Nothing can beat craft from Lucknow: Mani Kohli
London-based fashion designer Mani Kohli has a long list of celebrities she has adorned with her designs. The list includes British ex-PM Theresa May, singer Beyonce Knowles, stars of the movie ‘Bend It Like Bekham’ and Prince Andrews.
She has a very special connection with Lucknow where she got married in 1978 before moving to London. The journey that started then became stronger with her garments sporting motifs from Awadhi craft and the city remaining her sourcing point.
“It was all possible because Lucknow was my stronghold and no one can beat ‘nafees’ (fine), beautifully hand-crafted garments that are made here. Except for some Banglorian and Manglorian nuns who used to do resham work for me no one can be beat what Lucknow has to offer – be it resham, zardozi, kamdani, tabka or chikankari,” she said.
Work keeps bringing her back to Lucknow but this visit was special. “From 1980 to 2020, the artisan families working with me are the same. I am here to attend to the marriage of the person whom I am now associated with for three generations. They are part of my journey where I stand today,” said the designer.
Lucknow to London
“I had great interest in clothing. My husband knew this, so, before we left for London, he took me to Chowk, from where I purchased chikankari and zardozi saris.In London, I faced a culture shock as locals were conditioned to expect Asians to be mediocre. Due to my education (in Shillong) and exposure, I was not ready to take it. I noticed that Asians in Britain were not dressed well which was very demoralising for me. When I went well-dressed they appreciated it a lot. Slowly, I started helping my friends with dresses which gave me confidence,” she said.
She sourced zari work from Lucknow which was according to the local taste and colours that were appreciated. “I used to sell through car boot sales on the roadside, do coffee sessions and my fusion apparels started selling through mouth-to-mouth publicity. I launched my label Khubsoorat in 1985, a name every Indian and Asian can connect with,” she said.
Making it big
She credits India Tourism Board for their support. “In 1991, fashion shows rarely happened. So, I trained Asian girls and boys from East London and we did a two-day show, where we had an audience of 57,000, a record not broken till today. That changed things for me. Music videos, bridal apparels and so on.”
Mani remembers how initially she used to fly to her hometown, New Delhi, with material for 30 suits and then carry the load to Lucknow by train. “I used to give material to be embroidered, take it back to Delhi to get it stitched at our production house and return to London. This continued for 2-3 years. From 30 suits, it grew to 300 to 3,000 and more. I started making trail lenhgas and corsets all from Lucknow,” she said.
Today, she has a team of 60-65 persons spread across Lucknow, Delhi and London. “We do 60-65 garments a month. I have kept it like that and have not got greedy to go beyond that as then I won’t be able to do it. Now my daughter and son want to take it beyond and I am more than happy if they do that on the digital platform. They both have their own label as well,” she said.
The designer is happy becoming a mentor and passing on her legacy to her children. “Starting at 19 years of age, then having a broken marriage, establishing myself, to now becoming the first choice for British Asians, it has been a very satisfying journey,” she says.
Besides work, she feels happy “de-stressing” herself in Lucknow amidst friends.
The Sunny Leone connect
Mani has restricted herself to British Asians in the UK. “I did a Sunny Leone collection and many people asked me why. For me, she was just an Asian outside India, struggling to make a name, irrespective of the career she chose. I too struggled to make a name outside, so that is the answer to the ‘why’,” she said.