So where were we? At the beginning of fashionable times in India as we know it. And can we talk of beginnings without Rohit Khosla? Phew! Say it again, slowly this time. In fact, spell it out. R-O-H-I-T K-H-O-S-L-A. Can you smell genius? I can.
The mere mention of his name leads to many evocative memories. That of an unbelievably handsome man who could have well played a cameo in a Hollywood starrer. That of a great designer who everyone recognizes as the founder of the modern Indian couture movement. That of a creative soul who was gone too soon, leaving his imprint on every fashion professional's mind forever. So much so that 22 years later even a 20-year-old student of design will never ask, "Rohit Khosla? Who's he?"
But does anyone growing up post the 90s really know his genius? His real prowess in the process called fashion i.e. the knack of dressing the human form with textiles? His favorite quotable quote was, "I love fabric. I love the human form in totality and I love mixing them together." Rohit was born much ahead of his time and had the mind, heart and persona to become milestone number one in the Indian fashion world. Pioneer undisputed.
To me, he was all that and much more. In fact, let me admit it, he was my initiation into fashion. Why just mine? That of the entire fashion diaspora of the late 80s. While boutiques existed and Ritu Kumar had succeeded in creating the first identifiable design signature in Indian ensembles (no Punjab wedding of repute was acknowledged if the bride did not wear a Ritu Kumar for her anand karaj), couture as we understand it today was his creation.
A rakishly handsome lad born to a lovely couple, Usha and Kamal Khosla, Rohit went to the Doon School, like many of his peers. A brilliant student, he had an unflinching lust for design. Right from age 15 he told his family what to wear, how to do up the house and what textiles to surround themselves with. And everything he said was so goddamn original. I recall walking into his home and discovering the tall chairs he had commissioned Ashok Singh to create. From the royal family of Palhaita, married to art gallerist Bina Kilachand and father of artist Vikramaditya Singh, Ashok was, like Rohit, reinventing design, albeit in interiors, and predictably Rohit was one of the first to patronize him. Ashok, sadly, also died young, leaving not even a legacy of design for young design students to fall back to. And no, please don't rush to Google Maharaj. I found nothing on him there as well.
For Rohit it was an up, up, very uphill task to reach London for a course in fashion. And that included running away from home at 16, facing rejection from NID (they thought a boy his pedigree could never rough it out with kaarigars!) and giving academia the slip, despite being a brilliant student. But most importantly there was the Himalayan obstacle of cajoling his parents. A task in which he was helped totally by his soulmate, little sister and heart's tug: Rohini Khosla. Till the last breath and thereafter, this love is what fables are made of. Shy, reticent Rohini by big bro's side... swashbuckling bro always walking her pace. Pausing, admiring, encouraging and loving every baby step she took in design. It was his belief in her that later drove her to find peace in discovering India kitsch and celebrate being an Indian with creative gusto.
Rohit's perseverance had his dad cave in. He realized that there was little else a boy who was so preoccupied with design would ever do. A foundation course in art was followed by a stint in Kingston Polytechnic to study fashion. In college his contemporaries were Nick Coleman, John Richmond and Helen Storey. He is quoted in his biography Vanguard, penned by Rohini Khosla, "Studying in England was pure bliss -- ideas just flowing, fabrics everywhere and fashion obsessive people all around me." The key take-home by his faculty was that his personal heritage was where he should seek all the answers. And he found them. A belief that lasted him his short lifetime.
He got home. To find that India was either busy manufacturing basement bargain design by the hundreds to export to mass labels overseas. Or there were darzis, indulgently catering to aristocratic ladies. He cleared the grounds to lay the foundation for a space for couture. Frugal investments allowed him to dabble with a collection. But India was not yet ready.
The man's magnanimity showed in how he would often call scribes like me to "discuss'" the content of his next article! (Yes, humility did prevail then...)
So, off he went scurrying back to New York to apprentice with Albert Nipon. Where he met Doon school pal Tarun Tahiliani. Together they rued the lack of design and hence resolved to return and redesign the scene itself. These were the initial phases when many a thinking addas were held at pal Harmeet Bajaj's house in New York. When Tarun was at FIT and NIFT was just about awakening out of a room inside the compound of Indira Gandhi Sports Complex.
Back in India in 1987, Rohit launched the label Rohit Khosla. It was uphill climb once again for him. Teaching Indian masterjis trained to cut tent-like Aabha kurtas to think fit, form and silhouette. Sourcing textiles that were sans flaws. Reinventing traditional hand-craft techniques and then styling his shoots to ensure they reflected his edginess.
Rohit can also safely be called the founder of styling. He trained his third eye keenly on every frame he conceived, working with Shantanu Sheorey, Ritu Nanda, Asha Baxi and Prabuddha Dasgupta to create shoots that seemed alien to even the most cultivated eye then. Whoosh went the status quo and paradigms turned turtle. Out emerged his photo shoots, with muse number one Mehr Jesia, followed by other enthralling faces of his time Shyamolie Verma, Madhu Sapre, Nayanika Chatterjee, Arpana Sharma to stare at you in frills and flounces, in black, white and colour, like apsaras of the modern era. Mehr remained his face forever. His frames just lit up when she was facing the camera.
Even when a horrible, fatal illness was rudely and selfishly snuffing his spirit -- he designed till D day, and fooled his mind into immortality.
He also took on styling assignments for polyester giants like Garden Vareli and Reliance. In his hands Garden Vareli felt like brocade silk woven in Banaras, and a cotton slip dress worthy a red carpet. What he was doing was cultivating an atmosphere for design. Hence his articles in Esquire were like gospel for us lesser mortals learning about fashion when we had to pose as poor India's fashion critics (sigh!). But the man's magnanimity showed in how he would often call scribes like me to "discuss'" the content of his next article! (Yes, humility did prevail then, let me inform you vain generation who carry your own Vanity Fair in your pocket: your Facebook.)
In the next few years, design changed forever. He unleashed one dazzling collection after another. Creating exquisite embroidery out of the everyday rassi (rope) and wood. In his hands plisse turned Indian and he created the first ever collection from crinkled cotton, left to frame your body like the cadence of well-written poetry. He launched black for colourful India through his seductive La Nuit Des Sirenes collection. Fitted bustier, short black skirts, cropped jackets, a fringed bra top... there was no stopping this mind. Critics were left flapping their jaw.
Next, the desert wind blew Rohit's mind and he combined Moorish design with mirror work from Kutch in the collection Enfant Terrible. Gujarat remained his source even in the next Dust and Coal collection where he kept his forms Indian and festive. The Kelim called and colours emerged in full gusto. A design bastion that continued to his last collection of hand-painted ensembles. While Gopika Nath added brush and paint to his vision, Rohit created the rest of the magic.....
Even when health was no longer his friend, time was ticking by and a horrible, fatal illness was rudely and selfishly snuffing his spirit -- he designed till D day, talked of his next collection and fooled his mind into immortality.
But the end arrived and if I was to say it in a line: Rohit came, he saw and he changed it all forever.
But the end arrived and if I was to say it in a line: Rohit came, he saw and he changed it all forever. Paving the way for modern Indian couture as you and I take for granted, rave and rant about and compare to the eons-old movement in Europe.
What we forget is that all this was founded selflessly by someone who never even got to taste the fruit of the tree he sowed. Thank you Rohit Khosla and I know that there will never be another like you.
All images are from the book 'Rohit Khosla, Vanguard', by Rohini Khosla, Amanda Johnston. Art Books Intl Ltd.