Karan Johar for HELLO! India© HELLO! India

#HELLOExclusive: Karan Johar And The ‘Luxe’ Factor

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Sangeeta Waddhwani

For some people, life is a rapid-fire round. But for Karan Johar, time management and creativity go hand in hand. We watch as the multitalented film producer, writer, designer and talk show host dives right into his looks, a nod here, a twist there. And voila! From high-street to geek chic, he makes it all look like a bizarre mix of confidence and choreography — because the language of the camera is his ‘dharma’, one could say.

KJo is also an insatiable sybarite. His stylist of the last three or four years, Eka Lakhani, has gone on record to say, “The only challenge, honestly, is that he’s more updated than I am! So I have to keep up with every new season, new launches, new trends! It’s like a personal victory for me if I show him a designer or brand’s new collection before he’s seen it already.”

With Karan, we are talking three decades of reinventing mainstream culture. In the 90s, yours truly remembers bumping into his pal Manish Malhotra shopping for high-street looks at London’s Oxford Street for Dharma Productions’ first ‘campus’ film — Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Casual global chic became the new normal for Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and Rani Mukerji. KJo calls it “a collaborative effort”. “KJo X Manish — we are like a Gucci X Adidas collab.”

In this, Karan’s openness to change has been a forerunner over other more conservative players. His work is always blazing new trails — like reinstating that a Bollywood wife can be a glamorous, TRP-raising entity with her highly aspirational botoxed-to-perfection profile.

We all know that their flip preoccupations matter much less than that ‘aspirational’ quotient, which has clearly inspired another addictive Netflix series, Dubai Bling. In this heart-to-heart chat with HELLO!, the consummate game-changer bares his colourful soul on how to be a Dharma chameleon — and enjoy the challenge!

HELLO!: Karan, how do you pander to your obvious desire for the best of luxury goodies?

Karan Johar: “Well, more than looking at sites and influencers, I get catalogues in advance, straight out from the luxury houses, for Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter. So I’m always up to step with seasonal trends. I’m always watching fashion shows — sometimes live — of the luxe brands I love. I thoroughly enjoyed the Gucci X Adidas collaboration. I love what emerged from the Gucci-Louis Vuitton collaboration previously. I think the loss of Virgil Abloh was dreadful for the world of fashion. It was absolute genius when they went upmarket high-street with a brand like Louis Vuitton. Gucci did it in their own way with their tie-up with Adidas.We see a lot of cameos of you on fashion websites, wearing bright sweatshirts from the Balenciaga X Gucci collab… Well, yes, but that must come to a stop now, given the controversy with Balenciaga. While I was a huge endorser of that collab, the brand’s last campaign showing bondage accessories on teddy bears around innocent children, and then using the Supreme Court child pornography ruling as part of a campaign… It was very upsetting. Every kind of content creator or artist should communicate the right message. I hope they manage real damage control.

H!: But one sees from those bright sweatshirts a man who doesn’t mind bending fashion rules and just following his heart. You enjoy challenging the status quo!

KJ: “I love it. There was a time I was always worried about what people would think and say. But with age and a certain internal evolution, you reach a point where you need to be happy with what you wear and how you project yourself. What the world thinks is immaterial. I have come to a point where I’m not going to care about my body image issues or fashion fears! Earlier, I’d be haunted by questions like, ‘Am I a filmmaker, so am I meant to walk the talk?’ ‘Should I pretend to be serious, choose clothes that are not jumping out and simple instead?’ Then I thought, ‘Who am I doing all this acting for?’ I’m just happy in my own skin now, wearing what I like, what I relate to and love to project. You know how kids play house-house? I’m playing Instagram-Instagram!” (Laughs)”

H!: Which landmark fashion creations do you see as a ‘legacy’ to your kids? We believe you want them to learn a different ABCD — A for Armani, B for Balenciaga, C for Chanel, etc!

