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Global Indians: pioneers who rocked the fashion world

Indian-born and Indian-origin people are making their mark in every part of the globe. They are there on the international red carpet too – hair stylists, fashion and jewellery designers, shoe designers and facialists. Their clients: A-list Hollywood celebs to royals to the prominent first ladies.

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2014 13:46 IST
Team Brunch
Team Brunch
Hindustan Times

You've heard of India shining on the global arena. Locally born immigrants, NRIs and persons of Indian origin have held top jobs in business, medicine, science, technology, writing, even politics. They've all made the headlines. And deservedly so.

This story is not about them.

It's about India's other tales of success abroad. Of those who've followed their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. Of those who've met with parental disapproval despite wider opportunities available to them. Of those who didn't let their roots, their modest upbringing or their skin colour stop them from thinking they're just as good as anyone else. Of those who stuck it out and struck it big.

Some of our global Indians speak no Hindi; others are die-hard Bollywood fans. Some have no fixed address; others visit India at every opportunity. Most of them have little in common with the other; a few of them even believe their success transcends their ancestry. But all of them have, in the words of jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, "blazed some trails and made it easier for those coming behind us".

Here are their stories…

Vaishaly Patel, 41, London

Zambia-born Vaishaly Patel came to London when she was just three, and always dreamed of a career in beauty. She just couldn't imagine life in a cubicle, not being able to make people look and feel better. But her brothers wanted her to do something more stable, like business or law. So she pursued degrees in finance and business - studying beauty on the side. Today, it's the Plan B that's made her an A-list favourite. Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, Meg Ryan, Elle Macpherson and Anushka Sharma are fans of her £250 facials. There's a three-month waiting list at her London clinic and her skincare range, Vaishaly, is all the rage.

You call yourself a superfacialist, specialising in craniosacral work. What does that mean?

Over the years I have evolved the facial to where it is now. My philosophy goes to the root of all body and skin problems - the mind. You can have a really good massage and feel extremely relaxed but your mind is still at work. You even think when you're sleeping. By switching our minds off we let go of the stress we hold in our body and face. Craniosacral work takes the facial to another level - it's the first time any client will have actually switched off so deeply. So when you wake up you immediately look younger, lines disappear, skin looks radiant. It rebalances your body from head to toe, and it's an amazing feeling even for those who find it hard to switch off. I was dubbed "superfacialist" by the press. Because what I do is more than your average facial - it's tailormade on the day you get it. And the results are instant and more than skin deep.

Why do you go by your first name only?

Because there a millions of Patels, but only one Vaishaly!

You were born in Zambia. Do you have any connections to India?

My aunt lives there. A very close personal friend is Sonia Garware. She is an excuse to come to India.

What's the best thing about being brown?

We age well! We don't really burn, so we're less prone to skin damage, lines and wrinkles.

- Veenu Singh

Shavata Singh, 45, expert, London

Chandigarh-born Shavata Singh took to beauty when she signed up for a course with a friend and discovered how much she loved it. She was working at a fancy Mayfair salon in 2001, doing facials and manicures, when a woman came in for a leg wax. Singh attended to her, but then did something out of character. She told the woman she had terrible eyebrows and offered to reshape them.

The woman turned out to be the editor of Vogue, who raved about her in print, making Singh so sought-after, she soon stopped her other services to focus on brows. She set up her own business three years later and now has a chain of 22 Shavata studios across the UK offering brow-grooming products, lash extensions, lash lifts, semi-permanent brow makeup and of course brow threading.

You're pretty good-looking yourself. Did you ever consider being a model?

Beauty is my passion and always has been. Besides, being a model at 45 is just not an option!

Tell us what you do for brows and what brows can do for you.

I use a combination of threading, waxing and tweezing. I often say it is not the tools used, but how they are used. We perform a full consultation, to determine the right shape for the client's face, age and lifestyle.

Brows can transform a face. The correct brow shape can open the eyes and give the effect of a mini face lift in just 15 minutes. Other essentials to maintaining the perfect arch is brow make up, which I never leave the house without. Use a brow pencil to fill in gaps and a powder if you want to colour the skin and hair.

But caring about eyebrows is so popular in India...

