For Suket Dhir, a quintessential creative, the world is a canvas. The designer began his journey with fashion in 2011, when he launched SUKETDHIR, a label enlivened by its creator. It has been a roller-coaster ride since then, filled with serendipity, struggle and success. Today, he is an internationally acclaimed fashion designer, placed in the league of fashion icons like Issey Miyake, Carl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. An avante-garde designer, Suket is also credited for introducing pants as the RSS uniform, replacing the khaki shorts. Celebrating ten years of this journey, Suket speaks with the Center for Soft Power on his inspirations, ideas and industry trends.
Suket had not always planned for a career in fashion. It was only after shifting a few jobs and cities, that he found his creative calling. Suket started by designing comfortable and chic menswear, sourcing the finest fabric and weaving skills from across India. The eclectic creations were later customized for women with the launch of the “He for She” collection. This was little before the unisex trend has set in the fashion industry.
Suket’s big break came in 2016, when he won the prestigious International Woolmark Prize. His designs–in hues of blue, green and wine and accents of yellow–were reminiscent of the fresh air that had blown from the mango orchards of his childhood in India to the fashion aisle in Florence. It broke the prevalent monotony of single tones of blue, grey, black and white. The winning collection was imbued with beautiful motifs of parrots and mango trees, hidden in plain sight. The elegant ensembles were intricately woven using Ikat blended with Kasuti and Sanganeri block prints. Suket’s creations placed Indian heritage on the global fashion stage with pride.
Winning the prestigious International Woolmark prize in menswear, the only designer in Asia to do so till date, was an important milestone in Suket’s career. On being asked the significance of such awards, Suket says, ‘it brings credibility to the country’s crafts and to the designer who creates them. In conversations around sustainable and slow fashion, the ikat technique is now widely spoken about, and as a designer innovating in Ikat, I am one of the go-to persons. More importantly, my brand is now well-placed in the fashion industry. For me personally, I don’t dream with doubts anymore. The award has fine-tuned my long-term goals and instilled a sense of confidence to express myself.’
International Woolmark Prize Collection
SUKETDHIR, the brand
Suket’s designs are iconic essentials that are versatile, can be effortlessly worn across occasions and with great styling, make a statement. His creations are chic, somber and confident. It is this confidence that Prof. Abhijeet Banerjee wore, literally, when he paired a dhoti and bandhagala designed by Suket, for the 2019 Nobel Prize ceremony.
Nobel Laureate, Abhijeet Banerjee in the awarding ceremony
‘My attire is timeless and effortless.’ An imaginative aesthete, Suket believes fashion to be a means of communication. ‘Who wears what matters. It ‘builds first impressions, conveys the mood of the person and holds the potential to steer cerebral conversations and influence minds.’
When it comes to his fashion language, Suket works on contemporizing the traditional handloom techniques to present-day sensibilities. ‘Old fabrics and crafts are the heritage of mankind with hundreds of years old legacy. The cultural interactions between India and the world included the exchange of craft techniques, styles and design. This is a vital element of our cultural legacy and it must be preserved. It is these very techniques and the crafts that must be made into aspirational brands, for craftspeople to pursue and consumers to cherish eternally.’
Sneak-peak into SUKETDHIR's playful designs.
SUKETDHIR, the label is a confluence of art, design and technical precision. Banarsi and Kanjeevaram silks and brocades have elaborate motifs and borders. Ikats, Jamdani, or even plain khadi are woven into perfection with motifs inspired by nature, geometry and miniature paintings. ‘My designs are playful, with a subtle element of surprise and always full of nazakat.’ The outfit reveals something new, every time it is worn. A fox in the forest holding a DSLR camera, or maharajas wearing poshakhs playing golf and driving the golf cart. ‘Besides their extremely long durability due to the fine craftsmanship, the garments leave everlasting memories and never let you grow out of them.’
The latest collection, Forever Young, infuses aesthetics of Greek-inspired sculptures with the Indian temples-inspired costumes. At a deeper level, this collection seeks to rekindle perceptions around being young.