KJ: “I say this all in jest, of course! Not to offend people’s sensibilities. But in all honesty, they haven’t caught on to the fashion bandwagon because they are always laughing at what I wear! Once, when I was about to step out, they said, ‘Dada, you’re looking like a clown!’ I was like, ‘How can you speak that way with your Dada?’ And at one point, they said, ‘Dada, you look very boring.’ So I realised I have my own in-house trolls! I don’t need them on social media! Just like my mom, they ground me. The three combined are my reality check, right at home.”

H!: Would you say you are more logo-centric or more about how a garment makes you feel?

KJ: “It’s never about the logo; it’s about the garment. I’m such a big fan of Japanese and Korean designers, whose designs aren’t all about their logos. Yohji Yamamoto is one of my favourite silhouettes. Similarly, there are so many Korean brands people may not have heard of, but I love wearing them. I think when I wear Gucci, it’s about the vibe of that garment more than flashing the logo. It’s what it makes me feel.”

H!: Now that things have opened up, what are your most prized wardrobe possessions? 

KJ: “When the Adidas X Gucci collab collection came out, Ranveer (Singh) and I went crazy trying to acquire everything. I remember when the collection dropped, I thought, ‘I WANT EVERYTHING!’ I was so obsessed because two of my favourite brands had come together. Ranveer and I always DM each other images of clothes — literally sliding into DMs with clothes.”

H!: Karan, we once did a shoot with you, where we recall a vanity van loaded with bespoke branded shoes. Do you harbour a private museum collection?

KJ: “I have a clothes fetish, a shoe fetish, a dark glasses fetish, and fetishes in general for fashion and all fashionable things. But when it comes to shoes, something weird happened. During the pandemic, my feet went one size up! I don’t know how that’s possible. I was 45, and a UK size 11. And suddenly, I was size 12. So now I have to buy even more shoes because none of the ones I had fit anymore! It’s bizarre… You can ask my stylist!”

H!: We believe you have a full team that looks after your luxe shopping…

KJ: “Well, yes. My stylist Ekta is always sending me the latest stuff around. She has shoppers in London, Milan and Dubai. We also do online and WhatsApp shopping. These are my guilty pleasures. I feel there is so much stress in life. I work so hard. Shopping is one thing that takes my serotonin level to a higher, happy place!”

H!: So you now have a lot of bespoke shoes to pass on…We believe you are extremely generous sharing your luxe goodies?

KJ: “I have a lot of friends who visit my wardrobe to shop — and I’m happy about it! I’m not attached to garments. I wear them and enjoy them. But if someone really likes something I own, I’m happy to part with it. It’s never something I’ll just hold on to for dear life.”

H!: What do you see as your luxury legacy for your twins, Roohi and Yash?

KJ: “Oh, they are getting nothing! It’ll all go away. They make fun of my fashion sense. They don’t deserve any of it!

H!: Any custom-made luxury creations you are particularly fond of?

KJ: “Gucci made me an athleisure garment, in pink no less, with my name on it! This was recently. Of course, various brands customise bags, but this Gucci pink tracksuit was something I LOVE! I plan to wear it on my kids’ birthday. I’m not sure what Roohi and Yash are going to say about that!”

H!: Who, in your view, are three fashion influencers you follow closely and are genuinely influenced by?

KJ: “Blake Lively is stunning. I think she always gets it right. I also love watching Jennifer Lopez — it’s not what she wears; it’s just her vibe that’s absolutely cutting edge. In India, I think Anushka Sharma is stunningly fashionable — apart from, of course, Sonam and Rhea Kapoor, who were the first to embrace global looks on screen. True trendsetters. Among the men, I always looked up to Mr Bachchan. And more recently, I feel Saif Ali Khan is immaculately turned out and understands good taste. Now, I think nobody can top maximalism like Ranveer Singh!”

H!: Have you, on any occasion, felt like a fashion victim?

KJ: “Oh, yes. There were many occasions when I bought the same thing twice, forgetting I already had them! So then I gift the extra, as always.”

H!: Your journey changing the look and feel of mainstream cinema has a lot to do with your soulmate in fashion styling — Manish Malhotra. How do you see this?

