He calls himself the last couturier. In India to attend the Mint Luxury Conference in Mumbai on Friday, French designer Emanuel Ungaro spoke of his career in fashion, with opera playing in the background. With a mottled pistachio pocket square tucked in his beige suit, quoting poetry, Ungaro, 78, comes from an era when being in the business of haute couture meant being able to cut, sew and fit.
Ungaro was born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where his Italian tailor father had fled because of the fascist uprising in Italy. His foray into dressmaking started when his father gifted him a sewing machine as a 12-year-old. Over the years, he made ruffled dresses, floral patterns and drapes his trademarks, setting up his eponymous label in 1965, and dressing the likes of Jackie Kennedy.
In 2005, Ungaro retired and sold his label for $84 million (Rs 375.5 crore today). He now spends his time as an educator and designing for the opera. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What brings you to India?
I have a great emotional relationship with the country. If I had come to India when I was in my 20s, I would have never gone back.
You learnt tailoring and design from your father, who designed for men. But you’ve been known for your couture for women.
Design, for me, is all about provocation. When I was dressing models, I wanted to be seduced by them. It is the most important thing in fashion. I did design for men in the early 1970s, and it was important to do that to learn discipline. But designing for women teaches you about life, about passion. I learnt a lot in the years I spent dressing the femmes du monde, or society women, in Paris. I was confronted with their needs. The quest of my design has been to answer what women want. And I still don’t know what that is.
You set up your own design house at the young age of 32.
I had to prove myself. I was successful working with other design houses, but when I started off on my own, it was with nothing. I rented a small place and had four girls working with me.
Who were your first investors?
I didn’t want investors, I wanted freedom.