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From a sales boy to an eminent designer, Manish Malhotra recalls his journey at Harvard Business School

Ace fashion designer Manish Malhotra recently recounted his own journey during his address at India Conference 2017, held at Harvard Business School. From his modelling days to being a sales agent, desire to become a film-maker and ultimately hobnobbing with the likes of Yash Chopra and Karan Johar, Malhotra’s journey is truly inspiring. Here, we are producing excerpts from the speech

Manish Malhotra

Manish Malhotra at India Conference 2017

CHILDHOOD ASPIRATIONS
So my entire childhood was about movies, movies and movies. I was fascinated by (their) colour, the clothes and the music. I used to look at some Yash Chopra film and wonder, “Will I ever go to a five star Hotel and have a meal?” When I saw a song from a film called Trishul where they are playing golf, they are doing yoga, they are romancing and they had big parties in that film. And I always thought, would I ever be over there, go for such parties and meet the movie stars or would I have this kind of lifestyle, would I make a noise in this world in this entire big world. So with those dreams I came into college. When I was in college I started watching English films so it was always movies for me. The only good thing I did in school, being I was a real bad student, was that I enrolled myself into a drawing class and that’s where I learned how to paint, draw and sketch which fascinated me and I kept getting better and better.

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MANISH MALHOTRA, THE MODEL 

Manish Malhotra

India Conference 2017, Harvard Business School

When I was in college, someone offered me this modeling assignment one day and I asked, “Can I model? Are you sure?”. They said that I can and I, very excited with that, started modeling. At the age of nineteen I told my father that since I hadn’t ever been abroad, I want to see the world because otherwise how will I make something out of my life? He said that since you’re modeling, you can save some money and then go abroad, if you want to. That’s when I started working really hard as a model and used to take every assignment seriously. I didn’t meet my friends since I was shooting every other day, taking every assignment that came so that I could travel abroad. Through that I managed to save some Rs. 90,000 and went to Singapore and Bangkok for the first time, being proud that I could do this on my own.  When I came back, I was so excited that I had travelled abroad. I got enrolled into Air India for a purser and there when I saw the questions in the exam, there were a lot of general knowledge questions which I absolutely failed in knowing because all I knew was movies.

WHEN MALHOTRA BECAME A SALES BOY
Thereafter, I took up a job at a boutique as a sales boy. My parents, absolutely horrified exclaimed, “That you doing!  You are going to become a tailor. Why are you a sales boy there? Why don’t you join your father’s air conditioning business?”. I retorted back saying, “No, I’m going to be a film director. They asked, “Why not a film actor?”. Every Punjabi mother feels her son is the best looking and he can become a hero, so every profession comes down to movies and you should become an actor.

WANNABE FILM-MAKER
I was in this boutique and I was a sales boy but I took it on and I used to sit with the tailor. I used to learn about cuts. I was very curious. I used to ask questions. I used to meet with the clients. I used to sketch all day long. I used to dress up the mannequin. And that’s the year, which is about 1988, when the fashion movement in India was just starting. ENSEMBLE was opening and there were a lot of designers who had come out with their collection. So, I was very fascinated with that and I wanted to assist Yash Chopra and I didn’t know him. So, I thought to myself, “How will I become a film director?”, while my parents kept insisting me to become an actor. “No I want to be a designer”, I retorted back. and they were like, “that means a tailor”. I was like, “No I want to be a designer”, so I kept two machines in my house, I had two tailors in my bedroom. I started with taking orders for salwaar kameez and my mother was horrified. She was like I can’t believe I’m going to tell my friends that my son takes salwaar kameez orders and come and give him orders. I was like no there is something going to be better out of this.

FORAY INTO FILM INDUSTRY
I met a photographer who took me to meet  Sridevi who at that time it was a huge star. This is in 1990. I had just done a song for Juhi Chawla in the movie Swarg and I thought to myself, “Films is great to start because no Designer was touching movies.” They were all looking down upon (films) because late 80’s – it was a complete decline of fashion and films. I thought to myself if I can make a change here I’ll be able to make a name. Since I don’t have the money to go abroad and study Fashion and I neither wanted to go to NIFT in Delhi, because I didn’t want to stay with my relatives in Delhi, so I said that  let me start working on films. Here I was at 23, leaving modeling completely, to my mother’s unhappiness and starting working in movies. Since I could sketch so fast, all the actors started giving me a lot of work and it was 2-3 years of running around the producers. My father said, “What are you doing? You are going to lose money and whatever you made out of your modeling career.”