Indians, especially Bollywood actresses are renowned for fabulous eyebrows. Indian women have always have visited a salon with a professional and so rarely have bad eyebrows. They may need slight tweaking but the shape is there. When we came to England we had to totally educate British women on eyebrows.

Do you visit India often? What keeps to connected?

I love India! I love the food culture and traditions. Every opportunity I get I take to go back. Although I am a foreigner there, I still have cousins, other family and friends there who I often visit.

Who is your favourite Bollywood star?

Rekha, for her timeless style.

- Veenu Singh

Harry Josh, 41 hairstylist, Canada/USA

Harry Josh. Doesn't sound Indian, does it? That's because the hairstylist's Punjab-born dad changed his last name, Singh to Josh (Hindi for spirited) to get better jobs in Canada. Like all first-generation immigrants, Josh's parents put a lot of emphasis on education and wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. But he was enthralled by beauty and glamour and would be the one flipping through Vogue at the store's magazine section as his mother shopped. The family disapproved. But Josh followed his heart anyway. At 19, he packed up for New York, working his way up, doing haircuts and painstakingly hand-painting highlights onto the tresses of his model friends in his tiny apartment. One of them, Gisele Bundchen, eventually caught the fashion world's attention with her gorgeous looks (and sexily messy locks that looked naturally sun-kissed) and Josh's career took off.

He's since worked his magic on the biggest names in the business. And yes, he still remains best friends with Gisele Bundchen.

You came to New York from Vancouver when you were just 19. Weren't you scared? What if you'd failed?

I felt invincible - I was so young at the time I hadn't known real disappointment in a career until I started in fashion and entertainment. After a day-long search and being rejected by over six agents, the last one I met saw me getting teary-eyed in the elevator after my rejection and pulled me aside. He told me I was naive and needed to practice my craft with precision with meticulousness. I became an "assistant", not a hair-dresser for years to come. Long story short, I went from years of styling hair in a sixth-floor walkup in Soho on a broken-down chair and cracked mirror, to models being asked "Who does your hair? It's amazing!" by industry professionals. Vogue did a full-page spread on me in March 2002. After that, I've been very lucky and most importantly grateful. I love this industry and I love my friendships in it.

You've worked with almost everybody. Any favourites?

Hands down, my friend Gisele Bunchen has the best hair on the planet. It's wavy and she doesn't have to do anything to it if she doesn't want to. I have been lucky enough to work with many celebrities at least once or twice, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katy Perry, Miranda Kerr, Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hartnett, Cameron Diaz, Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson and Lea Michele. I'm obsessed with Priyanka Chopra and, of course, Aishwarya Rai. They are dream clients and I'd love to meet them one day.

What's the best thing about being brown?

Indian culture is incredibly rich in tradition and meaning for me. I'm very close to my family in Vancouver. However, being brown in this business was an incredibly difficult climb because traditionally ethnic people weren't considered "tastemakers." I'm probably the only East Indian celebrity hairdresser of this stature. And I'm so proud to be brown.

- Veenu Singh

Bibhu Mohapatra, 41 designer, USA

Indian fashion has failed to make any remarkable impact internationally. But Odisha-born Bibhu Mohapatra remains one of the few home-grown names whose designs are rocking the international ramps and red carpets. Working in New York, his intricate, elegant handcrafted designs have been worn by everyone who's anyone in the fashion business - From Jennifer Lopez and Angelina Jolie to America's First Lady and foremost fashion icon Michelle Obama.

Mohapatra moved to the US for a degree in Economics, where he realised his interest in design and joined New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. All his designs bear a clear stamp of the crafts and colours of his home state Odisha. His lavish fabrics reinterpret cultural heritage with astute innovation, so their impact resonates globally.

You've made a career in New York but you still visit India often. Is it easy to return?

I make a point of staying connected to my roots. I visit at least twice a year. I see changes in India and India sees changes in me.

Where do you think does the Indian fashion industry stand on the international arena?

It has vast and un-tapped potential. There are so many relevant designers coming out of India and their work needs to be presented to an international audience.

Do people make certain perceptions about you because you are brown or Indian-born?

I believe I am global designer with a brand that has a scope beyond any geographical boundary. I believe I am perceived that way and my work speaks for me and my brand, not my skin colour.

