HT Brunch Cover Story: Family over fashion

India’s top style icon Natasha Poonawalla is essentially a family girl at heart
The 38-year-old daughter-in-law of Pune’s famed Poonawalla clan and mother of two is quite the stunner. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Trench, blouse and leggings, The Row(Kay Sukumar)
The 38-year-old daughter-in-law of Pune’s famed Poonawalla clan and mother of two is quite the stunner. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Trench, blouse and leggings, The Row(Kay Sukumar)
Updated on Aug 09, 2020 11:24 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByJamal Shaikh

Remember the Met Gala last year, where the theme was a provocative “camp” and beautiful stars outdid one another to look outrageous? Katy Perry arrived as a human chandelier,Jared Leto carried a model of his own severed head in his hand, and Deepika Padukone channelled her alt-Barbie avatar with dark lipstick.

Priyanka Chopra’s Mad Hatter- look from Alice in Wonderland was appreciated, but her curls also inspired a thousand memes.

In the midst of all this, one Indian invitee stood out. Dressed in a powder blue Peter Dundas gown and a dramatic maang-tika, Natasha Poonawalla managed to make her version of OTT look feminine and cool.

Jared Leto (left) and Priyanka Chopra at the Met Gala 2019
Jared Leto (left) and Priyanka Chopra at the Met Gala 2019

Birth of a star

The 38-year-old daughter-in-law of Pune’s famed Poonawalla clan may have top Bollywood stars as her best friends. However, the mother of two is quite the stunner herself. She’s the executive director of the family-owned Serum Institute that has been in the news for its efforts to create the coronavirus vaccine. But as the world patiently waits for the other side of this pandemic, let’s focus on the brighter aspects of life.

Where does Natasha Poonawalla come from and why has she been under the radar all these years? From who did she inherit her “fashion forwardness?” How does she have the world’s top designers on speed dial? And is it true that Katy Perry phoned her for fashion advice?

Katy Perry as a human chandelier at the Met Gala, 2019
Katy Perry as a human chandelier at the Met Gala, 2019

Natasha laughs warmly at this outburst. “Yes, and no,” she says. “Yes, Katy [Perry] got in touch with me because she wanted some Indian outfits. And no, I’ve never been under the radar. I’m probably noticed a lot more now because of social media. Before that, my life in Pune was very different from that in Mumbai and it was possible to keep it that way.”

A fashion diva who is also one of India’s wealthiest women, Natasha Poonawalla’s demeanour is easy-going and friendly.

“All my friends are working girls and guys, and all of them have a direction in life. That’s the kind of people I’m attracted to.”

Your public profile describes you as a philanthropist and you chair the Villoo Poonawalla Charitable Foundation. Doesn’t your fashionable avatar stand in the way of being taken seriously?

“I don’t think you have to portray a certain image to be a certain person,” smiles Natasha. “You can have many aspects to your personality. Earlier, when I’d dress up and go out, they would say ‘socialite’, who – in my head – is somebody who wakes up in the afternoon, goes for a blow dry, doesn’t work and only cares about dressing up. All my friends are working girls and guys, and all of them have a direction in life. That’s the kind of people I’m attracted to because that’s the kind of person I am!”

Background basics

The groundedness of this reply is augmented by the picture Natasha paints of her childhood.

In her teens, style diva Natasha says, she was the girl in salwar- kameez. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Suit, Balenciaga (Kay Sukumar)
In her teens, style diva Natasha says, she was the girl in salwar- kameez. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Suit, Balenciaga (Kay Sukumar)

“My mother remarried when I was very young, so to many people, we had a bit of an unusual family situation,” reveals Natasha. “My stepdad was great to me, and as a result, I had three dads: my biological father, my stepfather, and my bua’s husband. I was the first girl in the family after many years, and I had everyone wrapped around my little finger. I grew up in Pune’s Koregaon Park, in a little cottage, one lane away from the Osho Ashram. And I was so fat, I could never cycle as a kid!”

In her teens, style diva Natasha says, she was the girl in salwar- kameez! “I went to an all-girls college because that was all I wanted to wear. I was probably trying to hide the hormonal changes I was seeing in my body. I wanted to be covered up.”

Her upbringing was experience-rich. “My childhood got me education through exposure,” she says. “My dad had studied at Cornell and came back to India, and started a hotel. With him, we travelled the world. We’d rent a car and find beautiful homes in Germany, where people would give us a room and we’d become part of the family for two days…”

At home, her experiences were still more varied. “I was very close to my bua, who was an amazing sari-clad woman with thick plastic glasses,” says Natasha. “She was very cool and had friends from all over the world. But she was also about religion and going to Tirupati and Vaishno Devi. So, there I was: born to a Punjabi father, living in a Parsi home with a stepdad who was Maharashtrian!”