KJ: “From the beginning, when my ‘campus classics’ films became trendy and people found those looks fresh, Manish and I have had a wonderful collaborative connect. We did what we loved, and I do not take credit for the looks. I give full credit to Manish. You know, the colours in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the chic styling for Student of the Year, the fashion quotient in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… Manish really brought so much edge, and my sensibility resonates with his. It was like our own Gucci X Adidas collab. So today, yes, it looks like we created some really iconic fashion moments in cinema.”

H!: Would you describe your personal aesthetic as a maximalist rather than a minimalist, even in the clothes you yourself design?

KJ: “Maximalist all the way — literally maximalist AF! These days, creativity in fashion has a lot to do with finding climate-friendly ways of manufacturing, sourcing, recycling… Yes, given the fact that there are so many climate warriors, and climate change is a great reality, I think it’s up to us to make the right choices. We have gone into a full no-plastic policy in our offices and on our sets. It’s all reusable. That’s our starting point. I appreciate what designers like Amit Aggarwal do with recycled plastic polymers, and I hope more climb aboard and truly sustain their planet-friendly approaches.”

H!: There have been bizarre trends post-pandemic where movies go — and many feel OTT platforms are where audiences are now. This year, I think a film like Drishyam 2 will cross Rs 200 crore. As we speak, Brahmastra made Rs 250 crore, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 made Rs 180 crore…

KJ: “Yes, mindsets are changing, and certain genres didn’t have box office success. I definitely believe the OTT boom will somewhere, inadvertently, help cinema because it involves the contribution of great actors and writers. So I think this will settle in time. It may take two years or so to settle, and then everything will be back to normal. I think there will be a fresh understanding that certain types of storytelling genres will be good for an OTT release, and certain spectacle-oriented movies will be more suited for theatrical releases.”

H!: But beyond business, the whole film industry came under a massive shadow during the pandemic, with drug trafficking arrests, jail incarcerations and stars being questioned…

KJ: “Yes, it was terrible, and the industry went through a tough time. One thing I noticed about the Indian film industry is our level of resilience. You can attack us, bash us, for reasons that are unjustified. But eventually, true talent will always emerge, and the genuine intent of the industry — which is to entertain our audiences with an open heart — will always remain. So no matter how tough times get, we will spring back. Why are our blockbusters collecting the numbers they are? Why would people be watching OTT shows in large numbers? It’s all being made by people from Bollywood, right? It was all dead noise, nameless, faceless people trying to bring down an industry that’s entertained millions the world over.”

H!: You are a protean talent, given the many hats you have worn and continue to wear — TV show host, film producer-director, scriptwriter, party host, reality TV judge, talent discovery man and mentor…

KJ: “Yes, I’m a great change warrior. I believe in change and that you have to adapt on a daily basis. Change doesn’t scare me; it challenges me. Firstly, you can’t be living in a bubble. I think many people tend to do that. You get so self-absorbed with your own success orfailure that you can’t look beyond it. And I’m like, ‘There’s a world beyond you!’ This is most critical to any artist. If I have given one hit film and I obsess about only that for an entire year, I have already lost touch with what’s happening around me. I always say deal with success the way you deal with failure. You can’t let it fester, or rest on your laurels. Won an award? Clap for yourself and move on. Lost an award? Clap for others and move on!”

H!: Films from the south have captivated audiences. Whether it was RRR or more recently Kantara… How do you interpret this trend?

KJ: “Their films are great. They have something that I feel our industry lacks — core conviction. We tend to have a slight herd mentality. Filmmakers in the south are not looking over their shoulders to see what critics say or what social media says, which stars are ‘saleable’ — they don’t care. That conviction jumps right out of the screen and touches people in a way that’s primal, conscious and rich.”

H!: People envy your equation with the stars, the power you stand for. In fact, some memes have actors joking they won’t help raise your TRPs by coming on the show!

KJ: “So I only bring up what’s already in the public domain. If a star has shared something as a secret with me, in utmost confidence, there’s no way I’d bring that up. But if it’s written about, being talked about, I will. And even if they deny it, unlike other show hosts, I can still get away by saying ‘Hey, you’re lying!’ The fact that we work in the same industry, and that I know them personally helps! It’s a different level of connect.”

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s December 2022 issue. Get your copy of the latest issue right here!