Inside the closet of designer Suneet Varma’s mind, live an extravagant past and a slick present. They do not get mixed up because he hangs them in different ways and isn’t afraid to exhibit his dualism. That’s what the two shows he presented this year for his 25th anniversary celebrations suggest.
Earlier this year, “The Eternal Lightness of Being: To Love, to Hold, to Kiss”, a Spring-Summer line, was futuristic. By challenging his familiar sensibility as a designer, he appeared to reserve a front row seat for himself in India Now. But last Saturday, when he showed “A Passage to India”, a Fall-Winter couture collection at the Leela Palace in Delhi, he waltzed back to old-worldly decadence, allowing the country’s past as well as his own early aesthetics to dress up his clothes.
“A Passage to India”, we are told, is the story of three princesses — Anita Delgado, a fiery Spanish flamenco dancer who married the Maharaja of Kapurthala; Princess Niloufer of the Ottomon Empire who married the son of the Nizam of Hyderabad; and Banu Pan Dei, the Princess of Chamba who became the love and life of General Jean Francois Allard of St Tropez.
They unfolded against three lavish backdrops. As an idea, royalty sanctions indulgence like nothing else. And what better way to mount haute couture — making as much room for impossibly luxurious velvet chairs and gilded mirrors as for Renaissance paintings, embroidered shoes, flowers that look like jewels and clothes that can make you swoon.
So you had embellished saris, long and short tunics, Patiala salwars, velvet trousers, kalidar kurtas with thread embroidery, Topkapi motifs, lace, net and more that have been breathing in and out of Varma’s collections down the decades. But lest you think he chose the easy way out by blinding his audience with spectacle, he didn’t. He may have used royalty as a backdrop but the language was entirely his own. It wasn’t Anita’s Spanish-Punjabi, Niloufer’s Turkish-Urdu, or Chamba’s Hindustani-French — it was Suneet Varmish and how.
It gave away that Varma has been unable — thankfully — to shake off the face of fashion he was a part of in the late ’80s. Both the choreography of the show and the music were retro — to use a lazy term — haunting reminders of something gone by. Long before the big debates on the relevance of haute couture in the modern world influenced us, this was how fashion was served in Varma’s early days: a memorable, standalone event, attracting the culturatti like bees.
It was quite a turnout, this one — with the designer’s friends and peers, sponsors, collaborators and students, dressed in stunning couture themselves, giving him a warm and well-deserved standing ovation, till he retreated into the wings, his heart rate high, his elation higher.