Of experimental embroidery and quiet sophistication: Kunal Rawal lays bare his vision for men's couture
'I want to mix threadwork with print, washes with embroideries, denim with embroideries. I like playing with things that don’t belong and making them belong,' says Kunal Rawal.
‘Top Notch’ is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion’s elite and erudite club.
Making high fashion wedding wear for men in a country obsessed with dressing the bride is a bold decision. I cannot imagine why, but the entire wedding wear market in the couture segment is called bridalwear. It’s almost as if the groom’s only job is to show up and take the bedecked new missus home.
Kunal Rawal has been instrumental in the changing dress codes of the Indian male. His focus on men’s fashion has led to a more stylish and more comfortable man, but also a new avenue for couture in India.
“The last decade has been iconic in the way menswear has changed. Fashion has always been about women’s fashion, menswear was stagnant and put in a box. There were menswear designers before me, of course, but I am sure they felt very restricted. A groom had to fit into a cookie-cutter mould: he had to wear a boxy, brocade sherwani with jewels and a feather coming out of his turban, like an Air India Maharaja. Or else, there was a simple kurta for other ceremonies. There was absolutely nothing in between,” Rawal, 35, says. “The principles of our label are something I felt very strongly about as a consumer. I saw a huge gap in this market. My inspiration came from industrial design, that’s masculine and can be used in wedding wear. The market was ready for this new aesthetic.”
Rawal is quick to add that India is the toughest market to please. “Each state is diverse and unique. Every store has its own market, and online has to cater to all of the above from one spot [sic]. Plus, each groom has a mother or sister or aunt, or all of them deciding the outfit,” he explains. “I use some cheats in embroidery motifs and micro motifs and try to make things festive as well as modern. I just add modern elements to traditional embroidery.”
Rawal’s highlights have, in fact, been his embroidery. “I’m a texture nut,” he says with a laugh. “I want to layer and layer clothes with more and more. I want to mix threadwork with print, washes with embroideries, denim with embroideries. I like playing with things that don’t belong and making them belong.”
Men will still wear colour and Benarasi motifs, but they usually run away from embroidery. Rawal’s propensity for threadwork is hardly a bugbear. His embroideries have a quiet sophistication, or are young, fun and masculine — tone-on-tone threadwork, geometrics or animal motifs. And he experiments heavily with the expensive stuff, like the French knots he used to dress his best friend Shahid Kapoor in, for Kapoor's wedding. “We aim to be the mecca of menswear. So we would like to give you a beautifully detailed piece, but it’s entirely quiet and classic. Finding a customer isn’t a problem, finding threadwork that suits your vibe is,” he says with a smile.
Rawal’s work is undoubtedly extraordinary, but his greatest glory are his wondrous stores. In an age when e-commerce is rising and the COVID-19 pandemic won't allow us to step out of our homes, Rawal is investing heavily in brick-and-mortar havens. He is soon opening his third store in Hyderabad. The previous ones, in Mumbai and Delhi, are like amusement parks: they have ambulant shelves, products drop from the ceiling like at a laundromat, and some have conveyor belt racks, so the collections move in front of you like at a runway.
The Mumbai store is on the top floor of the iconic Rhythm House. The round edifice, that faces the Kala Ghoda sculpture, has been home to music lovers since the vinyl generation. Rawal says he was lucky to get this space, as his label is so much an homage to ‘Bombay’ and the city’s vibe.
His penchant for geometric embroideries led him to discover the genius architect and designer Rooshad Shroff. Shroff designs remarkable furniture pieces, chairs, loungers and sofas (including a sideboard for Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja) with elaborate French knot details.
“I was incredibly lucky to find the right collaborator in Rooshad. I'd heard Sonam sing his praises, but I actually first heard of him through the French knot connection. Rooshad made sense of all my playfulness. We are a young and fun brand, and a lot of inspiration comes from that little boy in us. Rooshad made sure all my thoughts got featured in the client’s journey and experience,” Rawal says.
Shroff agrees that Rawal’s brief to him was to have military touches as well as technological ideas. “His clothes have a very strong point of view, and the stores needed to reflect that,” Shroff avers.
Rawal is rather convinced about the importance of a physical store. Going to a store, especially in between lockdowns, is such an emotional thing. “Our clothes are tactile, it’s about the experience of touching them to see their quality. But I strongly believe that we need an omni-channel approach, where one approach feeds off the other as well as helps the other,” he says. “When your voice is strong, your product will work everywhere.”
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