HE hates socialising, is completely uninspired by the Great Indian Wedding and never takes a bow after a show. Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh rarely gives sound bites, and an interview? This one’s either an accident or a miracle.
Yet he insists he isn’t media shy. “Journalists just want to know the name of my dog, or who I’m sleeping with. I’d rather not say anything at all,” says the designer pottering over designs for his India Fashion Week collection, just a few weeks away.
After just seven years in the business, he’s easily counted in fashion’s Ivy League. Pal Rohit Bal never misses an opportunity to tell people he’s the best we have.
Pratap’s collections often reflect his frame of mind, rather than an external source. This year, the 34-year-old designer plans a “dark and dingy” line to go with his “cultish” mindset of the moment. “I’ve discovered a great Swiss artist—WG Giger—who had also designed the alien for the film Alien. It’s a winter collection, about the romance of death. We think we know everything about death but we still have amazing insecurities about it,” he adds, giving glimpses of an edginess that defies his image. “It’s like a science fiction film where an alien lands in Benares and you’ll get the picture,” he laughs. Sounds morbid and freaky? “Not at all, people think about death all the time. All the religions of the world are based on the uncertainty of death,” says the designer, who has just returned from Benares after staying with tantric Shiva-worshippers who live among the dead in shamshan ghats.
His best friend of 15 years and fellow designer, Manish Arora, says “Raju” (as Pratap is better known) isn’t half as scary or serious as he makes himself out to be. “He’s actually quite spaced out,” chuckles Arora, who’s been as good as family ever since they were room-mates at NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology). “Rajesh likes to play with ideas that are provocative and taboo. Although his clothes are quiet, never screaming out a message,” says friend and mentor David Abraham.
There’s also Pratap, the family man, that one has almost never heard about. What keeps the man grounded to reality is his wife of eight years, Payal. “We’ve been together for 12 years, since our NIFT days,” says Rajesh, letting us into a domain he’s fiercely protective of. “My wife holds everything together—a beautiful home, my family and my business as well. I actually work for her,” he adds, laughing. His wife is his head merchandiser and takes care of all his stores. There’s also a completely uncontrollable Rudra Pratap, his boisterous five-year-old son, who “is the only Rajput in the family”. And a three-month-old new addition, a daughter, Manya.
The designer comes from a family of doctors—his father is a cardiologist and one of his two brothers a neurosurgeon. Pratap’s interest in fashion came about through a London cousin who makes costumes for BBC shows, such as The Far Pavilions. “But we all have an eye for construction and detail, so it was quite easy,” says the designer.
Besides Arora, there are also designers Ashish Soni and Namrata Joshipura who form his clique. Then there are his mentors, David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore, with whom Pratap started his career “as a flunky”. “Rajesh is a very focused person, even where his aesthetics is concerned,” says Abraham. “He’s gentle and extremely helpful. And we started our two stores in India, at 1 MG Road in Delhi and The Courtyard in Mumbai, at his behest.”
“I don’t socialise at all, there’s no Ecstacy or Speed involved,” laughs Pratap. “But our friends are always coming over for dinner. And yes, we watch a lot of movies as my wife and Manish are huge Bollywood freaks.”
Films play a large role in this designer’s creativity (his large home theatre is proof), especially science fiction. “I’m a complete buff. Fifth Element and Amadeus are great reference points,” he says. For a collection that Pratap showed for the finale of India Fashion Week 2001, he had presented an all white line in polar fleece and PVC, (cyber fashion of the 1990s at its best), influenced by the Mad Max films.
Pratap’s biggest selling point is that he is uninspired by Indian weddings. His clothes—for both men and women—are western, refraining from any form of Indianness. “I don’t make costumes, but I do experiment with Indian textures—like tie-and-dye and churis (ruched pants),” says Pratap. “I think clothes must speak an international language. But this is not something that’s deliberate, I just do what I know,” he adds. His clothes are “engineered” and “pretty constructed”—beautifully tailored silhouettes that pay more attention to shape and fit than drape and embellishment. His unique style has made him sell out of every reputed fashion store in the country, as well as a few internationally (such as Selfridges in London and Maria Luisa in Paris).
White shapes and pin-tucks have become his signature. “It’s just something that I did once and sold really well. Now it’s become my bread and butter,” he adds. Yet, Pratap says he’s bored by commercial things. He has a roomful of creations in his studio that will never be sold. “Either they are too experimental or too beautiful to let go,” he says, enigmatically. “There’s this shirt that takes two months to make, 40 days if we’re killing ourselves over it. I can’t let it go,” he says. Then why make it at all? “For fun,” he quips.
While it’s easy to see why Pratap’s creations are favourites with style aesthetes of the country, one can only wonder if the designer has any favourites. “Abraham and Thakore,” he replies. “For biased reasons, they spoon-fed me when I was starting out. I also love Anshu Arora Sen for her colour sensibilities. And Shahab Durazi used to be great, but I don’t know where he’s disappeared lately,” says Pratap, adding he can vaguely understand why Durazi’s chosen virtual anonymity for himself.
“I’m in a state to give up everything as well,” comes the startling revelation. Pratap’s secret lust for fun may just have him quit his profession sooner than one thinks. “It can get physically and emotionally draining. I may just get bored, and want to make a building. Or travel. Or just spend my life reading books,” he peters away.
Let’s hope we can get our hands on that roomful of magic first.