Suket Dhir: Winning the Woolmark Prize 2016

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Photo: Rohit Chawla / Open magazine

Success to Suket Dhir came the same way that bankruptcy came to Ernest Hemmingway’s character in The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually and then suddenly.” Dhir had never competed for anything in his life, stubbornly laid-back through his formative years, until in his mid-30s, when out of relative anonymity in the fashion universe, he shot like a meteor to global renown and a blitzkrieg of media attention in the wake of the 2016 Woolmark Prize, considered the ‘Oscars’ of fashion. Psychologists would call Dhir a ‘late bloomer’, a term that catches him by surprise and makes him nod in some wonderment. “Perhaps I am,” says the menswear designer who came into the limelight for a second time this year when he suggested changes to the new uniform of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). From khaki shorts, sevaks will now sport melange-grey trousers.

A child of the Insurgency in Punjab, Dhir’s memories of childhood dwell on the sleeping arrangements he had with his loving grandparents in Banga. The small town lies in the district of Doaba, the ‘land of two rivers’ that gave India one of its most legendary sons, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary who was hanged by the British at the age of 23. Suket’s grandparents alternated bedtime duty: for one week Suket’s granddad would put him to bed, making him recite the Gayatri Mantra before sleeping, and the next his grandmom took over, narrating tales of the gods and legends from the ancient epics. Decades later, after moving to Delhi and watching Hollywood movies showing glamorous mothers reading out bedtime stories to their children on screen, Dhir would feel both envy and content; as a child he didn’t have those books but he never went to sleep without a story either.

Life in Punjab in the early 1980s was precious but precarious. The political turmoil often threw daily existence out of gear. Dhir’s grandfather, Deshraj Dhir, was a cloth merchant who grew to affluence in the mid-20th century. The family was well respected not just for being the first to own a car in the neighbhourhood but also for their community service. Everyone shopped at their ancestral cloth store – a landmark in its heyday, when Bhagat Singh’s mother would drop in for material for her salwar-kameezes and a bit of chit-chat over chai, and where the poor could buy their dhotis at a zero-profit price point. “My granddad stocked pure Merino wool, mulmuls from Dhaka, silk saris from Benaras, the finest suit materials from OCM and Raymond. It’s only now, after all this acclaim, that I have begun accepting and internalizing that I had in fact grown up immersed in the knowledge of quality fabric and exquisite textiles all my life,” says the designer, whose award-winning collection for Woolmark was inspired by his grandfather’s own clothes and the mango orchards of his childhood.

The Dhir patriarch was an opinion leader for the community, a Punjabi Khatri from a lineage that typically ‘gave the eldest son to the Gurus’ (to become a Sikh), an old practice that held far more meaning than modern-day political secularism. (“When my grandfather passed away decades later, nearly 15,000 people turned up at his funeral,” Suket recalls.) As an Arya Samaji, Deshraj Dhir would discuss the practical aspects of philosophy and encourage questions on religious ideologies.The children in the joint family were brought up to respect all faiths and beliefs, bowing in reverence every time they crossed a place of worship, whether it was a temple, mosque, gurudwara or church.

But being the wealthiest and most visible Hindu family in an inflamed territory came with its downside – a constant threat to their lives.

The year that little Suket turned eight years old, 34 Hindu bus passengers in Haryana were killed by suspected Sikh militants who later claimed they were from the Khalistan Commando Force. It was one of many communal incidents to rack the region in those years. Suket’s grandfather discovered he was on the militants’ target list, and he took a desperate decision – his son would move from little Banga to big-town Delhi, his grandson would go to boarding school.

And so Suket joined the rows of little boys at Colonel Brown Cambridge School in Dehra Dun, developing the independence and team spirit of a hosteller over the next five years. He was a ‘teacher’s student’, a child who veered towards an inspiring coach no matter what the subject was.Always in pursuit of the creative, he needed a spark to fire his imagination, and a supportive school system allowed him to turn in his biology exam papers in class 10 with diagrams across the page instead of words, and still earn a top score for getting it right. But after that, the Indian education system failed him.

