Call it 360-degree chic. His impeccable artistry and royal rhetoric make every carefully structured creation a tastefully articulated consumption of luxury across the shifting terrain of masculinity: Fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore has created his iconic ode to the bandhgala and breeches, over the past 25 years, toasting the formalities and intrigue of the royal corridors of Jodhpur in his immaculate cuts that go way beyond parties and polo. His celebrity status, and glamour laced narrative in the world of fashion establishes him firmly in the complex, cosmopolitan couture world for men, with his intimate dialog with the bandhgala forming the leitmotif of Indian fashion, like a treasured art form. Blame his royal gene pool
There is heritage in his design, meeting the careful, clever engineering in a symphony of silhouettes. In the toasty new world, this is immaculate history on tap, devoid of social babble.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Share with us your early impressions in design
I grew up in the zenana, absorbing my mother’s love for painting. My early years were spent around her palette, watching her shape forms on the canvas. I had the ability to sketch well and recall sketching for everyone else speedily, during an examination in school. My grandmother, Rani Sajjan Devi – was the sister of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur, who is credited to have planned the city with wide roads and streets full of shops that represent the beautiful city of Jaipur today.
I realise the value of my cultural experiences and the diversity of my family backgrounds. My mother’s upbringing was from Himachal Pradesh and a small part of the Kashmir royal family (Dr Karan Singh’s, father late Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir was married to her father’s sister). My mother’s aesthetics were influenced by the delicate sense of heritage of the Kangra School of art, juxtaposed, against that of my father’s – more robust, following the code of conduct of Marwar (the land of death). This amalgamation became my precious resource in my journey into art and design.
How did your knit with design thicken?
My early years spent in Jodhpur running through the corridors of the zenana, matured my understanding of bespoke fabrics, jewels and music. My love for culture rubbed off from my grandmother’s background from Isarda, near Jaipur. Boarding school at Mayo in Ajmer shaped my understanding of the new India. My sequence of decisions after finishing school, to pursue education in the US, study Greek mythology, art and robotics, and finally design work created a foundation for my love for design. A straight line was never drawn from a point A to B, it carried textures and the contours of my heritage.
At Parsons School of Design, New York, fashion designer Donna Karan handpicked me from among 120 students, intrigued by my sketches. The internship at DKNY allowed me to support myself financially. My parents were happy that I was happy, when most families in Rajasthan were adapting to changing times, while holding onto legacies. Privy purses had been revoked and education abroad was a tough proposition.
You’ve worked with fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, spent a decade in US, stayed in Paris and London. What made you come back?
Mr. Oscar de la Renta was more a mentor than an employer, teaching me that “fashion is not about runways but more about the people who believe in the fundamentals of one’s brand.” On a chanced call with the late Martand Singh of Kapurthala, who summoned me for a meeting with my cousin, Maharaja Gaj Singh, I took on the mantle of putting up a grand fashion show for the jubilee celebrations of Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur. It was a shoestring budget. I had done several shows in New York but was clueless about crafting one in India. Handpicking tailors from street-shops who had no idea of stitching womenswear, I created a small collection inspired by Banarasi fabrics.
A clutch of supermodels, including Madhu Sapre, Mehr Jesia, nervously agreed to travel to the dusty town of Jodhpur. Everything that could go amiss, did (laughs). The green rooms – temporary pitched tents, went up in flames, courtesy a carelessly thrown bidi. The British film, Kim by Rudyard Kipling was being shot in Jodhpur at the same time, creating an eclectic audience of European actors and society majors from Delhi and Bombay. As the moon came up, around 11 o’clock the show started, creating an ethereal experience, in the zenana section of the fort, built hundreds of years ago by my ancestors to guard the city of Jodhpur. This was the launch pad for the brand we are today. Mehr Bhasin wore the first ever Bandhgala – an instant success – marking the first time tailoring was introduced on Indian runways. Subsequently, Tina Tahiliani asked me to adapt the collection for her fashion store Ensemble.
Since 1994, what has been the turning point?
