Peter Pan in Fashion’s Neverland

Haute pursuit Suneet Varma
Photo: Ishan Tankha

AT HIS light, airy New Friends Colony residence, tastefully appointed with contemporary artwork and large glass candelabras, Suneet Varma looks happy, content and at peace. The man, who in 1999 disparagingly called the sexy cholis that were the rage back then “zardozi tea cosies”, has lost none of his wit and charm. Or his penchant for epigrammatic one-liners! The face is a tad more lined, the eyes wiser, the smile softer, but the razor sharp wit is intact. “Fashion,” he twinkles, “is the politest way to talk about sex. I mean look at it. Every model will tell you ‘bare my butt but not my boobs,’ or a 60-year-old will tell you ‘you know my legs and boobs are still very good but stay away from my Hello Helen arms! I sag!’ Across age, sex spectrums, it’s all about sex!”

He’s been talking sexy for 25 years. An anniversary he didn’t even register till friends, groupies and employees reminded him early last year. “It went by so fast,” he smiles, “it was turbulent, breezy, interesting, exhausting but always exhilarating!” Musty old drawers got a relook, old catalogues, look books, pictures tumbled out and Varma realised how much his own evolution and growth as a designer mirrored the growth of the fashion industry itself. And, of course, a book has been made. One that, in fact, went into production last week. It’s not so much a book about Varma as it is about the genesis and efflorescence of the fashion industry in India. “See, after the initial five-year run came a whole decade of glamour, excitement and celebration. The past 10 years have been about serious consolidation, professionalism with the two major and innumerable minor fashion weeks countrywide. People are doing fashion weeks, suitcase shows at important venues in London, Paris and Los Angeles. The 200-odd fashion designer conglomerate together generates business worth Rs 5-Rs 10,000 crore. So yes, things have changed.”

Not necessarily for the better but then that’s part of the deal, he seems to suggest. “It’s snowballed. I mean I’ve personally hired people in my office who were ostensibly from NIFT till I realised they are from NIFD and NIFP,” he laughs. Obviously a satellite industry has grown around the core business of fashion. “It has become a much tougher business from when we started. How does a youngster fresh out of college find the 5 lakh to participate in a fashion week, find the deep pockets to fund a collection, launch his/her line?” It’s also become a way more edgy business where people are aware, any false move immediately detected, any misstep pointed out. “In my Hauz Khas Village days,” he says fondly recalling the early years, “there was a masterji right below my first floor studio. I’d be written about, my work featured in a newspaper or magazine one day. The next day our man would be ripping me off by selling replicas of the very design that made it to print. Right below my nose!” That’s more difficult now, of course, with the proliferation of fashion programmes on television, publications, the increased fashion savvy quotient of the well-travelled metropolitan Indian. I politely desist from pointing out how Varma himself was caught ripping off a Yves Saint Laurent bustier in the late ’90s. That was then. This is now. Much has changed.

‘My defining contribution? It’s what I did with the sari. Used embellishment in very western ways,’ says Varma

As has Suneet. He is mellow, reflective, thoughtful, rounded, secure. And diverse. “See fashion is a clever business. But it can also be an intelligent one,” he says. That approach has led him to chart an interesting trajectory for himself. Like turning creative director worldwide for Judith Leiber jewel bags. Conceptualising designs for the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez that they flaunt at high profile showbiz events. Or assuming the creative director mantle at BMW, Munich, redesigning and customising interiors for the BMW 7 range. “You learn so much: what you can and what you absolutely cannot change! Designing embossed upholstery, mother of pearl dashboards, navratan touch buttons,” he says. His design portfolio is even more diverse — he turned creative director/consultant for the uber deluxe seven-acre Thai owned Dusit Devarana hotel property near Pushpanjali Farms, Gurgaon. Choosing artwork, calibrating interiors, fine-tuning ambience and designing uniforms is all part of his repertoire.

After 25 years, it’s time to rewind. Look back. “My defining contribution? I think it’s what I did with the sari. Used embellishment in very Western ways. Exhaustively read, researched and rendered anew Art Deco and La Belle Époque themes in my sari embroideries, worked out different drapes, wraps; draped it over skirts, pants, tunics. Menswear? I tried it. Did the odd wedding caper for sundry clients but my heart is in women’s clothing,” he confesses.

In his Peter Pan early 50s, Varma is less about glamour and more about introspection, depth, self-reflection. Not giddy glamour. Diligence, dedication and hard work is what it’s all about for him. “In the ’90s, I was doing this show for NDTV, Style Guru. Had such fun travelling across Europe, researching museums, visiting designers’ studios, meeting and shooting with Oscar de la Renta and David LaChappele. I recall meeting Tom Ford who was heading Gucci those days. Someone from the unit told him I was a huge star in India. Very glamorous. He smiled and said, ‘You’re lucky! I’m at my desk at 7.45 every morning.”

It’s a lesson he has never allowed himself to forget. “I notice kids in my office: 27-28 years old and they talk of being tired! I can’t even think how,” he guffaws.

THROUGH THE 25 years of designing uniforms, hotels, cars, sherwanis, saris, tunics, dresses and kurtas, Varma has remained an artist at heart, which is what he sought to be when he first started. “I went to London to study sculpture! London College of Fashion was an accident of fate!” He returned to a textile exporter father who was keen to have him join the family business and offered ingenious justification for doing the same to his artist/designer/wannabe sculptor son. “But you sculpt textiles to create clothes,” his father had reasoned disarmingly.

Going by the evidence that’s another adage the designer artist hasn’t forgotten through the years.

Mehra is a Delhi-based author, journalist and filmmaker
[email protected]


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