A fashion diva who is also one of India’s wealthiest women, Natasha Poonawalla’s demeanour is easy-going and friendly. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._ . Wardrobe: Shirt, Wolford; suit, Fendi (Kay Sukumar)
A fashion diva who is also one of India’s wealthiest women, Natasha Poonawalla’s demeanour is easy-going and friendly. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._ . Wardrobe: Shirt, Wolford; suit, Fendi (Kay Sukumar)

“It’s the simplicity of my childhood experiences that reflect how I live my life today. Value-based upbringing teaches you to use privilege to make a difference. This was encouraged by the family I married into: Adar and I are on the same page when working on our foundations that take forward the changes in our society we’d love to see,” says Natasha.

Family matters

It is probably this upbringing that makes Natasha enjoy family time. Her eyes light up with delight – and are at their brightest – when she’s talking about her two boys, Cyrus, 11 and Darius, 5.

Natasha’s strong, independent streak finds support in the men in her life. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Leather vest, Chloe; jeans, J Brand (Kay Sukumar)
Natasha’s strong, independent streak finds support in the men in her life. Styling: Nikhil Mansata @nikhilmansata, Styling assistant: Zoha Castelino @_vitamin.z._. Wardrobe: Leather vest, Chloe; jeans, J Brand (Kay Sukumar)

“I wish I was a more carefree mother, but I’m not,” she says. “I’m very particular about education, values, respect… There’s no super casual ever, no rolling your eyes at elders. I’ve been brought up in a traditional way – Pune is not Mumbai or Delhi, and there must always be a great degree of respect. I’m also a micro-manager and am called all kinds of names; recently, I was called a Gluten-free Vegan Mother. Hey, if I learn things about nutrition, and I know something is healthier for my family, why shouldn’t I incorporate it in my children’s lives?!!” she asks with mock anger.

“I am quite strict with the entire family and was recently labelled ‘Gluten-free Vegan mother’. Hey, if I learn things about nutrition, why shouldn’t I incorporate it in my children’s lives?”

“To be honest, I’m quite strict with the entire family,” she says. “No phones are allowed on the table and family time has to be valued. And as a result, the kids learn so much. It’s like a mini board meeting every day. My father-in-law, my husband and I, we’re all quite fiery. Adar’s passionate about something, my father-in-law believes in something else… and my kids say, ‘Are you guys screaming at each other? What’s happening?’”

“As a family, we are very open. We talk in front of our kids, whether about news or politics. I’m the disciplinarian and Adar is the fun dad: he gets to see them for an hour, and gets to do video games and junk food!” she says with a hint of faux regret.

Natasha’s dress by Peter Dundas fetched her rave reviews at the Met Gala last year
Natasha’s dress by Peter Dundas fetched her rave reviews at the Met Gala last year

Natasha’s strong, independent streak finds support in the men in her life. “My father-in-law, who I had thought was conservative, told me after marriage that he wouldn’t have me waste my LSE degree. ‘You’re coming to work,’ he said. My mother-in-law, who passed away in 2010, told me I must have my own life. ‘If you don’t work and only do things for the family, you will lose yourself,’ she told me. Today, I travel a lot on my own, which is unusual, but I know I always have the support of the men in my life.”

Fashion forward

Back to what she’s best known for: her sense of style. Did Natasha Poonawalla discover fashion after becoming a mother of two? “Not at all,” she says. “I’ve been a clotheshorse all my life, whether shopping at H&M, or owning Pimkie at age 12; and I’ve always been experimental,” says Natasha. “Dressing up is a creative outlet for me.”

So, when yet another magazine puts her on their Best Dressed List, how does she react?

“I go like… umm, okay. But I honestly love it. On the inside, I’m gloating!”

“[When I was young], I was the fat girl in the salwar-kameez! I was probably trying to hide the hormonal changes I was seeing in my body”

We ask Natasha to name her three favourite fashion designers internationally and in India, and for the first time in our conversation, there is a pause.

“You’re going to get me into trouble. There’s so much great talent out there,” Natasha says. “Old favourites like Chanel and Dior are great, and Valentino is doing incredible work. But I am all for a young designer who is not known but is doing good work.”

And amongst the Indian ones?

“Rahul Mishra is doing great work. Manish [Malhotra], Abu-Sandeep are all so fantastic… how can you ask me to pick?”

Would you be able to refute the allegation that you prefer Westernwear? “When I’m in India, it would be perceived so, but when I’m abroad, I wear a lot of Indian designs because it’s appreciated more there,” says Natasha. “I’m 70:30 in favour of international designers, and that’s only because fashion abroad is more accessible: you know what size fits, and how it’ll look. Indian designers are working on their cuts, but everything can’t always be made to measure and four trials is sometimes just a waste of time!”

Follow @Jamal.Shaikh on Twitter

From HT Brunch, August 9, 2020

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