I am very proud to have become one of the first brands to connect the legacy of a city to a brand name, Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur. The other milestone decision was to move away from the comfort of designing women’s wear, to venture into the all-new domain of menswear as I recognised my limitations of geography (to be a leading womenswear label, you need to be based in Mumbai or Delhi, logically.) As a well-established menswear brand in India today, the label has created premium, contemporary exponents of the Bandhgala. From handmade shoes to personalised jewellery, the storyboard brings in textures, fabrics, compelling composites in customised lining, handmade gold and diamond buttons and other accessories. We patented the Jodhpuri Bandhgala recently (creating a furore) to authenticate our Bandhgala as an original for archiving purposes as well as for students of fashion and design.
Luxury is in between an experience and a memory, it stays imprinted in our minds. For me, visiting a village for a meal with my father (who was an MLA ) when I was younger, experiencing the dichotomy of a tribal family, seeing the love with which freshly prepared lunch was simply laid out, midst the limitations of an arid desert, has become a memory I always refer to as a precious, luxurious moment.
What’s your understanding of luxury apropos the Indian market?
Our Indian concept of luxury will never be same as the Western concept. It isn’t restricted to an expensive Birkin. Luxury in Asia is centred around experiences, how the product makes you feel, does it inspire the sense of exhilaration that lives on. Post pandemic, the the language of fashion has changed, from sourcing raw materials locally to economising on the carbon footprint. The concept of sustainability has gained momentum, brick and mortar stores have made way for online extensions with a more visual-centric approach. Social media is an image maker. The underlying anthem is, if it looks good, it must be good. The dimension of luxury has quadrupled, everything in excess is accessible in the digital world. Creating value is the way to survive. We had one moodboard for ten clients, pre pandemic, and now, ten for ten. The emphasis is on the discerning eye. Also, couture is more personalised now with an over drive to create amazing products. Designers have shrunk mass production lines, and are reviving forms of karigari.
Why don’t you do fashion weeks?
We are abespoke institution. In the business of slow fashion, we choose to invest time and effort creating personalised pieces for our discerning clients and conserving our energies to make the bespoke experiences truly pleasurable ones. Also, I feel established designers who have utilised the platform to build a brand must make way for the younger minds. There needs to be a separate platform for bigger designers to command a different audience. While leaving the precious resources to be offered to younger designers more sustainable in their approach, deserving recognition.
A few ingenious ways to dress up or dress down a bandhgala?
Worn in a formal suit avatar, the bandhgala arrives with pants cut in classic style. Going casual, open up two buttons, teamed with a light pink shirt underneath. For a Sunday brunch or the races, bring in coloured pants, or white pants with the bandhgala. For an even more casual feel, open up one more button and pair with denims, and rust-coloured shoes. Still more laid back? Bring in a waistcoat style teamed with a tucked in shirt with chinos. Going ethnic, couple with a kurta for a pooja. The signature touches in the finishing techniques make each of our creations stand out.
Whom do you want to dress up?
The CEOs who have an Indian lineage but command global positioning, such as Sundar Pichai and Rishi Sunak. People who believe in the Bandhgala, Indian heritage and love the classic feel.
What’s your creative crucible?
Narlai, near Ranakpur. The semi-arid stretch is a part of my eco system. I have spent good part of my childhood here. I come here, especially after a chaotic fashion week, to rebuild in isolation.
A pearl of wisdom
Be yourself and think simple. If you invest in India then India will invest in you.
The worst part of being Raghavendra Rathore?
Anything awry in terms of design, even around me, irks me. Perhaps it is an inborn filter that spots what is amiss instantly. Everything has to be aesthetically put together, everywhere – It is a meticulous world that I live in, a space sometimes tough for my family to understand. Little things like a flyover cleaving a settlement leaves me fretting over how people will cross the road.
The best part?
I can create anything I can imagine
You’ve done it all, from launching the first NFTs by an Indian menswear designer, to creating stunning interiors, star cast ensembles, powering a design school, attracting foreign stake in the business…but there is poetry still unexpressed. What’s next?
Shilpi Madan for The Leela