Excerpt from Leap
SUKETDHIR garments are an experience that no amount of photography can justify. One has to immerse in this experience, and no one leaves empty-handed. And besides an enthralling attire, Suket also promises to serve the best samosas one can find in New Delhi. The candid conversation segues from samosas to sustainability.
Sustainability, Stakeholders and the Fashion Industry
Suket speaks of sustainability as a concept with passion and pragmatism. He emphasizes ‘preserving the traditional crafts from the increasing deterioration and attrition. There is a need to innovate with the handloom and ensure that these skills aren’t replaced, but rather complemented by power looms and mills. Certain policy initiatives by the government are a step in this direction. But the execution and monitoring must be done by individuals with skin in the game, having the domain expertise to ensure achievable outcomes through multiple strategies. There has to be cross-pollination of information and execution.’
‘For preserving the crafts, it is vital to skill the current and next generation of weavers and craftsmen with newer and more comprehensive usage of old techniques. We must also ensure these weaves are made aspirational–with adequate infrastructure and financial incentives–to the next-generation craftsmen such that they are willing to learn and see value in continuing the craft's legacy.
It is also important to involve private players and large industries, as they have the resources to make fashion houses scale and succeed. Above all, it is the consumer who matters the most. New trends such as conscious and less buying have changed how fashion is perceived. Slow fashion with greater ecological and economic value is becoming popular and people are willing to pay more for it. This is not to say that fast fashion should go away, as it meets the needs of the younger generations, allowing them to experiment. The value and the significance of slow fashion and heirlooms will always remain and be eventually realized.’
Fashion as Soft Power
On fashion as India’s soft power, Suket assertively remarks, “it is our crafts, more than fashion, that has inspired the global fashion industry at large and will continue to do so. The most prominent and high-end fashion houses have in some way or the other worked with Indian crafts, textiles or techniques. The French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier launched a collection of sarees, Christian Dior, Hermes, Chanel and so many other designers who have adapted Indian fashion techniques and designs especially for catering to a very niche clientele. In most of these cases, the designers acknowledge the source of inspiration to be India, and in some cases, they don’t need to. But it is still evident. Indian crafts are eternal and not confined to a particular style of use. In this sense, they are also universal.”
‘Moreover, Indian designers are now taking their expertise to the global stage like never before. Through collaborations and exhibitions, the possibilities of imagining and understanding different cultures as well as sharing one's own indigenous heritage is immense.’
The Plated Project exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong
Suket’s recent creation – a plated artwork that was exhibited in the prestigious Art Basel Hong Kong, this year, is a demonstration of this philosophy. The artwork titled the Cantonese Opera is a collaboration with Marriot Bonvoy and The Plated Project for the “A Majestic Memory of the Future'' series. ‘I spent time learning about Cantonese culture, studying traditional art and watching operas, to ensure authenticity. At the same time, this was an opportunity for me to share my heritage. The art imagines travelers from the East telling the story of India through miniature paintings and sketches. This story reflects some of the most fundamental tenets of Indic philosophy, where every living being enjoys the same respect. The role of women warriors is as important as their male counterparts, for instance. It is also a futuristic representation, where technology becomes an enabler for societies to live in greater harmony with nature. So in that sense, there is a lot of India subtly represented and made globally relevant.
Besides this tryst between tradition and technology, Art Basel was another platform for the artist-designer to show his playful, quirky and contemporary aesthetics. ‘My craft and its intricacies are intellectually stimulating and lead to conversations around arts, sensibilities, cultures that can eventually feed into shaping soft power perceptions of India.’
Suket plans to expand globally in the next few years. ‘With a business partner and a well-placed team, I can now channelize my energies on thinking about the larger strategy, vision and design. I can focus on not just on the brand but also on collaborations.’ Suket wishes to see his designs on kids’ apparel, umbrella panels, wallpapers and even airlines someday. ‘The technique is important; content and canvas can be varied. Excelling in the technique will lead to multi-generational as well as modernized production of crafts.’ With a tinch of excitement, confidence, and ambition, Suket concludes the conversation on the note that ‘Indian fashion, poised with creative intellect, heritage crafts and competencies, can redefine global luxury. This is what I want to do with SUKETDHIR, my label and this will happen!