I first met Suket Dhir in January, in a Florentine palazzo where he was bathed in flash-bursts fired off by a phalanx of press photographers. We caught up again in June, on FaceTime, when he was 4,000 metres up a Himalayan mountain, stuck between a deadly heatwave and a paralysing monsoon. His victory in the International Woolmark prize this year means that he could be the first Indian designer to conquer the world of Western menswear – but the Indian weather means that getting his new woollen collection ready to be in the shops in September is something of a challenge.
What Westerners think of as Indian clothes are not really Indian, says Dhir. “Modern Indian menswear is itself a mix of different cultures – Oriental, British Imperial and Persian or Mughal. I had one round-necked jacket in the collection in Florence, what we call a bandhgala [the so-called Nehru jacket], and that is considered Indian. But really it isn’t: it comes from the uniforms of the British Army.” He cites his textile-merchant grandfather’s wardrobe of 1940s Savile Row suits as a key inspiration for his nostalgic aesthetic.
“I’ve designed a lot of loose pants, almost palazzos, inspired by my grandfather’s style: in the 1940s trousers were double-pleated and very flowing. These weren’t in any way Indian – they were tailored trousers in the European tradition. But as soon as you translate them by making them here in hand-embroidered linens, wool or cotton they become particularly Indian.” His clothes are made from natural fabrics that improve with wear and weather. This lends them their particular patina. “It is as close to couture as possible for us to do,” he says. “No one piece is like another.”
Despite competition from hotly tipped, better-known British and American labels, Dhir was the clear stand-out for the Woolmark prize. His collection won over a jury that included Eric Jennings, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, who said: “We saw the detail…and understood his passion. And we all just fell in love with the collection.” Haider Ackermann, an influential French designer, said, admiringly, that it featured techniques he’d never seen before. The colours were powerful – notably a rainbow ombré motif that ran through the collection – and the silhouettes loose, in honour of Dhir’s grandfather.
The Woolmark award means that Dhir’s clothes will be stocked by some of the world’s most influential clothing stores; Saks in the United States, Isetan Mitsukoshi in Japan, Corso Como in Italy, David Jones in Australia, Boon in South Korea and the internet retailer matchesfashion. That is why the designer is fretting about the Indian weather.
The fabrics for his collection are being both dyed and woven in Telangana state in central India. “It has been tricky,” says Dhir. “The first problem is the weather. In that region there have already been about 300 deaths from heatstroke: it has been 50 degrees plus. At the same time we are racing the monsoon. And as soon as that sets in they have to stop weaving; they cannot hand dye because the air becomes so humid that drying becomes impossible. It’s not the climate-controlled environment you guys are working in.”
The material poses a further problem. The Woolmark winner’s collection must be made in wool, and each of Dhir’s ombré patterns must be dyed as yarn, before it is woven: “it’s only when the yarn comes together in the weaving that you see those patterns emerge.” But the weavers have never worked with wool before. “It does not dye reliably. Sometimes these guys end up inadvertently ruining the whole batch of wool as they try to get the colour to match.”
As a man with a chance to conquer the world, Dhir is understandably nervous. “You know all this is very new to me. I hadn’t even done a fashion show before January. But I think we have something unique here that can appeal to men across the world.” The test of that will start in September.