Newsmaker: Fashion maven, reality star, Masaba
Since her fashion debut at the age of 19, she’s been full of surprises. Last week we got a closer look at her life. But will we ever know the real Masaba?Updated: Sep 05, 2020, 12:03 IST
Masaba Gupta knows what it’s like to feel like the other, and it is for the other that she designs — pouring into her sketches her anger, her fearlessness, and her yearning to be free.
By 2009, when she launched her label, House of Masaba, these were also the emotions of a generation that had come of age post-liberalisation and didn’t want to choose between dressing as their parents had and borrowed aesthetics from the West.
And so it was that Masaba’s electric hues, pop art iconography and desi kitsch prints of cameras, cows and fans began to go viral. It helped that her market was also starting to live online. The House of Masaba realised that if they treated Instagram as their ramp, they could hold a fashion week any time they chose, and build fast while spending very little on marketing.
“I figured there was a gap in the Indian fashion market for easy, comfortable clothing that were neither luxury nor ready-to-wear, but something in-between,” says Masaba, 31. She paired her creative kitschy prints with relaxed cuts, forgiving silhouettes and vibrant colours. Later came saris with pockets and fanny packs, sometimes paired with jackets.
- Masaba Gupta’s aesthetic is marked by a trend towards inclusion. In 2018, one such experiment was a hijab-sari she introduced as part of her Tiger Lily collection — in grey and white, with the pallu wrapped over the head and tribal-themed print.
- She was approached by Black White Orange, a merchandising partner for HBO in India, to create a Game of Thrones capsule collection that she launched in 2019. It celebrated the Stark family from the wildly popular series.
- Her newest line, launched in January 2020, is called I Will Wear Out Plastic. It features clothes with detachable crepe bags and is part of the UNEP India and Ogilvy India campaign to phase out single-use plastic.
- Now 31, Masaba didn’t always want to be a fashion designer. Until the age of 14 she was very serious about a career in pro tennis. She then focused on dance and music, studying under Shiamak Davar and enrolling in a music course in London.
A compliment to her craft is the thriving business of counterfeit Masabas sold at open-air markets from Lajpat Nagar in Delhi to Colaba Causeway in Mumbai and online too. “I love it because I used to dream of being copied,” she says.
Last week, India got a closer look at her life, with the premiere of the Netflix web series Masaba Masaba, a fictionalised version of the lives of the designer and her mother, actor Neena Gupta. The part that she draws from real life is her ability to pick up the pieces and move forward.
The show has been panned and lauded, called tacky and kitschy as well as relatable. It’s made Masaba trend on social media again. (The last time was in 2019, when Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal led an investment of $1 million in the House of Masaba.)
The designer wears it all lightly. She’s used to the glare. Masaba has been in and out of the news since she was born, to Neena Gupta and the cricketer Vivian Richards. Because it was 1990, and her parents never married, it was turned into tabloid grist.
In school in Mumbai, Masaba has talked about how her Caribbean features made her stand out, and how she was a target of bullying. She’s discussed how she channelled her pre-teen rage into first dance, then music, then design.
The tennis phase came from being determined to make it big as a sportsperson, like her father. Professional play also offered an outlet for the aggression she felt, fuelled her fearlessness and made her feel free. Those feelings came through with dance and music too, but it is in her designs that you see them most noticeably.
Enrolled at Mumbai’s SNDT university, fate sent her a mentor in designer Wendell Rodricks. She worked on her graduation show with him, and he helped her apply to the Lakme Fashion Week. At 19, she showcased her first collection there in the Gen Next category. It was called Kattran (bits of scrap cloth, in Hindi), featured patchwork saris and Kolhapuri chappals, and caused quite the sensation.
With 1.1 million followers, Instagram remains her primary channel of communication with her market. Her growth has been organic, and that has been possible largely as a result of social media. Her design strategy, Masaba has said, has been to take a data-centric approach; since the customer base she caters to is so diverse, there has to be a balance between commerce and art.
For the rest of it, the designer describes her life as a hot mess. She is close to both parents, but her father doesn’t like smartphones and can be hard to get hold of. She remains on good terms with her ex-husband, film producer Madhu Mantena. She posts unselfconscious gyaan on body positivity, PCOS and acne.
Every collection she helms, though, from swimsuit lines to cosmetics, harks back to her original idea of empowering women to challenge ideals of beauty.
“Practice self esteem. Practice strength. Because we all know it will be knocked out of us 3 mins after we step out of home,” went one viral Instagram post. “Don’t expect to read an article about ‘beauty coming from the inside’ and expect to wake up the next day feeling like you’re beautiful. Doesn’t work like that.”
(This story has been corrected to reflect Masaba’s age as 31. A caption incorrectly stated she played table tennis; she played pro tennis)