In a fashion climate where self-proclaimed kings and queens of Indian fashion scream hoarse for attention and accolades, there’s fashion designer Narendra Kumar Ahmed who literally has his work doing all the talking for him.
The affable designer made it to Esquire’s Big Black Book of style this year, alongside fashion greats like Tom Ford, Brioni and Hermès as one of the world’s top 56 menswear designer stores — a first for an Indian designer.
From starting out in the business as the first Fashion Editor for Elle magazine in 1996 to dressing Bollywood’s most stylish and discerning men and women in his NK label, to now being lauded for his exceptional talent as a designer by fashion’s biggest forces internationally, Narendra Kumar Ahmed speaks to Firstpost about all the haute happenings in his career.
Your fashion label and flagship store in Mumbai, Narendra Kumar, is listed among the top 56 menswear designer stores in the world, in Esquire’s Big Black Book Fall/Winter 2012. What are your thoughts?
It feels great! Being on the Esquire list is a wonderful beginning to the next level in my fashion story and to globalise my brand, NK. I’m the first Indian in the world of menswear to be featured in this list and it’s a good feeling. Esquire has always been a magazine that has a serious fashion take on classic style – a modern view on classic fashion.
It’s a readers’ magazine with an intellectual bent to it. I opened my first clothing store in 2000 with very limited resources and to be listed among the topmost fashion brands in the world is marvelous. A friend of mine, Radhakrishnan Nair, called me to congratulate me and I asked “For what” assuming it was for some photo spread or something.
“You’re one of the 56 best men’s stores in the world,” he said and I laughed, “It's not April yet Radha!” but I was stunned to learn of this. Menswear fashion is narrower and focused, compared to women's wear, with a limited color palette and choices, so to make a mark in the classic menswear fashion is the most commendable part of this validation from Esquire. I do contemporary classic and that’s what got me featured in Esquire.
Your label NK is favoured by some of the most famous and stylish names in Bollywood like John Abraham, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan and Priyanka Chopra when it comes to their personal wardrobes. But you’re not keen on designing for films? Why?
I did a couple of films like Blue, No Smoking and Fashion, but then I stopped doing films because design has never been a considered value in Bollywood. The costumes and styling is finally left to the actor or director to choose for the film, leaving very little room for creative vision. Off film sets, I do a lot of clothes for actors for their personal wardrobes and public appearances. NK, my label, was the first to bring in the slim suit, a classic Asian tuxedo back in 2007, which is a blend of a Bollywood flash/bling style and the classic elements of a tux. The first tux I made was worn by John Abraham and he’s had a special significance in my fashion career. John has been a big spoke in turning the wheels of my fashion story. John was asked to launch the Gucci label in Mumbai somewhere around that time and he insisted on wearing NK to the launch given that every Gucci suit was at his disposal to choose from for the event. Since then, the NK Tux has been wore by artistic director of Chanel, foreign dignitaries and almost every Bollywood star like Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Ranbir Kapoor and Irrfan Khan.
Who, in your opinion, is the most well dressed Bollywood celebrity?
Apart from John Abraham, I'd say Saif Ali Khan undoubtedly, and Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra carry off tailored stuff really well.
You’ve been consistent with men’s fashion in India, but not so much with your women’s wear line, which isn’t quite as popular as your men's line. Why?
The major flaw in my women’s wear line was that it was very tailored. It’s changing now. Tailoring for women is a new concept in India and it is gradually finding acceptance now. We have come up with a Resort line and an NK Bridal line aimed at the new age bride who doesn’t want to be “weighed down”, quite literally, on the most important day of her life.
It’s very challenging as women are weighing themselves on the Swarovski scale! Women, whose wardrobes are bursting with designer wear, Louboutin shoes and Prada bags, travel the world over and get online trends and fashion forecasts today. But when it comes to their wedding, it’s always ensembles ranging from 50 grams of Swarovski to 500 kilos of it! My question to them was on the most important day of their life, would they rather be a sumo wrestler or a supermodel?
Destination weddings, which are quite the norm nowadays, bring in the international flavour in - a sense of couture and a sense of place. We tried to do bridal for three years, but it felt like I’d be yet another designer adding more Swarovski to the outfits. But finally in 2012, I launched NK Bride after inspiration hit me with an after hours Rachmaninoff piano recital at 6am in Mumbai – the intensity with which the lady played Rachmaninoff at the party was something I’d never seen! The collection was inspired by Rachmaninoff, Swan Lake – The Kirov Ballet and the movie, Shine.
From starting out as the first Fashion Editor for Elle magazine in 1996 to now, being lauded for your exceptional talent as a designer by fashion’s biggest forces… what’s next?
Working as the first Fashion Editor for Elle magazine in India 1996 back then was an absolute first in our country. No photographer worked with me and no one understood editorial perspective when it came to fashion. For our first fashion feature, we shot with a landscape photographer! Of course, after three issues, the photographers came back to work for us. Times have certainly moved forward since, and fashionably so! At the upcoming Fashion Week in March this year, I am planning a statement show, which will reflect the state of our beloved nation and I’m really looking forward to it. I want to take my brand, NK, outside the country now and I think it is the right time. I wanted to focus in India, being good here first. My flagship store, Narendra Kumar, is in Khar in Mumbai, but there are plans to expand the brand to other cities in India.