Compelled to move to Delhi to complete his final two years of school, Suket’s academic performance plummeted. His father Suman Dhir had by then started his own business manufacturing children’s garments, but struggled with finances for over a decade in the 1990s. He took his initial steps into community serviceby joining hands with the Ekal Vidyalaya, a non-profit that trains teachers in rural India and is part of the Ekal group of organisations that are associated with the RSS. Suket’s mother ran her own beauty salon at home. In that decade of personal and financial struggle for the family, the senior Dhir taught the teenage Suket and his younger sister Stuti about the value of serving one’s nation, of being useful to one’s society, of acceptance contrarian views, and of pride in one’s cultural identity. “RSS is a bad word in Delhi these days,” says the striking looking designer with a serious expression on his bearded face. “But for us in childhood, it meant literally rashtriya seva, national service. We were taught that Hinduism is secularism and Hindutva is an all-encompassing, tolerant life philosophy that produced sages like Buddha and Guru Nanak, and one that had room for all kinds of gods,” he says, adding, “We never talked about politics at home.” He regrets that ‘fringe elements’,such as those who organise anti-Valentine’s Day protests, have now sabotaged the image of the RSS in the minds of the general public. “Bracketing all these groups under a term like ‘saffron brigade’ blurs the line between the truth and the hype,” he avers.

Suket’s father was devastated to see his son’s final school report card. The boy who scored 98 per cent in Maths in class 10 only just pulled through in class 12. “What will my son make of his life,” despaired Suman – whose name written backwards later became the title of Suket Dhir’s design studio, Manus.

In a system that holds board-exam marks above all else, Suket struggled to find a career path. He joined B.Com through correspondence at Delhi University but failed in his first year. He joined B.CA from IGNOU University and scored well in his first year, but dropped out in the second one. He then joined up for a multimedia course but left it again in a year when the intricacies of web design became too much to handle. His father would have kicked Suket out of home if his beloved grandmother hadn’t intervened.

Bereft of not just a place to study but pocket money from his dad as well, Suket took up a call centre job in Gurgaon, fielding calls from AT&T customers late into the night. He earned a respectable Rs 11,000 a month but within a year, he lost eight kilos of weight, and the working hours began taking a toll on his health. He quit his job and travelled with his friends for a year, blowing up the money he had saved. But soon, he began to question his existence. His friends had fancy jobs, the economy was booming, and he was direction-less. Then, in 2002, National Institute of Fashion Technology happened. “I wonder why I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Dhir, who turned 37 on September 14 this year – the same day his son Zoraveur turned three.

Dhir took to fashion like a fish to water, swimming through his fashion-design degree with ease. After graduation in 2005, he chose menswear as his forte, developing an eco-friendly minimalistic line using natural fibres, sustainable techniques and traditional motifs. “I design what I like to wear myself. Indians need fabrics that breathe – cotton, linen, wool, silk, mulmul, bamboo – and men in particular need clothing that is low-maintenance, which they can throw in the wash without worrying about damage or colour bleeding, and which grow softer and more interesting with age,” he says, pointing to his trademark cotton shirts and jackets with surprising peekaboo details on the collar, lining and pockets featuring parrots and umbrellas. He speaks of nazakat, a word that refuses to be translated: “This is what delights the man wearing it, this is what attracts the woman buying the garment for her man.”

Dhir spent the next few years after college exploring menswear manufacturing, including working at Arvind Brands in Bengaluru. He also met the woman of his life Svetlana on Facebook, and married the 22-year-old Indo-Russian risk analyst after a year of dating. Dhir was 29 and still clueless about his career then. “She was the one who brought home the money,” he reminisces with a smile. A year later, in 2009, Dhir borrowed money from his father to set up his own label, Suketdhir. “I was racked with self-doubt. I was vulnerable to all sorts of insecurities,” he says, sitting in his sunny second floor studio, a stone’s throw from the Qutab Minar in south Delhi. With his wife as business partner,in 2010 he began retailing out of Good Earth, a luxury store with a similar aesthetic, and built a loyal, niche clientele with an eye for comfort and an urbane, Indo-western taste in clothes.His label’s ‘less is more’ ethos also ties up with the importance of longevity – the longer you can use a garment, the less often you will buy new ones. Soon, he was also retailing out of Taj Khazana stores and on Perniaspopupshop.com.

