi, and got through. “While I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do, dabbling in different things made me realise what I didn’t want to do. When NIFT happened, I knew I was meant to do this,” he says.
Branching out on his own after graduation, he started his eponymous label and began retailing in 2010, where “being the only menswear designer was a big deal”. Anita Lall, the founder of Good Earth, says that the elegance of Dhir’s work caught her eye. “For our products, we work with weavers in various pockets of India, from Machilipatnam to Bhuj. Suket’s understanding and passion for craft fit right in with our sensibilities,” she says.
With Dhir’s creations, the devil is really in the details. While he claims that he makes “simple shirts and trousers”, there’s plenty to notice, if you have a keen eye. The buttons on his shirt are sewn with threads of different colours, there are prints like ikat on the cuffs and a single vertical strip of fabric along both the sides of a shirt or kurta, his signature. “The details are for people who don’t feel the need to show off. The patti was actually accidental. I had put on a few pounds. And I was going to present my collection. It was a big day and I asked the masterji to sew it on,” he says with a laugh.
Following the win, Dhir’s designs will now be available at some of the world’s biggest fashion boutiques, like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, David Jones, Australia and L’Eclaireur, Paris. But Dhir insists he will continue to play it by ear. He has never showcased at a fashion week, and while in Mumbai for a felicitation at Lakme Fashion Week, did not stay back after his event. “I believe in making a good product. I’m not an aggressive marketer and believe in the organic growth of a brand.”
As veteran designer Rajesh Pratap Singh says, Dhir’s designs are reflective of his own personality – light-hearted and playful. “His work pushes the envelope for menswear in the country and his win may just be the sign of a paradigm shift.”
Follow @TheCommanist on Twitter
From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch