Designer Kunal Rawal with Arjun Kapoor© GettyImages

Kunal Rawal Explains How Menswear In India Has Evolved Over The Past 15 Years

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

It won’t be far-fetched to say that designer Kunal Rawal has played a significant role in introducing a new facet of menswear in India. One of the most notable contributions from the designer is pushing forward the agenda that men can have fun with fashion too. Rawal has proven this time and again, especially with his designs for wedding ensembles of celebrities like Shahid Kapoor.

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Now, the designer is gearing up to celebrate completing 15 years in the industry with a collection ‘Dear Men’ at the ongoing India Couture Week. This showcase will also mark the first time Rawal will be presenting his collection in a physical format, “I am super excited to be back in the physical world after two years of showing collections through digital presentations. Definitely a lot more satisfying to be able to put together a multi-sensory physical show at last, complete with a beautiful location that sets the stage for meaningful interactions between the audience and my designs. The sheer happiness of being back to some kind of normal, even the new normal, is apparent—and I think you’ll find a lot of this excitement in our new collection.”

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The designer sat down to chat with HELLO! about completing 15 years in the industry, changing the landscapes of menswear in India, and more. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

HELLO!: If you could somehow communicate with your past self, what would you say to Kunal Rawal of 15 years ago?

Kunal Rawal: Honestly, I would tell him keep on doing what you’re doing! Ever since I started my label, I have wanted to influence the way India dresses. Especially young India, people my age. When I was much younger, I struggled a lot with the lack of an Indian point-of-view in the world of everyday or high fashion. I want to tell that Kunal of 15 years ago that it will happen, that change will come and the market will evolve. And now that the market has evolved, the response from our customers has been massively gratifying. I have always loved the idea of adding a contemporary twist to traditional classics, and it is encouraging now that the world is accepting it too. And honestly this is the one thing that hasn’t changed about me—I am as obsessed today with taking traditional Indian silhouettes and making them wearable and fashionable for my generation, as I was back then.

H!: In your own words, how has menswear evolved in the country over the past decade?

KR: Immensely and spectacularly! The aesthetics of menswear, especially traditional occasion wear couture is changing quite a bit in the last 15 years or so. I got into couture for grooms when we dressed Shahid Kapoor for his wedding. Even then, my aim was to shift the acceptable aesthetics for groom-wear. That event was a turning point for me really, because it kickstarted my journey to push the envelope on traditional design language in India, especially for menswear couture. I see myself as a creative, a designer. And really, that’s how I want to change the world. For me, designing is the epitome of my existence, it is truly my happy place. I look at it as an awesome responsibility because we have such a big bank of traditional and cultural influences to get inspiration from in India. I feel as Indian designers, we are the luckiest to have this big and diverse country to draw inspiration from. I think all of us need to work towards taking the beautifully diverse Indian aesthetic into a more contemporary, relatable space. I think we have to preserve our traditions for the next generation, but not as archives! We need to collectively bring these traditions into a more relevant and wearable space.

In India, a wedding may have three events in a day, and the groom and his outfit have to be able to adapt themselves to all three. Your clothes, especially couture for special occasions, have to multi-task as much as the wearer. Honestly, today technology can help so much in achieving this kind of wearability. You can modify the construction of the garment. There is so much we can still do to make couture even more relevant. This aesthetic, I know without a doubt, is the future of Indian couture.

H!: Can you talk to us about your association with Couture Week and what we can expect (a little sneak peek) from this showcase?

KR: I think Mr. Sunil Sethi and the entire team at India Couture Week have been doing such a wonderful job. This platform has really encouraged young designers, like myself, to push the envelope and bring our ideas to the world. In terms of the collection, you can expect to see an ode dedicated to all men, no matter where they come from, their profession, their lifestyles, and their cultures. Each piece feels different, invites some kind of interaction and hides quite a few surprising details! You’ll also find a lot of new, different silhouettes and many fun and unexpected embroideries. So many pieces will play with textures or pull your attention to different intricacies.

H!: You’ve mentioned that “nothing’s off limits” this time. Is that exciting? Scary? Or a mix of both? Because the possibilities and expectations instantly skyrocket once you hear that phrase. How did you arrive at this and does that align with your core philosophy as a designer?

KR: Since this is our 15th anniversary as a brand, we are using our couture collection as an opportunity to set some new rules for the next 15. When I say nothing is off limits, I really mean that we are experimenting with elements and techniques I’ve had a bit of a tussle with before. Let me give you an example, we are known for our structured and defined silhouettes. But in this collection, you will see us experiment with more creative silhouettes that will flatter every body type and can be added or subtracted to create a whole new look quite easily. My design philosophy is all about creating smart couture— wearable art that is functional as well as versatile. Something that not only looks beautiful, but is easy to pull on, gives you the functionality you need, and can easily go beyond the occasion you bought it for. That’s my goal as a designer and that’s why I am experimenting more and more with our vast bank of traditions.

H!: When we spoke last time, you mentioned how you believe men in the country haven’t had as much fun with fashion as the girls have. How do you think this is shifting (if you think that we’re evolving in that aspect)?

KR: Today, men are so self-aware, and confident and have a very clear point of view on fashion. I think the digital lives we led in the pandemic have a lot to do with this evolution in thinking, to be honest. The exposure to global fashion mixed up with the introspection we all did during COVID has created a very informed clientele. Today, when a groom walks into our store, he has an opinion on what he wants. Men have definitely joined the party, and are very clear about the kind of clothes they want, and the statement they want to make. I think this evolution is massively exciting for us as designers. Young designers in India have been pushing a new aesthetic for such a long time, and now it is finally paying off!

H!: What are some of the most notable challenges you can recall over your journey as a designer?

KR: Quite a few, actually. There’s been quite an evolution in the label, and within me too. The changes I’ve seen in life, the many downs as much as ups have changed the way I think and work. The biggest challenges I can recall are definitely the collections I made which ended up becoming too expensive to retail. Or the collections which were so design-forward that they weren’t very wearable, aesthetically. I feel blessed though, because every low in my life and my journey as a designer has taught me so much, has helped me refine my thinking and create a lasting design aesthetic. These learnings have guided me into amping up the luxe factor in every collection. Even the techniques I use, the fabrics I employ, have been amped up. The idea is to keep being fresh while amplifying the brand DNA and aesthetic, and I hope to continue doing just that for a long time yet.

H!: Have you noticed any shift in the industry because of the pandemic?

KR: Definitely! The pandemic has completely changed the behaviour of the world. Today, everyone in the family from our parents to grandparents to little kids, live in the digital world. This has also evolved the definition of fashion in general. The meaning of fashion, the feeling we get from it, is different for everyone now. We are now seeing a lot more self-confidence, in having our unique identity and voicing our opinions. This has clearly translated into everyone developing their own unique point-of-view when it comes to their choice of fashion, especially couture. There is a lot more acceptance for modern takes on traditional couture, it’s finally becoming a mainstream trend, that is here to stay. I’m very happy about this because this has always been my dream as a designer.

H!: What do you hope to see (for you as a designer and for your label) if you could somehow take a look at 15 years ahead?

KR: What I really really hope to see is a market that accepts and celebrates a different point of view on couture, acceptance of contemporary twists to traditional silhouettes. We have been through such a huge evolution already in the last 15 years, and there is so much more yet to change. I think this change is really down to the young designers who have pushed the market collection after collection. In another 15 years, I would love to be in a world where men are as adventurous with fashion as everyone else.

H!: What would be the first thing you’ll do (to unwind) after Couture Week is over?

KR: So this might sound like a PR-ey answer, but I can’t wait to evolve these thoughts and my design language even further! I have been waiting for a while for the menswear market to reach where it is today, to be able to have this much fun with design. And I want to really get into it now, to take it to the next level and the next. Another thing I’m really excited about is the storytelling of my label. For us, our storytelling is very layered—it takes us 2 to 3 seasons for an idea to truly reach its completion, and for an idea to be put out in its complete form. I already can’t wait to start working and evolving these stories even more in a new collection. Design is what makes me happiest, and I haven’t felt this happy for a while!