Masaba Gupta
Masaba Gupta Image Credit: Supplied

Designer Masaba Gupta was on a three-day beach getaway to Goa when India and the rest of the world shut down due to the massive coronavirus outbreak.

Suddenly, the fierce Indo-Caribbean saw the world as she knew it disappear. Trotting down the runways in vertiginous heels in Mumbai was replaced by her traipsing to the local bakery every morning to buy fresh buns. Six months later, she emerged a completely different person in size and in perspective.

“I was meant to spend three days, but I ended up staying there for six months. I was feeling out of it mentally because I was on a call with investors or employees or some mall to negotiate rental. It was nuts. And I realised that if I was going to be in this mental state of mind, I better take care of my physical body. Something needs to be strong to keep me going. So I just shifted my entire focus to workouts,” said Gupta in an interview with Gulf News. She is now more than 20kg lighter and her dress size has shrunk dramatically, but her world view has expanded.

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Indian designer Masaba Gupta at the launch of her Resort Wear collection in Dubai Image Credit: Virendra Saklanni/GulfNews

“I would wake up and do an hour of yoga. Before that I was someone who worked out only if I had time and I used to eat when I was stressed. I just didn’t let myself go down that route. It began as an escape to do yoga, but it gave me the strength to endure those six months of lock down … Every morning we used to go with our thaili [cloth bag] and our masks to buy fresh baked buns. And that was the highlight of our day. Sometimes, we forget as human beings how simple and charming life can be,” said Gupta.

But it wasn’t always a charmed existence for the daughter of actress Neena Gupta and cricketer Viv Richards. She had to make the harsh call of shutting down four store, but claims it was a wise decision.

Now she’s back in business. Earlier this month, Gupta was in Dubai to launch the Resort Wear ‘22 Sanctuary collection from her eponymous label. The collection with bright colours and florals reflects her current mood.

Excerpts from our interview with Gupta as we talked about fashion, films, the second season of her web series ‘Masaba Masaba’ and her fabulous life ...

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A still from Season 1 of 'Masaba Masaba' Image Credit: Netflix

How has the fashion industry evolved and adapted to the changing times since the pandemic?

It’s been a bitter process, but a great learning process too. The first few months of 2020 were very tough. It pushed all of us, especially in the fashion industry, to take a good hard look at our businesses. Before that you were constantly on this treadmill, working, launching things, doing press, and you just lose touch about what was happening at the ground level and whether my employees were happy. We lose touch of what was the on-ground reaction of people who were buying our clothes. This pandemic pushed us to open up the books and understand what we need to let go off.

We shut four stores in the pandemic and I don’t think we have made a better decision because these stores were bleeding us unnecessarily. Earlier, we kept them going hoping we will figure it out. But the pandemic forced us to make that decision. As a creative person, I am very emotionally-charged and now I have become very unemotional about my work. I think it happened to a lot of people in the industry — something as simple as getting a strategic partner with 51 per cent, or losing a little bit of control things was important to scale up. But nobody was willing to do them, but that mentality has changed. I could not have had a better learning experience.

So you have become more transactional then? But is it ideal for a creative person to view their designs on those lines?

Creative people tend to feed off their creative egos. You may think your shirt is great, but people just don’t like it and that’s where you draw the line. Am I even looking at that data and putting it to good use? A lot of creative people including me will stay away from answering those difficult questions … Sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and be objective. It’s like your baby and I have been running it for 12 years … We had a lot of cleaning up to do and we did that in the last two years.

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Masaba Gupta Image Credit: Virendra Saklanni/Gulf News

This pandemic brought this trend of athleisure and casual clothes …

I have always believed that comfort is luxury. I know that people have many definitions of luxury, but mine is about being comfortable. Fashion does not have to be painful. And it’s a great trend. The focus has suddenly shifted to our health and about taking care of ourselves. Questions like am I taking care of my fitness or nutrition or am I going to the gym or doing yoga are crucial now. Athleisure is not just for the gym now, but about going out to a lounge after work. It’s become all about comfort.

Did the way you design change after the pandemic?

A little bit. Everything that I do now, I do it with the thought that it should give people a little bit of hope. I have gone back a little bit to my roots in terms of colours … So every design that you see since the pandemic has been bright and hopeful. It’s not complicated and it’s easy to wear … And you know what has really changed. Earlier, when I sat down at my desk I would be distracted by 100 things like somebody wants to shoot something for a brand or do a social media live or runway shows. And I thought it is my job to be available to everyone and everything else is secondary. But that thought process has changed.

Today, you are wearing a bright floral shirt … I have never associated you with florals. Are you turning a new leaf?

I was always scared of florals and I’ll tell you why. Many years back, we had done a full-on 70s floral tribute collection and it was a disaster. And if something doesn’t do well commercially then I tend to stay away from it for the rest of my life. But now I am braver and wanted to give it another twist to see if it works. Everything I want to do is like trial and error now because I am braver about my aesthetic. And what happened is that I was always associated to tribal and bold print motif aesthetic. But now I want people to also be able to see my feminine side because I love florals. And I never did them because I thought people didn’t like them … But now I want them to give it a shot because florals can be up everyone’s alley and it’s very bohemian … And remember, you are always going to carry anything off if you don’t give a [expletive]. And that’s how it should be.

Masaba Gupta with her mother Neena Gutpa
Masaba Gupta with her mother Neena Gutpa Image Credit: Instagram/MasabaGupta

Was that your philosophy when you plunged into acting too? You were good in ‘Masaba Masaba’ and I can’t wait for its second season …

I was telling someone that it was only because of OTT [over-the-top/streaming] that I could try to make a mark and see. Half of the time in India, you are not given a role because you are a good actor. You are given a role because some big studio is willing to pay the money for you and it’s a cherry on top if you happen to be a good actor with a typical conventional Indian-looking face. Perhaps, that’s why the same roles go to the same people. And when I told everyone that I was going to try acting they told me not to be ridiculous.

Masaba Gupta
Masaba Gupta Image Credit: Gulf News

My mother asked me if I was mad and warned me that I will be cast as this dark chick who’s distracting the husband in a beautiful marriage with a conventional looking woman or that I will be typecast. I didn’t want to be typecast. And I knew that if I went into acting, I would do it my way and when ‘Masaba Masaba’ came around, I knew this was it. I didn’t have a script in front of me, but my gut told me to do it. Every single person, except my mom, said: ‘don’t do it and that it was going to be my biggest mistake of my life’. But my gut said otherwise and I was thinking of all the girls out there who want to act, but don’t look an actress. I wanted to change the definition of what an actress looks like in India. There’s always that prototype … But OTT has made it more democratised … I don’t want to be just standing in a frame because I am exotic looking.

Masaba Gupta on ...
Her current fashion mood: “I don’t want quantity … I just want one or two classic pieces now.”

Her current collection: “It’s inspired a lot by the works of Indian artist Manjit Bawa. Once you see my collection, you will see the similarities. He was one of the first few artists back then to break this idea of color blocking into Indian minds.”

Fashion: “Fashion doesn’t have to be always uncomfortable lehengas or cholis. You can be fashionable in an oversized shirt, a kaftan, or a wraparound skirt. When Indians want Resort Wear, they go for Zimmermann, Zara, or H&M … but why not Indian resort wear? And that’s where I come in.”

Acting: “I don’t have anything to prove. I am not trying to act because I want to land an Rs4 billion project. I am acting because I enjoy it. Fashion design is my bread and butter. But acting helps me relax and unwind. Acting is my side gig and my therapy. I can be a better designer if I act on the side.”