21st-Century Man: Suket Dhir, Men’s Wear Designer, From Delhi to the World

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21st-Century Man: Suket Dhir, Men’s Wear Designer, From Delhi to the World

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NEW DELHI — 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 this capital city — a 38-year-old men’s wear designer Vogue.com 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 Banga, India, 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 recognized last January with one of the most prestigious honors in fashion, the International Woolmark Prize, an award that has also gone to Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

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

Perhaps most appealing of Mr. Dhir’s contradictions is how his restrained tailoring honors 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, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and New York. (Saks Fifth Avenue will feature elements from Mr. Dhir’s label, called Sukhetdhir, starting in December.)

At the time of my visit, the deadline for the first shipments was just over a week away. Tailors in a back room 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 sannyasi or a stoner, Mr. Dhir suggested a coffee run.

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-center dialers manage to entrap them (“I sold mobile phones for AT&T”), to the great hope for Indian design.

It was at the call center, Mr. 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 center was that you worked all night and slept all day, so you never had a chance to spend any money,” Mr. 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, Mr. Dhir came to the realization 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 Mr. 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?’” Mr. Dhir said. “To be honest, I never had.”

Mr. Dhir applied to the elite National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, was accepted and quickly gravitated toward men’s wear.

“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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 men’s wear director at Esquire; Masafumi Suzuki, the editor of GQ Japan; and Raffaello Napoleone, director of the Pitti Uomo men’s wear fair in Florence — the clincher was the way Mr. 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,” Mr. Napoleone wrote by email, referring to tie-and-dyed ikat yarn, hand-block printing, arduous spinning and weaving methods that give a silklike texture to fibrous wool.

“There were two camps,” said Eric Jennings, a vice president and men’s wear 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 Mr. Dhir’s new collection was an indigo bomber jacket covered with pin-tucked pleats so minutely hand-stitched that they resemble trompe l’oeil.

It is possible, too, that what the judges detected in Mr. Dhir was something more significant than a single breakout talent. In a sense, his surprise win signaled a generational shift in Indian design. He would not be the first, or even the most gifted, of Indian designers in recent decades to skirt the clichés afflicting Indian fashion.

Abraham & Thakore, Wendell Rodricks and Rajesh Pratap Singh all favor a restrained form of Indian modernism over the more typical turbans and jodhpurs, overembellished tunics or Bollywood bling that leave so much design here, as Mr. Dhir said, looking like costume.

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“To say definitively there’s a new wave of designers is a bit of a stretch,” said Meher Varma, a graduate student in the anthropology department at U.C.L.A. who has conducted a study of Indian fashion in the years since the country’s trade policies were first liberalized in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“But there is a general emergence,” Ms. Varma added, of designers like Mr. Dhir who, raised on television, the internet, YouTube and social media, view fashion through a global lens.

As often happens, the applied arts followed the lead of the fine arts, with the success of Indian contemporary art stars like Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Dayanita Singh providing an example of how to avoid the curse of provincialism, of Indian-ness as a unitary identity.

“As an emerging market, India was starting to bubble only since 2002 or 2003,” said Rikki Kher, a British-born, Delhi-based men’s wear designer. “First it was the art world and then designers like Manish Arora getting a name outside the country.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Dhir said.

“Of course, there is a certain Indian-ness about me, the humanism, and an ability to approach the business in a holistic manner,” he added, although holism may be a euphemistic way of describing the managed chaos entailed in creating a line of men’s wear whose elements of traditional crafts are incorporated so subtly that a wearer registers them only slowly. A hand-blocked umbrella print lines a jacket. A band of ikat hides inside a collar. Different colored thread is used to affix each button to a shirt.

“When I’m designing, I’m thinking about the final look of the product, of course, but also about the practical execution,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”

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