Backstage and fashion designer Manish Malhotra ignores the clouds of hairspray to cast a critical eye over the line of models.
His gaze flits over every outfit, making sure there isn’t a stitch or sequin out of place. Taking a deep breath, he gives Bollywood actress Urmila Matondkar the once over; she looks immaculate in a fitted navy lehnga woven with white chikankari.
“Perfect,” Manish smiles as she steps out to open the show at the plush Grosvenor House Hotel Park Lane, in London.
Waiting in the wings is Bollywood star Parineeti Chopra dressed in a glittering floor-length, red and gold anarkali lehnga. She grins at Manish before hitting the ramp. He is equally nervous and excited – he has been working on this gala for two months and wants it to be perfect. But it’s not just because he’s desperate for the collection to be a runway success – this event is designed to help empower Indian girls.
“The show is in aid of The Angeli Foundation, a charity to empower the girl child in India,” he says. “I am doing this for all the girls of India.’’
The 400-plus guests who paid to attend the show and dinner earlier this year were keen to loosen their purse strings at the auction that followed. A sari by Manish was sold for an impressive £5,000 (Dh27,974), for example.
Proceeds from ticket sales and the exclusive live auction went towards supporting two projects in India run by The Angeli Foundation – the Gayatri Education Programme that provides female students with the skills they need to succeed in life, and the Mobile Medical Clinics that visits girls’ schools to provide regular heath checks.
“I came to know about the Foundation and the work it was doing through friends some years ago and I wanted to help them,’’ says Manish, who is as much a star in Bollywood as the actors and actresses he dresses.
The industry’s most prolific stylist, he has designed the clothes for more than 50 Bollywood films, dressing some of the biggest names in cinema from Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to the designer’s favourite, Kareena Kapoor.
Manish, 47, has also dressed the likes of actresses Demi Moore and Reese Witherspoon as well as supermodels Kate Moss, Karolina Kurkova and Naomi Campbell.
But this time he decided to do his bit for some of those who need it the most. “I work in an industry where women are revered and respected,” he says. “I’ve had the privilege of dressing some of the most beautiful and powerful women in the world, but when I step out of the door and into the stark reality of India, I see the injustice and inequality all around me.’’
To address this issue, Manish presented the new collection in London specifically for a British-Asian market, a percentage of the proceeds of which go to charity.
Teaching women to value themselves
The Angeli Foundation, set up by Delhi-based social activist Angeli Kapoor Puri eight years ago, aims to run a fleet of fully equipped mobile medical clinics and schools for poor children.
Medical Clinics on Wheels will visit girls’ schools on a regular basis and conduct general health check-ups, provide vitamins and vaccinations. The girls’ mothers will be invited for regular check-ups too. Workshops to educate the girls and their mothers on how to prevent diseases that result from poor nutrition and lack of sanitation will also be conducted.
“The Angeli Foundation is providing an invaluable service to these girls and women,’’ says Manish. “The charity helps them raise their self-esteem, confidence and ultimately value themselves enough to get a voice.’’
This is not the first time Manish has used his skills to support a charity. A few years ago, he worked with Bollywood star Shabana Azmi’s charity, Mijwan Welfare Society, which aims to empower less privileged girls in rural India. Using fabric and embroidery work made by village girls, he created a fashion range – The Mijwan Sonnets In Fabric – that was a huge success.
Part of the proceeds of the collection went towards setting up schools, training centres and providing sewing machines.
“With Mijwan, I empowered the girls who are practising embroidery by sourcing work from them through the year and using that work in most of my garments,” he says.
“Without women, I wouldn’t be where I am today and so I want to give back whatever I can to an organisation like Angeli that celebrates womanhood. The Angeli Foundation works to save the girl child – the foundation encourages and supports women, and to me there is no better cause to support than empowering the women of this country.
“My London collection showcases a lot of colours – corals, pinks... It also showcases chikankari – a kind of embroidery – work by girls from Mijwan and a lot of Kashmiri influences through the work we source from Kashmir. All these elements are carefully put together to form stunning flowy, feminine silhouettes.”
Ratika Puri Kapur, chair of the UK chapter of The Angeli Foundation, explained why Manish’s support is so significant to the campaign. “The support of India’s most successful stylist and designer will help increase awareness of our work among the communities here and help us raise funds for critical projects in India.”
The event was also attended by a host of celebrity guests from the worlds of film, fashion and entertainment. But no sooner was the event over than Manish was on the next flight to Mumbai for more costume fittings for a new film starring Imran Khan.
Inspired by Bollywood
Fashion has been a passion for Manish for more than 23 years. “As a child I was extremely fascinated with Indian movies, from the clothes to the music to the colours. I always wanted to work in the fashion industry,” he says.
“In fact, when I began costume designing in 1990 there were barely any institutes that had any courses on this subject. So whatever I learnt at the time was only through my keen observation and passion for the profession. This source of inspiration eventually led me to experiment with those very clothes and colours and as a result, I started my career as a costume designer for the movie industry.”
Responsible for creating the iconic images that made Shahrukh’s Raj and Kajol’s Simran from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jeyenge instantly recognisable, Manish describes the process for designing for films.
“If it’s a movie then I try to understand what the scene is –whether it’s a casual scene, a serious one or if it’s a song – then whether it’s a romantic number in the rain or an emotional outpour. Also all the designing and styling is done keeping in mind the personality involved.
“When I style for a film I insist on hearing the story and understanding what the look and feel of the movie is. If the story is based in a particular region or country, I go there and pick up clothes and accessories that are local.”
Apart from Bollywood, Manish has also worked with several international pop stars, such as Kylie Minogue. He designed her dresses for her Bollywood debut in 2009 performing the song Chiggy Wiggy in the film Blue.
“It was a fun song with Kylie where we dressed her in a sparkly dress. She was easy to work with and it was a great song that turned out well.”
The designer has a list of favourite stylish people. “I love the way Madonna reinvents herself continuously. Within the Bollywood industry I think there are quite a few stars – Kareena, Priyanka Chopra, Abhishek Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan are all stylish in their own way.
“I have worked with Shahrukh for most of his films. He has a charisma and charm of his own and he carries off clothes with extreme ease.”
In a career that has seen many highlights Manish describes dressing Michael Jackson as one of his most memorable moments. “One of my best moments was when I won the Filmfare – Best costume stylist in 1995 and also when I styled Michael Jackson twice.
“For me designing is my life. It’s fun and it’s my passion, which is why I can put in the amount of effort I do.
“But at times, yes it does get stressful because not everyone shares the same kind of passion and not everyone is on the same page. But I love it all the same. Every bit of it. I have been on one movie after another continuously and I still believe my best is yet to come.”
Although busy in films, Manish constantly looks at ways to pay back to the community.
“As celebrities, it is our role and responsibility to lead by example and if I can make some small change by lending my support to this invaluable cause, then I have achieved something,” he says.
With inputs from Anand Raj OK, Friday Features Editor