Unexpectedly, in 2014, the Woolmark Company invited him to participate in the award. At that point, Dhir was still struggling to make a profit and had not presented at a single fashion week due to the high costs involved. He even considered winding up operations. But the invite got him thinking, and a pep talk from his mentor, Professor Asha Baxi, former dean of NIFT, triggered him to action. The award – which was won by fashion greats Karl Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent in 1954 – requires contestants to come up with a unique use of Australian Merino wool, and takes almost two years from the invite to the finals with regional rounds in between. Each regional finalist receives 50,000 Australian dollars cash sponsorship, and the overall winner for each category gets 100,000 Australian dollars and also has their winning collection sold in the world’s top department stores such as Saks in New York, 10 Corso Como in Milan, David Jones in Australia, Boon in South Korea and Isetan Mitsukoshi in Japan. Rahul Mishra was the first Indian to win the award for womenswear in 2014.

For his concept note, Dhir dug into his childhood, his grandfather’s genteel style and baggy pyjamas worn under a jacket, the colours of the sky and the mango fruit he loved, the easy fit of Indian silhouettes marrying the structure of western cuts. He got his own special yarn handwoven by Raymond – for whom he had developed a new linen collection – and travelled to southern India todye his wool; Svetlana’s paternal Telangana roots and knowledge of Telugu helped too. Dhir also explored textures, embroideries and crafts from regions in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. His final six looks, comprising 20 separates including a 10-shaded ombre Ikat jacket and super-baggy pants, were shown at the finals at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy, where he travelled with Prof. Baxi. It was the second ‘foreign’ trip in his life after a summer holiday he had taken as a teen to visit his aunt in the UK, and he was excited more about the travel and opportunity to meet new people than the competition itself, which was being judged by the likes of designer Haider Ackermann and fashion editor Suzy Menkes. “Within minutes of arrival, I was chatting away with the other five teams and everyone had let their guard down,” he laughs in recollection. The six finalists spent the next few days in camaraderie and mutual support. Dhir especially became close to USA’s Siki Im and London’s Agi & Sam.

“What struck me is the way this award really brought out the best in Suket – he put in a lot of dedication and thought into the designs,” opines Prof. Baxi. Dhir had developed an elasticated waistband for the models’ trousers so he had no issues during the fittings while other designers ran about in panic fixing their final looks. “Fit is important but feel is most important,” he believes. “I am okay with ease.”

When Dhir’s name was announced as the winner, the other finalists went up to Prof. Baxi and confessed they could not even feel bad about losing because it was Dhir who had won. “It was not just a testimony to his amiable personality but to the spirit of his work. Though all collections were excellent in their own ways, it was quite obvious that Suket’s had soul,” she says.

The award changed his life in more ways than he’d expected. “I am getting awards because I got an award,” he grins as he explains the sudden spate of attention he has garnered in the past few months. He was approached to be on panels and boards, and has been featured on magazine covers. Then came the offer to redesign the RSS uniform, for which he was happy to suggest changes in keeping with the times. He jokes that he may soon have enough money to wear clothes made by designers other than himself.

Dhir was urged by well-wishers to make 2016 ‘his year’ and to amp up his production and scale. “But why fix something that isn’t broken?” he asks. “I have achieved success for a certain ethos I stand for, including its slow pace. Why change now?” The monies from the award have been ploughed back into production, and as this interview goes to press, Dhir is neck deep in work, putting the final touches on consignments headed to international stores where he hopes they will find a permanent place. He’s busier than he’s ever been, but he worries that old associates may think he’s snubbing them. “I miss the spontaneity of my old life, I have to think before I speak, I am afraid of inadvertently offending someone,” he says, his eyes clouded with his old self-doubt. In the next moment, however, they sparkle as he describes a new lining motif he is developing inspired by René Magritte’s painting ‘Son of Man’, featuring a mango instead of Magritte’s apple and a man with a beard under the iconic hat – a quirky imprint of himself hidden in his clothes.

As one who struggled to find his calling in his youth, it is a moment of triumph for Dhir when his former professor testifies to his talent and deservedness: “It’s not just about winning; it’s how you win, and how you take it from there.His is a remarkable victory.”

Dhir downs his Rooh-Afza sherbet and rolls up his ribbed sleeve cuffs as his wife nudges him back to work. “This is just the beginning,” he says in parting.

This article was first published in Open magazine

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