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THE INTRODUCTION OF A COSTUME DESIGNER
I was determined I didn’t want to work for the air conditioning business and I said what is that USP, that I can give to my work and I came with this concept of styling. I was the first designer who came with this concept of styling in Hindi movies. I started with, “What is going to be your makeup and what is going to be your hair?” All the makeup artists used to be like, “Why is this costume designer interfering in our makeup and hair?” I asked a director, I remember, I was with this actor Raveena Tandon and a director-  we were listening to some script and he was telling (me to) make some western clothes for her. Like, ‘something sexy’ and I looked at him and I said that, “what is her look and what is the story of the film? What is she playing?” And he looks at Raveena and he’s like, “how dare he ask me the story of the film?” I was like, “I’m just asking you for the character!” In those days they didn’t really  flesh out a character. Either she’s a glamourous girl, she’s an Indian girl, she will wear salwaar kameez in these scenes or she will wear western clothes.

I happened to meet younger directors like Aditiya Chopra,  Karan Johar, Ram Gopal Verma- so many of them. And (then) came Rangeela and Raja Hindustani. And the ‘makeover’ happened. It was not that planned, yet all of us really wanted to do something fabulous, wanted to work and change the way films looked and in 1995. Filmfare awards for the first time ever gave a Costume Designer award and that was to me for the film Rangeela. From there, it all started. From a person (who had) not travelled at all, I was on a flight every week to Switzerland. If you all remember, if you all were born in the 90’s – chiffon Sari in the snow! While the heroes were in Mufflers and trench coat, the heroines were in the itsy-bitsy blouses which I was tacking there in the snow.

I moved in and out of Switzerland. I was shopping in London and New York. But, I have to say (to) all of you here, that I think the best education has been travel – learning, imbibing,  watching people,  watching different cultures. You know seeing fashion, seeing  everything around has been the biggest education for me. And while I was interested, of course, and I thought that was my life. My dream was fulfilled and I was going to be a costume designer (for films) all my life. I was already working with the best of directors, producers, actresses and actors. Then came the very prestigious Birla family couple   – Yash and Avanti Birla who offered me a retail store and I was like ‘retail?!’ I was a costume designer and that’s how I started my store and came into retail. Then I moved on to launch my new label, which was in the year 2006 and two/three years went balancing, you know, movies and my own label. This was when for the first time I introduced the concept of a show-stopper. Fashion critics criticized me that all my fashion shows had a very impressive film industry front row and which was not really a norm in fashion in those days. Neither was a show stopper. But, after 11 years today, actors are paid to be show stoppers and everybody looks at having a good front row. So that was the fashion and trend that I started and work went on. I was busy day by day doing more and more work. I love to work I don’t like Sundays. I wake up every morning at 6am and I dream what am I going to do next.

I’m a visualiser. Sometimes (the) manifestations are personal, sometimes professional. But, all those goals it’s always (leads to) work.  You have to work hard, you know, like when  Madhavan spoke about dreaming – for all your dreams to be fulfilled you have to work and I love to work. When the label moved ahead and we started a big store in Delhi – I was the first designer, who started a 9,500 Sq feet   store – it changed how my company worked. My positioning in the fashion industry became more serious and we became one of the first (INR) 100 Crore independent company in fashion design.

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EYE ON THE FUTURE
Today, when I’m asked to look at 2030, I look at India (and) I look at Indian fashion to be on par with international fashion. I hopefully see a lot of investors coming and investing in Indian designers. We have everything we have – culture, tradition; we have texture, textile. We have great craftsmen.

I run an NGO with actor Shabana Azmi. We had 40 women working (there) and now we have 280 women who come to our institute. (They) work and (create) beautiful chikankari work in a small village called Mijwan. I want to take a lot of handloom and weaves from Benaras, Mijwan (and present them) internationally. I think a lot of Indian designers will be out there by 2030. Indian fashion and Indian textile are going to be up there and we all will be celebrating it.

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