It took Rahul Mishra six years to sell his first wedding dress lehenga, a three-piece skirt, blouse and sash from the Indian subcontinent. That was in 2017. Now, there’s almost five months of waiting to buy one.
In April, the 43-year-old fashion designer based in Delhi, India modeled addresses to bandage Zendaya wears a bright blue sari at the opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center in Mumbai. (He’s previously dressed Gigi Hadid, Viola Davis, and Priyanka Chopra.) In 2020, he became the first Indian designer to show at Paris Haute Couture Week, and he’s returned every year since. Returns July 3.
There is also a thriving retail side to his work, Mishra said, with much of it coming from weddings: designs for brides as well as kurtas, suits and saris for family members. He said weddings are “red carpet” events for people who aren’t celebrities — especially in Indian culture, where weddings often span several days, requiring many outfits for a long list of guests.
Mr. Mishra’s first venture was creating a bridal fashion line in 2012. However, his unconventional focus on ivories, blues, pinks, and even blacks for brides—over the traditional red—was ultimately unsuccessful. Soon after, the streak stopped.
However, he may have been ahead of his time. Nowadays, many South Asian brides no longer choose red on their wedding days, said Ayesha Raoji, founder of an Indian bridal shop called Kinah.
Mr. Mishra’s recent foray into bridal wear, which started in 2017, has proven to be more successful. While the designer is still hesitant about the color red (cliché he said), he seeks inspiration instead from ancient Indian designs that used calico, an unbleached fabric made from cotton fibers.
“Everything was undyed and unbleached, so it will always have an off-white, faded feel,” said Mr. Mishra. He said that brides who desire Rahul Mishra Lingas enjoy the authenticity of the intricate embroidery and strong craftsmanship designs.
He said sales of bridal wear, which have increased dramatically since the Covid-19 pandemic, are helping to maintain employment for the 1,200 bachelorettes he works with from communities across rural India. “What you do in fashion design is very imaginative and does not sell,” said Mr. Mishra. “It won’t end up creating a lot of jobs, but weddings are very powerful.”
Mr. Mishra grew up in humble circumstances in Malhousie, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India, where there was hardly any electricity. While he always knew he wanted to be an artist, he stumbled upon design by accident. He applied to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad to become a cinematographer, but his application was rejected. So he enrolled in the school’s clothing design program instead. (His father, who wanted him to be an engineer, did not speak to him for a year.)
As it turns out, Mr. Mishra was very good at designing. A section coordinator from his school submitted Mr. Mishra’s drawings to GenNext, a talent scouting program for Lakme Fashion Week in 2006, and he was selected. After that, he won a series of other awards, including the International Woolmark Prize in 2014. “I was very lucky,” said Mr. Mishra.
However, his background is more technical than fashion oriented. For him, he said, design is a goal-oriented, problem-solving process. And one of his main goals all along is to employ people in rural India so that their families can earn a living.
“I was confused when I thought about fashion,” said Mr. Mishra. I thought, ‘I want to change the world; I want to design something for people who don’t do well. But I never thought fashion could be so powerful when it slows down the process of creating things.”
An ethically paced production process has proven to be crucial to the ‘conscious luxury’ ethos. “The slowness is so powerful that it creates more engagement for the people who can work on creating this beautiful outfit,” Mr. Mishra said.
He said that almost all of his pieces are entirely handmade—it takes anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 hours to make each piece.
The theme of his show at Paris Haute Couture Week is “We, the People,” and he focuses on embroidery in his pieces—there are even figurines of the artisan sewn into the garments.
During a video interview, Mr. Mishra reviewed some of the designs. On one of them is a statue of a tailor Mr. Mishra works closely with, Munir Ahmed: bending over with needle and thread in hand.
“We were laughing; we’re making Munir Bhai, the tailor, and he sounds like a DJ, cool guy,” he recalls, adding that his atelier in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, was particularly lively as he and his team worked on this set.
While Mr. Mishra still sees himself as a student of the fashion game, he said, his number one goal as creative director is to inspire the 250 people who work with him.
“Our studio is like a temple or a mosque – we all contribute to each other’s happiness,” said Mr. Mishra. “And we make good designs, so we get more orders and we hire more and more people.”
He took off his glasses and wiped his tears. He said, “Sorry, I was really touched by this.”