Young Indian shakes up fashion with prints and pret

Rachel O'Brien
Indian fashion designer Masaba Gupta poses for a photo at her store in Mumbai, on July 28, 2014
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Indian fashion designer Masaba Gupta poses for a photo at her store in Mumbai, on July 28, 2014 (AFP Photo/Indranil Mukherjee)

Mumbai (AFP) - She's already a leading name in Indian fashion, with customers ranging from top Bollywood stars to teenage girls on pocket money.

Yet 25-year-old Masaba Gupta -- best-known for her quirky cow and camera prints that adorn saris, dresses and even smartphone covers -- puts much of her whirlwind success down to intuition.

"My gut just somehow … tells me that this is going to be the next big thing. Luckily I know it before anyone else does," she told AFP at her flagship "Masaba" store in Mumbai's trendy suburb of Juhu.

The daughter of West Indies cricket legend Viv Richards and Bollywood actress Neena Gupta -- who shared a relationship in the 1980s -- the young designer said many people "write me off as a product of my parents and social media", but her clothes appear to be challenging the critics.

Alongside the rise of her eponymous brand, Gupta was in 2012 appointed the youngest creative director for prestigious ethnic wear label Satya Paul -- a rare move in the world of Indian fashion houses, which tend not to hire big outside names.

From lipstick patterns to the Tamil script, her unconventional trademark prints have proved so popular that counterfeits have flowed into the market, spurring her recently to set up the more affordable "Masaba Lite" line for teenagers.

It is an impressive CV for someone who stumbled into fashion because no other college courses were still open -- "I had nothing else to do," admitted Gupta over tea in her store, dressed in high-street culottes and gold sandals.

- Too much bridal -

Attending catwalk shows as a student, she found Indian fashion "was running at this really slow, stale pace" with an evident gap in the market.

"I felt like everybody was doing bridal, there was no such thing as 'prêt' — ready-to-wear was just not something that you heard of," said Gupta, who officially opened the winter edition of Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai on Tuesday by displaying one of her collections.

"A designer needs to sell either bridal or mass (fashion) to be able to make money, and at the end of the day it is about making money. I can't do bridal, it's not my aesthetic, so I thought that I'll go the mass way."

Selling clothes and accessories in the range of 900-6,000 rupees ($15-98) in her new Masaba Lite line, Gupta is hoping it will become "like an Indian H&M", referring to the hugely popular Swedish high street chain.

"Why buy a fake when you can get the original at the same price?" says the website for the brand, which she has launched with Western wear but intends to expand into Indian clothing.

Gupta said she wants young girls "to own a sari each", recalling an occasion when three teenagers walked into her shop and pulled their pocket money together to buy a single drape.

When designing for the Masaba brand, her original higher-end label aimed at women in their twenties, Gupta naturally veered towards a fusion of styles -- be it Westernised prints on Indian silhouettes or vice versa.

Fashion writer Shefalee Vasudev, author of "Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion", hailed Gupta's "refreshing" approach to prints, saying her idea of India "doesn't derive from self-conscious patriotism for the crafts legacies of our country".

"Instead she has been able to think, define and express her sense of contemporary Indianness through unusual modern prints (and) play of colour, even when she makes saris or tunics which are common silhouettes in Indian fashion."

Not all critics have been so impressed, but Gupta said she is most interested in the feedback of those who buy her clothes, so she keeps a close eye on her Instagram and Twitter accounts.

"If one girl says it, I know that five girls have probably discussed it," she said.

- Fair skin obsession -

Being of mixed Indian and Afro-Caribbean heritage, Gupta's rapid ascent is all the more unusual in an industry and a country where fair skin is equated with beauty and prosperity.

But she said she has found success to be the best deterrent to prejudice.

"You have to surpass what people may think of you to be able to reach that level where no one comments on you. But India will always be a fair-skin obsessed country, it's never going to change."

Both her parents have influenced her style, especially her mother, whom she watched in her childhood "cutting up her saris, patching stuff on to them, making her own blouses".

Gupta has also enjoyed the backing of modern Bollywood stars such as Sonam Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra -- endorsements she believes are key in the movie-mad country.

But she criticises Indian designers who rely on celebrity dressing instead of fresh ideas and business sense.

"Even I have to constantly keep re-inventing myself," she said. "Prints are something that can run out of fashion very quickly."