From Delhi to the World

Meet menswear designer Suket Dhir, a self-described former “slacker” who once sold mobile phonesfor AT&T and has now made himself into India’s rising fashion star

In a stifling office on the second floor of an anonymous building along a dusty lane in Lado Sarai – the new hub for young artists in a corner of the southwestern part of New Delhi – a 38-year-old menswear designer has called a “global fashion superstar in the making” sat in semidarkness.

The power had gone out. Somehow the power is always going out in 21st-century India, a nation with 1.25 billion people, thousands of years of recorded history and the capacity to deploy nuclear weaponry.

India is a paradoxical country. And Suket Dhir is a paradoxical guy. Born in Punjab, he is an unshorn and unshaven Punjabi Hindu who styles himself a “wannabe Sikh”; a self-described former “slacker” now blissfully married to a Russian-Indian woman, Svetlana Dhir, who manages the business; a creative talent eager to compete on the global stage, and yet one who shares his small studio office with his elderly father.

He is also an expert craftsman whose subtle tailoring was recognised last January with one of the most prestigious honours in fashion, the International Woolmark Prize, an award that has also gone to Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

The judges who selected Dhir as the latest recipient focused their praise on the romantic and internationalised vision of the designer, whose last foray outside India (before travelling to Florence, Italy, to collect the $75,000 in prize money) was a brief trip to Dubai two decades earlier.

Perhaps most appealing of Dhir’s contradictions is how his restrained tailoring honours and deftly makes use of a range of the varied craft traditions that remain among the wonders of India while simultaneously mining a design vocabulary partly formed by his habit of binge-watching Seinfeld.

Almost a year after winning the Woolmark Prize, he was scrambling to complete and deliver a collection, his first to be sold outside India, to department stores in Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul and New York. (Saks Fifth Avenue now features elements from Dhir’s label, called Suketdhir.)

At the time of my visit, the deadline for the first shipments was just over a week away. Tailors in a backroom sat patiently at their silent machines. A cutter scissored through layers of denim methodically in the dimly lit room. A brownout coinciding with crunch time may induce at the very least a tantrum for some designers. Yet with the cool of a guru or a stoner, Dhir suggested a coffee run.

“A friend said, ‘Do you know what you want to do with your life?’ And I didn’t. And I actually had tears in my eyes. He said, ‘Have you ever thought of fashion?’ To be honest, I never had.”

The spot he chose was Blue Tokai, a hipster joint that is part coffee bar and part industrial grindery. There, amid a clatter of trays and a general conversational din, the soft-spoken chatterbox sketched out the unlikely path he had taken from being an aimless and indifferent student, to “that obnoxious voice” consumers across the world hear when call-centre diallers manage to entrap them (“I sold mobile phones for AT&T”), to the great hope for Indian design.

It was at the call centre, Dhir said, that he polished the rough edges off his Punjabi-accented English (a stint at a fancy boarding school probably helped, too). And it was there that he transformed his manner of speaking into a cross between upper class Indian English and generic American.

“Actually, the great thing about the call centre was that you worked all night and slept all day, so you never had a chance to spend any money,” Dhir said over an iced latte. “I saved a lot and started using the money to travel around India: to Goa, the mountains, Pondicherry and Dharamsala.”

When he was in his 20s, Dhir came to the realisation that he had no five-year, or even five-minute, plan. “A friend said, ‘Do you know what you want to do with your life?’” he said. “And I didn’t. And I actually had tears in my eyes.”

That same friend then made a canny observation: perhaps a career cue lay hidden in plain sight. He pointed to Dhir’s habitual doodling, his knack for dressing differently from his friends (in LA Gear tracksuits and Fila sneakers) and his near-obsession with FTV, a fashion-focused satellite video channel.

“He said, ‘Have you ever thought of fashion?’” Dhir said. “To be honest, I never had.”

Dhir applied to the elite National Institute Of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, was accepted, and quickly gravitated towards menswear.

“Fashion at this time is about a dream,” Haider Ackermann, the Berluti designer who was one of the Woolmark Prize judges, said at the ceremony granting the award. “Suket is a person with a dream to tell.”

While in design school, Dhir developed elements of his vision: silhouettes cultivated by his father and grandfather – pocketed Nehru jackets, natty blazers worn over flowing trousers – and a magpie assortment of nostalgic motifs picked up from the western films and television reruns that first appeared regularly in India with the arrival of satellite TV.

Not every designer cites, with Dhir’s catholicity of taste, inspirations as disparate as Clark Gable’s swallowtail coats from Gone With The Wind and Paul Hogan’s groovy buccaneer drag from Crocodile Dundee.

For the panel awarding the Woolmark Prize – it included the fashion critic Suzy Menkes; Nick Sullivan, the menswear director at Esquire; Masafumi Suzuki, the editor of GQ Japan; and Raffaello Napoleone, director of the Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence – the clincher was the way Dhir’s designs update traditional Indian garments while relying on ancient techniques.

“We appreciated the strong creativity but also the work on the fabrics and materials, so the choice of Suket was very natural,” Napoleone wrote by e-mail, referring to tie-and-dyed ikat yarn, hand-block printing, arduous spinning and weaving methods that give a silk-like texture to fibrous wool.

“There were two camps,” said Eric Jennings, a vice president and menswear fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue. “One was looking for something more trend-relevant, and one was more interested in the emotional side of the story.”

If emotion won the day, trend relevance did not come off too badly, since one of the first things Saks ordered from Dhir’s new collection was an indigo bomber jacket covered with pin-tucked pleats so minutely hand-stitched that they resemble trompe l’oeil.

“When I’m designing, I’m thinking about the final look of the product, of course, but also about the practical execution. How will I get that dyed? How will I reach the weaver’s village? Where will I stay? Will there be a toilet there? As a designer, these things become part of your whole everyday life”

Dhir chalks up his first few rocky years in business to his commitment to steer clear of both the pitfalls of India-for-export and, equally, a domestic wedding market that drives the bottom line for most of his design compatriots. Even now, his annual sales of roughly $100,000 (mostly from stores in India like the stylish Good Earth chain) amount to little more than what an American designer like Todd Snyder spends on a single runway show.

“I don’t do wedding gear, which is where the money is,” Dhir said.

“When I’m designing, I’m thinking about the final look of the product, of course, but also about the practical execution,” Dhir said. “How will I get that dyed? How will I reach the weaver’s village? Where will I stay? Will there be a toilet there? As a designer, these things become part of your whole everyday life.”

Pulling his long hair back into a ponytail, Dhir said with a laugh that, while he always felt “the need to be a global person”, there has never been any question of abandoning his roots. “It’s not elephants and camels anymore,” he said. “But it’s still India.”