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The Sophisticates
Text by Sona Bahadur
Published: Volume 16, Issue 9, September, 2008
Their ensembles present femininity draped in lush classicism. Culling the essence and emotions of Indian culture and marrying it with a modern Western sensibility, Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra have a deeper, less obvious take on fusion. With their unique subtext of delicate details, simple harmonies and rich textural formats, the brand has come to epitomise refinement and luxury in fashion. Sona Bahadur meets the dynamic brothers who are also making a mark in sports couture, red-carpet dressing and Bollywood styling

Their partnership brings together a fine commercial sensibility with a genuine feel for fashion. Emphasising the luxurious and the sensuous in fashion, Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra define the eternal feminine in essence rather than in superfluous forms. Be it their rich, sophisticated colour palatte for the global Indian woman or their lavish Grecian drapes, the label stands out for its refinement. “People are also surprised when we tell them we are heterosexual,” jokes Nikhil, tongue firmly in cheek.

The creative half of the team, Nikhil pursued his masters in fashion from Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandise (FIDM), Los Angeles, while Shantanu completed his MBA in finance from Ohio State University. Thereafter, Nikhil worked directly under Mrs. Gray for St. John Knits, while Shantanu was with the corporate finance wing of General Motors. Their love affair with USA ended in 1999, after which both came back to India to chase their dreams of launching a fashion brand that could be housed in the essence of a business of fashion set-up. “We have always thought of ourselves as entrepreneurs first and then fashion designers. This philosophy is what prompted us to cross synergise our art and commerce backgrounds into something worthwhile that could withstand the pressures of the ever-challenging and ever-evolving fashion industry,” says Shantanu. Hence, the birth of Shantanu & Nikhil with their menswear couture line in early 1999. The signature women’s collections soon followed and the brothers stepped onto the field of high fashion with their debut diffusion line at the India Fashion Week in 2001.

The label is all about East-meets-West style glamour that rejects the trendy and the gimmicky, concentrating on silhouettes reflecting relaxed sophistication and subdued elegance. The leitmotif is India in its intrinsic sense, with silhouettes that have an international feel to them. This message is clearly communicated and positioned across all their product lines and segments, whether it is formal wedding wear for men, or contemporary western and Indian wear for women.

Enriched with a global fashion vision, the brand has moved beyond borders, infusing an Indian sensibility into a rich detailing that remains quintessentially Shantanu & Nikhil. The mood of understated elegance and sophistication gets reflected even in the surface texturisation processes used in the collections. Layering on the fabric through traditional Indian printing techniques teamed with delicate hand stitch line details and Mughal motive appliqué work forms the basic crux of our understanding of true fusion in terms of ornamentation. Subtle undercurrents of India through prints, appliqués and tone-on-tone hand kantha embroideries is what features in their collections majority of the time.

Shantanu sees the Shantanu & Nikhil woman as a young well-travelled sophisticate who is not only confident and independent of her surroundings, but also someone who does not let the clothes overpower her personality and instead carries India on her sleeve with pride and dignity. “Nude colors like gold, whites, ash greys, verve blues, and blacks along with fluid drapes and a dash of structure is what a global woman should feel comfortable in,” adds Nikhil.

Maharaja Meets Military Chic, their debut collection, a little ahead of its time didn’t get the best of reviews. But it did catch the eyes of some which further prompted the designers to do a similar collection at the next fashion week. The collection closest to their hearts, and in some way one that led people into taking a serious note of their talent, was one called After Death, inspired by the death of Lord Jesus. The emotions of this collection were communicated through the colour gold and extensive usage of dramatic drapes, both of which have now become pivotal elements of their design philosophy. The discovery of human emotions as a part of their design inspiration started from this 2004 collection and were later seen in collections like Guru Shabd in 2005, based on nihangs and Sikhism, Camel Safari, Exile in Style and more recently Banaras Boulevard, which welcomed the early onset of spring summer 2007 with mellow yellow.

Romance and innocence are two very important human emotions in the duo’s collections. Little wonder that Audrey Hepburn, Victoria Beckham, Gweneth Paltrow and Sienna Miller fit their bill for style icons. “Other than those, we admire Katrina Kaif, Preity Zinta and Dia Mirza for their sheer innocence,” says Nikhil. Recent collections have all been high on drapes and very international looking. Ladakh tribes, avant-garde feel, experimenting with new textures and 3-D dimensions are some of the key moments of inspiration for their fall-winter 2008 lines.

Addressing the dearth of chic sportswear as a fashion product in India, the brothers are also carving a parallel niche in fashion with a sporty edge. “Being sportsmen ourselves — I’m a tennis player, while Nikhil is an avid golfer — has most definitely helped us understand the amalgamation of sports and fashion in the truest form,” says Shantanu. The Samsung show in 2004, where they walked the likes of Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, prompted them to imbibe sportswear influences as a strong part of their design philosophy. The sports-meets-fashion concept got them excited and they used the opportunity to create clothes that make the sportsmen look edgy and cool, without losing that sporting touch. What followed was dressing up leading sports personalities across the globe like Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathy, Glen McGrath, Stephen Fleming and most recently Serena Williams, who walked the ramp in a show-stopper ensemble at a Shantanu and Nikhil show for Hewlett Packard. After designing uniforms for the?ICL world teams earlier, the brand was most recently associated with Preity Zinta’s IPL team, Punjab Kings X1, for doing a special evening wear line for all the players.

Red carpet dressing for Indian divas has been another successful foray. After their gorgeous gowns for Shilpa Shetty for the 2007 IFFAs, the brothers recently created a vintage look for Neha Dhupia who walked the ramp for them in a show by Gitanjali Lifestyle. Created with a draping technique, the soft-pink gown created with layers of chiffon was a showstopper. The ambi motif at the cinched waist made a vintage statement, the beautiful booti embroidery on the gown adding that trademark S & N Indian touch. They also created an ensemble for Dia Mirza for the IFFAs, a figure hugging gown in sunny yellow. “We felt a colour would suit her personality and added a black web design on the bodice to add sophistication and glamour to the look,” says Nikhil. The designers are also styling for Acid Factory starring Dia Mirza and Shah Rukh Khan’s Billo Babar.

The combination of art and commerce in their corporate and design philosophy is their strongest value proposition. The brand has been working aggressively on marketing with a strategic marketing mix of doing run-ways both at the fashion weeks in India and self-solo shows along with the involvement in select projects pertaining to Bollywood, TV shows, sports and red-carpet events. “Our mission is to open six more Shantanu & Nikhil flagship stores across India by 2010, besides the three that exist in Delhi and Mumbai. Also in the pipeline is the launch of their high-street diffusion Western brand comprising both menswear and womenswear, which will be a big global strategic announcement”, reveals Shantanu.

Both in their 30s, the brothers have distinct personalities and sense of personal style. Nikhil likes experimenting with colors and silhouettes. Until recently into short kurtas that had strong sporty details teamed up with jodhpur churidars or skinny pants, he is now trying his hand with orange and shocking pink, colours they’re using in their menswear spring/summer flash lines. Shantanu’s wardrobe comprises mostly chic sportswear tops, especially fitted jersey tees, cargo capris and trousers. “As I’m the unfortunate number cruncher of the two, I also possess a strong dosage of fitted corporate shirts and trousers. I adorn formal jackets and bandgalas of only S&N.” Nikhil particularly likes Lanvin for femininity and soft drapes, Alexander Mcqueen for innovative techniques and Victor & Rolfe for their edgy design sensibility. For Shantanu, it’s Georgio Armani for his sheer understanding of art and commerce.

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