- Yashica Dutt

Waris Ahluwalia, 39 designer and actor, USA

Ahluwalia, that dapper turbaned man-about-town who's popped up in Gap ads, Wes Anderson's films, best-dressed lists and ultra-hip NYC parties, is not your average Sikh. The Amritsar-born designer of exquisite Rajasthan-inspired handcrafted jewellery has shown up in indie films with Tilda Swinton (she's shown up in his films too), written for The Paris Review and collaborated with DeBeers. He's also offered gentlemanly advice on (Are relationships a trap? How to be civil backstage after I've hated the runway show? Should I make a sex tape?).

And yet, he's no washed out celeb. He's a teetotaller, has hip-length hair under that turban, and takes buddies to his mother's once a week to get his fill of Indian home cooking in NY. Jewellery chose him, says Ahluwalia who once made himself two 40-diamond rings while at Maxfields in Los Angeles, which caught the attention of the sales staff. He was the target of racist comments (and an outpouring of support) when he showed up on an ad for Gap. Clearly, publicity chose him too.

From leaving Amritsar at age 5 to New York society today. That's a pretty huge leap...

My memory is fuzzy but it is a strong part of me. I took my first steps at the Golden Temple. When we arrived in America, we moved to an area that had no Indian families. So my culture came from home and visits to family. My parents instilled in me strong values that still guide my life today. We spoke Punjabi at home and ate home cooked food every day. To this day one of my favourite meals is daal and rice.

What made you choose jewellery design?

I have no formal training in it, but I trust my instincts. The universe speaks to us all; we just have to learn how to listen. I spent the last six years searching the world for the best craftsmen to preserve handcraftsmanship not as museum relics but as a way of life. In Rome I found my first workshop. Then onto India where I found a family working in jewellery for centuries. Then to Bangkok for the most delicate setters and then somehow found my way home to NY to work with hand engravers. It has gone past jewellery now. We make objects of beauty for a clientele that appreciates something special.

Do your origins or your colour matter much in your universe?

I somehow never thought of myself as a colour. Indian yes; brown no. I had to choose, I would say I was caramel - just the thought of it sounds delicious. Sorry, I'm going off on a tangent. To answer your question: I've never been one to bother with perceptions. Early in life I realised that I would not fit in anywhere. It's not my purpose in life to fit in. The goal is to stay true to myself and the values my parents and culture have given me. How the world reacts is not in my hands

What connects you to the land of your parents?

Apart from my body and soul, my turban. Always from Amritsar.

- Parul Khanna

Aruna Seth, 30 Designer, UK

Pippa Middleton's derriere caught the world's attention at the British royal wedding in 2011. But something else kept the Internet fires burning too: Her dainty silver Lynn Swarovski butterfly sandals. The pair was designed by Aruna Seth, an Indian-origin British shoe designer, who has since been called the next Tamara Mellon (of Jimmy Choo) by UK's The Telegraph. Seth's eponymous label is knows for shoes with snug comfort and graceful elegance and she's determined to convert girls who can't part with flats into stiletto-flexing experts. Her father, Geoff, invented the famous Ascot line of trainers but she says she didn't venture into the market until she was certain that she had the technology that would make wearing heels almost as easy as Ascots. The label is now all the rage.

How did Pippa Middleton end up wearing your design at the royal wedding? Was she a long time fan?

We knew Pippa owned a few pairs of our shoes but we had no idea she'd wear them to one of the biggest occasions of the century! I was so happy I screamed with delight at the TV. It was a great moment and really helped the brand get noticed internationally.

You use a lot of bling on your shoes, is there an Indian connection?

I do take a great deal of inspiration from Indian culture. I'm particularly drawn to the bling on saris. I love the jewellery. Being drawn to all these colours and sparkle certainly has an influence on the shoes.

What are your earliest memories of coming to India? And has much changed for you over the years?

India is becoming incredibly dynamic and fashion forward. The girls are amazing at looking glamorous and wearing colours. I love coming to India for inspiration. The jewels and colours are great things to see for the shoes! I've been coming to India since a young age. We have tonnes of family there so there are always weddings to attend. We have a family home on the outskirts of New Delhi. -

-Yashica Dutt

From HT Brunch, January 26

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First Published: Jan 25, 2014 17:50 IST