From Delhi to the world

From Delhi to the world
In a stifling office on the second floor of an anonymous building along a dusty lane in Lado Sarai — the new hub for young artists in a corner of the southwestern part of this capital city — a 38-year-old menswear designer Vogue.com has called a “global fashion superstar in the making” sat in semi-darkness.

India is a paradoxical country. And Suket Dhir is a paradoxical guy. Born in Banga, India, he is an unshorn and unshaven Punjabi Hindu who styles himself a “wannabe Sikh”; a self-described former “slacker” now blissfully married to a Russian-Indian woman, Svetlana
Dhir, who manages the business; a creative talent eager to compete on the global stage, and yet one who shares his small studio office with his elderly father.
International recognition

He is also an expert craftsman whose subtle tailoring was recognised last January with one of the most prestigious honours in fashion, the International Woolmark Prize, an award that has also gone to Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. The judges who selected Suket as the latest recipient focused their praise on the romantic and internationalised vision of the designer, whose last foray outside India (before traveling to Florence, Italy, to collect the $75,000 in prize money) was a brief trip to Dubai two decades earlier.

Perhaps most appealing of Suket’s contradictions is how his restrained tailoring honours and deftly makes use of a range of the varied craft traditions that remain among the wonders of India while simultaneously mining a design vocabulary partly formed by his habit of binge-watching Seinfeld. Almost a year after winning the Woolmark prize, he was scrambling to complete and deliver a collection, his first to be sold outside India, to department stores in Tokyo; Sydney, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and New York. (Saks Fifth Avenue will feature elements from Suket’s label, called Sukhetdhir, starting in December.)

At the time of my visit, the deadline for the first shipments was just over a week away. Tailors in a back room sat patiently at their silent machines. A cutter scissored through layers of denim methodically in the dimly lit room. A power cut coinciding with crunch time may induce at the very least a tantrum for some designers. Yet with the cool of a sannyasi or a stoner, Suket suggested a coffee run.

The spot he chose was Blue Tokai, a hipster joint that is part coffee bar and part industrial grindery. There, amid a clatter of trays and a general conversational din, the soft-spoken chatterbox sketched out the unlikely path he had taken from being an aimless and indifferent student, to “that obnoxious voice” consumers across the world hear when call centre dialers manage to entrap them (“I sold mobile phones for AT&T”), to the great hope for Indian design.

Starting out clueless

When he was in his 20s, Suket came to the realisation that he had no five-year, or even five-minute, plan. “A friend said, ‘Do you know what you want to do with your life?'” he said. “And I didn’t.”

That same friend then pointed to Suket’s habitual doodling, his knack for dressing differently from his friends (in LA Gear tracksuits and Fila sneakers) and his near-obsession with FTV, a fashion-focused satellite video channel.“He said, ‘Have you ever thought of fashion?’” Suket said. “To be honest, I never had.” Suket applied to the elite National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, was accepted and quickly gravitated toward menswear.

While in design school, Suket developed elements of his vision: silhouettes cultivated by his father and grandfather — pocketed Nehru jackets, natty blazers worn over flowing trousers — and a magpie assortment of nostalgic motifs picked up from the Western films and television reruns that first appeared regularly in India with the arrival of satellite TV.

Not every designer cites, with Suket’s catholicity of taste, inspirations as disparate as Clark Gable’s swallowtail coats from Gone With the Wind and Paul Hogan’s groovy buccaneer drag from Crocodile Dundee.

For the panel awarding the Woolmark prize — it included the fashion critic Suzy Menkes; Nick Sullivan, the menswear director at Esquire; Masafumi Suzuki, the editor of GQ Japan; and Raffaello Raffaello, director of the Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence — the clincher was the way Suket’s designs update traditional Indian garments while relying on ancient techniques.

“We appreciated the strong creativity but also the work on the fabrics and materials, so the choice of Suket was very natural,” Raffaello wrote by email, referring to tie-and-dyed ikat yarn, hand-block printing, arduous spinning and weaving methods that give a silk-like texture to fibrous wool. “There were two camps,” said Eric Jennings, a vice president and menswear fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue. “One was looking for something more trend-relevant, and one was more interested in the emotional side of the story.”

If emotion won the day, trend relevance did not come off too badly, since one of the first things Saks ordered from Suket’s new collection was an indigo bomber jacket covered with pin-tucked pleats so minutely hand-stitched that they resemble trompe l’oeil.

Being Indian

Suket chalks up his first few rocky years in business to his commitment to steer clear of both the pitfalls of India-for-export and, equally, a domestic wedding market that drives the bottom line for most of his design compatriots. Even now, his annual sales of roughly $100,000 (mostly from stores in India like the stylish Good Earth chain) amount to little more than what an American designer like Todd Snyder spends on a single runway show. “I don’t do wedding gear, which is where the money is,” Suket said.

“Of course, there is a certain Indian-ness about me, the humanism, and an ability to approach the business in a holistic manner,” he added, although holism may be a euphemistic way of describing the managed chaos entailed in creating a line of menswear whose elements of traditional crafts are incorporated so subtly that a wearer registers them only slowly. A hand-blocked umbrella print lines a jacket. A band of ikat hides inside a collar. Different coloured thread is used to affix each button to a shirt. “When I’m designing, I think about the final look of the product, of course, but also about the practical execution,” Suket said.

“How will I get that dyed? How will I reach the weaver’s village? Where will I stay? Will there be a toilet there? As a designer, these things become part of your  everyday life.”

Pulling his long hair into a ponytail, Suket said with a laugh that, while he always felt “the need to be a global person,” there has never been a question of abandoning his roots. “It’s not elephants and camels anymore,” he said. “But it’s still India.”

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