Rohit Bal says the national flower and peacock motifs represent the range of his design, from ‘simplicity to opulence and borderline arrogance’. By Maegan Dobson Sippy
INDIAN fashion’s enfant terrible may be notorious for his antics off-ramp, but it’s his ability to consistently deliver cutting-edge style that makes Rohit Bal a designer who deserves respect. Earlier this month, couture icon Christian Louboutin was seen in a signature red bandhgala at Bal’s Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) finale titled Gulbagh. The show had models swaying past in soft ivory saris and velvet lehengas, with dark kohled eyes, dewy lips and deep red roses in their hair. It was a brilliantly conceptualised story, with the Qutub Minar as the backdrop. That Bal (Gudda to friends) has a canny knack for both refined drama and business is evident. The latter includes projects for the masses like pret collaborations with brands like Jabong and Biba, as well as his involvement with Linen Club, Chivas Regal, Mitsubishi, Rolls-Royce, Zippo lighters, Titan Nebula and Kirtilal Jewellers. Luxe villas in Goa are next (designed and decorated by him), and he unapologetically admits that future endeavours will range from carpets to cars, via home accessories and interior design. Bringing together these diverse strands is the Rohit Bal Luxury Wedding brand, which delivers the final word in lavish weddings.
Known as the high-rolling, hard-partying designer everybody wants to be friends with, Bal, in his 50s, certainly knows a thing or two about creating a fantasy. His 25 years in the industry have been well spent. We catch up with him as he takes a breather between the success of his Gulbagh collection, and the start of the forthcoming wedding season.
Bemused by how the idea of a hedonistic party boy gained widespread currency, Bal is keen to set the record straight. ‘‘I never really partied hard. I think that impression was created because I was interesting and, therefore, people were following what I did,’’ he begins. ‘‘Actually, I’m impulsive and disorganised, and I’m not that ‘work hard, play hard’ type. What does define me is my spontaneity and my honesty, and the fact that I’m able to work at an incredible pace.’’ This is a priceless attribute when overseeing projects that range from pret and couture to designing lighters and whiskey packaging. What unites all this, explains Bal, is the creative focus and design freedom that he insists upon before taking on any work. Much anticipated projects include two books — a coffee table book that is a serious take on Indian craft, to be published by Om Books, and a separate semi autobiographical work that will be brought out by Penguin. ‘‘It’s basically the Indian fashion industry over the last 25 years, but through my eyes,’’ he reveals. Elaborating on the themes that the book will traverse, he says that ‘‘the biggest trend is India coming out of the dark ages, in the sense that we’re rediscovering our heritage and going back to our culture, rather than focussing exclusively on the west.’’ Literature aside, tea packaging for Red Label as well as a luxury collection of bed linen from Bombay Dyeing are hitting shop floors this month. ‘‘Try the bedding, it’s just like sleeping on my clothes!’’ he says. Jokes aside, the designer stresses that he approaches each collaboration in exactly the same way, with no distinction between fashion and other projects. ‘‘In the same way that you can always spot a Rohit Bal bride, you can see when I have designed any of these products.’’
Reaching the masses
A proponent of high street as well as high end fashion, Bal’s designs have impact beyond the ramp, through collections with brands including Biba, Linen Club and Jabong. ‘‘These collaborations help us to make the product much more accessible to tier two, three and four cities, and not just the cosmopolitan crowd,’’ explains Bal. Unwilling to pick a single pret piece that defines his style, he shares that he’s most happy with the focus on the classic yet contemporary silhouettes, whether it be the anarkali, lehenga or sari. But he explains that couture involves taking each piece ‘to the next level’, making it a true piece of art. ‘‘Let’s say if you had an original painting and decide to make a print of it — that’s pret. As pretty as the original, but pret,’’ he explains, with characteristic lighthearted candour.
Down the aisle
With his fashion shows already renowned for their sheer grandeur, branching out into luxury wedding management was a natural progression. The Rohit Bal Luxury Wedding company has a dedicated team to handle everything from catering to on-the-day logistics. Says Jeh Bajaj, CEO of the enterprise which started in December 2013, ‘‘Rohit had designed weddings for clients on a one-off basis, but this enterprise is more formal, with a hand-picked team of specialists.’’ With two weddings under their belt already, there are three more planned before the close of this year’s wedding season. ‘‘We can’t do more than that per season because of the sheer amount of detail. Plus, Rohit is very hands on,’’ shares Bajaj. Bal, himself, is keen to get started. ‘‘Indian craft, and my peacock and lotus motifs are just as relevant when it comes to interiors,’’ he explains, adding, ‘‘I’ve used thekri, an ancient form of mirror work, on walls and ceilings.’’
In full bloom
Coming back to where all the action was this year — Bal at the WIFW finale — it is laudable that the designer continues to celebrate his roots. This time, the Mughal gardens of Kashmir offered inspiration. And the lotus and peacock motifs that have come to represent the Rohit Bal brand were in abundance. Explaining that the focus on two Indian national symbols was never conscious, Bal adds that the contrast between them sums up his design philosophy. ‘‘They represent the range of my design,’’ he says. ‘‘From the extreme simplicity and natural beauty of the lotus, to the opulence and borderline arrogance of the peacock.’’ At the finale, Bal’s longstanding friend and actor, Arjun Rampal, took to the runway in a black bandhgala and jodhpuri trousers, while French designer Louboutin cheered from the sidelines. ‘‘Louboutin has been a dear friend for many years, as I was the first Indian designer to use his shoes for my shows. Now he’s wearing my clothes to all his parties! It’s a fantastic compliment when another designer wears your clothes,’’ concludes Bal.
Big screen effect
Inspired by visual content, Bal picks the movies that have
influenced his design sensibilities:
■ Peter Brook’s Mahabharata was a massive influence on me when I was very young. The visual sensibilities and costumes really stood out for me on screen
■ There’s a scene in the adaptation of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, where the lead actress is wearing just jewellery. It takes us right back to that sexy Indian sensibility that I love. Another film that manages that is an old classic called Amrapali, a film set in the time of Gautam Buddha, that follows the life of a courtesan dancer
■ At the other extreme, The Great Gatsby was a stunning and elegant movie recently, with more high drama. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another classic, with a great sense of the visual
At a recent wedding held in Bangalore for Sidharth Menda of the RMZ group, the ballrooms of The Leela Palace saw a burgundy and gold palette for the ceremony, with spectacular peacock floral structures and lotus motifs on the upholstery. But the reception was modelled on the Versailles Palace, with a jazz quarter and huge floral panels. ‘‘Rohit has such vast experience of the country, so whether it’s Kashmir, Hyderabad, Bangalore or Delhi, he has a very good sense of where things come from, and how to use tradition appropriately, but also how best to deviate from it,’’ observes his partner, Bajaj.
Behind the scenes
Known for his love of fine living, art books and vintage wines, Bal is moved by inspirations as diverse as the blue seen on Turkish pottery and the white of mulmul fabric. We dig a little deeper…
■ Greatest inspiration: Rohit Khosla, who gave birth to Indian design and single-handedly created the values that Indian designers now have
■ Indulgent holiday: The Amalfi coast of
Italy is fresh in my memory, where I recently spent 15 days
■ Insight into the fashion industry:
People are often surprised, but it’s not all
parties on yachts. A designer’s work
genuinely never ends
■ Lifestyle changes: I eat heathy, think positive, work out. A healthy mind nestles a healthy soul. Breathe in and peace out
Inputs: Aakanksha Devi