Suket Dhir, Men’s Wear Designer, From Delhi to the World


That same friend then made a canny observation: Perhaps a career cue lay hidden in plain sight. He pointed to Mr. Dhir’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?’” Mr. Dhir said. “To be honest, I never had.”

Mr. Dhir applied to the elite National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, was accepted and quickly gravitated toward men’s wear.

“Fashion at this time is about a dream,” Haider Ackermann, the Berluti designer who was one of the Woolmark prize judges, said at the ceremony granting the award. “Suket is a person with a dream to tell.”

While in design school, Mr. Dhir 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 Mr. Dhir’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.”

Photo

Mr. Dhir at a night market in New Delhi.

Credit
Jake Michaels for The New York Times

For the panel awarding the Woolmark prize — it included the fashion critic Suzy Menkes; Nick Sullivan, the men’s wear director at Esquire; Masafumi Suzuki, the editor of GQ Japan; and Raffaello Napoleone, director of the Pitti Uomo men’s wear fair in Florence — the clincher was the way Mr. Dhir’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,” Mr. Napoleone wrote by email, referring to tie-and-dyed ikat yarn, hand-block printing, arduous spinning and weaving methods that give a silklike texture to fibrous wool.

“There were two camps,” said Eric Jennings, a vice president and men’s wear 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 Mr. Dhir’s new collection was an indigo bomber jacket covered with pin-tucked pleats so minutely hand-stitched that they resemble trompe l’oeil.

It is possible, too, that what the judges detected in Mr. Dhir was something more significant than a single breakout talent. In a sense, his surprise win signaled a generational shift in Indian design. He would not be the first, or even the most gifted, of Indian designers in recent decades to skirt the clichés afflicting Indian fashion.

Abraham & Thakore, Wendell Rodricks and Rajesh Pratap Singh all favor a restrained form of Indian modernism over the more typical turbans and jodhpurs, overembellished tunics or Bollywood bling that leave so much design here, as Mr. Dhir said, looking like costume.

“To say definitively there’s a new wave of designers is a bit of a stretch,” said Meher Varma, a graduate student in the anthropology department at U.C.L.A. who has conducted a study of Indian fashion in the years since the country’s trade policies were first liberalized in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“But there is a general emergence,” Ms. Varma added, of designers like Mr. Dhir who, raised on television, the internet, YouTube and social media, view fashion through a global lens.

As often happens, the applied arts followed the lead of the fine arts, with the success of Indian contemporary art stars like Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Dayanita Singh providing an example of how to avoid the curse of provincialism, of Indian-ness as a unitary identity.

“As an emerging market, India was starting to bubble only since 2002 or 2003,” said Rikki Kher, a British-born, Delhi-based men’s wear designer. “First it was the art world and then designers like Manish Arora getting a name outside the country.”

Mr. Dhir 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,” Mr. Dhir 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 men’s wear 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 colored thread is used to affix each button to a shirt.

“When I’m designing, I’m thinking about the final look of the product, of course, but also about the practical execution,” Mr. Dhir 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 whole everyday life.”

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

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