The mere mention of his name leads to many evocative memories in the mind. That of an unbelievably handsome man who could well be a cameo in a Hollywood starrer. That of a great designer who everyone recognises as the founder of the modern Indian couture movement. That of a creative soul who was gone too soon, leaving his imprint on every fashion professional’s mind forever. So much so that 26 years later even a 20-year-old student of design will never ask: “Rohit Khosla! Who’s he?”
But does anyone born post 1990s really know his genius? His real prowess over the process called fashion: Or the knack of dressing the human form with textiles? His favourite quotable quotes being: “I love fabric. I love the human form in totality and I love mixing them together.” Rohit was born much ahead of his time and had the mind, heart and persona to become “milestone number one” in the Indian fashion world. Pioneer undisputed.
To me he was all that and much more. In fact, let me admit it, he was my initiation into fashion. Why just mine? That of the entire fashion diaspora of the late 1980s. While boutiques existed and Ritu Kumar had succeeded in creating the first identifiable design signature in Indian ensembles (no Punjab wedding of repute was acknowledged if the bride did not wear a Ritu Kumar for her “anand karaj”), couture as we understand it today was his creation.
A rakishly handsome lad born to the lovely couple, Usha and Kamal Khosla, Rohit went to Doon school, like many of his peers. A brilliant student, he had an unflinching lust for design. Right from age 15 he told his family what to wear, how to do up the house and what textiles to surround themselves with. And everything he said was so goddamn original. I recall walking into his home and discovering the tall chairs he had commissioned Ashok Singh to create. From the royal family of Palhaita, married to Uma Kilachand and father of artist Vikramaditya Singh, Ashok was, like Rohit, reinventing design in interiors and predictably Rohit was one of the first to patronise him. Ashok, sadly, also died young, leaving not even a legacy of design for young design students to fall back to. And no, please don’t rush to Google Maharaj. I found nothing on him there as well.
For Rohit it was an up, up, very uphill task to reach London for a course in fashion. And that included running away from home at 16, facing rejection from NID (they thought a boy his pedigree could never rough it out with kaarigars!) and giving academia a slip, despite being a brilliant student. But most importantly there was the Himalayan obstacle of cajoling his parents. A task in which he was helped totally by his soul mate, little sister and heart’s tug: Rohini Khosla. Till the last breath and thereafter, this love is what fables are made of. Shy, reticent Rohini, by big bro’s side… swash buckling bro always walking her pace. Pausing, admiring, encouraging and loving every baby steps she took in design. It was his inculcation that later drove her to find peace in discovering India kitsch and celebrate being an Indian with a creative gusto.
Rohit’s perseverance had his dad cave in. He realised that there was little else a boy who was so preoccupied with design would ever do. A foundation course in art was followed by a stint in Kensington Polytechnic to study fashion. In college his contemporaries were Nick Coleman, John Richmond and Helen Storey. He is quoted in his biography Vanguard penned by Rohini Khosla, “Studying in England was pure bliss — ideas just flowing, fabrics everywhere and fashion obsessive people all around me.” The key take home by his faculty was that his personal heritage was where he should seek all the answers. And he found them. A belief that lasted him his short lifetime.
He got home. To find that India was either busy manufacturing basement bargain design by the thousands to export to mass labels overseas. Or there were those aristocratic ladies with their indulgent “darzis”. He cleared the grounds to find a space for couture. Frugal investments got him to dabble with a collection.
But India was not yet ready. So, off he went scurrying back to New York to apprentice with Albert Nipon. Where he met Doon school pal Tarun Tahiliani. Together they bemused the lack of design and hence emerged the resolve to return and redesign the scene itself. These were the initial phases when many a thinking addas were held in New York with think tanks like Tarun, Rohit, Harmeet Bajaj, etc, in attendance. When Tarun was at FIT and NIFT was just about awakening out of a room inside the compound of Indira Gandhi Sports Complex.
Back in India in 1987, Rohit founded the label Rohit Khosla. It was uphill once again for him. Teaching Indian masterjis, trained to cut tent like abha kurtas, to think fit, form and silhouette. Sourcing textiles that were sans flaws. Reinventing traditional handcraft techniques and then styling his shoots to ensure they reflected his edginess.Rohit can also safely be called the founder of styling. He trained his third eye keenly on every frame he conceived, working with Shantanu Sheoroy, Ritu Nanda, Asha Baxi and Prabhudda to create shoots that seemed alien to even the most cultivated eye then.
Whoosh went the status quo and paradigms turned turtle. Out emerged his photo shoots with muse number one Mehr Jesia, followed by other enthralling faces of his time Shyamolie Verma, Madhu Sapre, Nayanika Chatterjee, Arpana Sharma to stare at you in frills and flounces, in black white and colour, like apsaras of the modern era. Mehr remained his face forever. His frames just lit up when she was facing the camera.
He also took on styling assignments for polyester giants like Garden Varelli and Reliance. In his hands Garden Varelli felt like brocade silk woven in Banaras. And a cotton slip dress, worthy a red carpet. What he was doing was cultivating an atmosphere for design. Hence his articles in ET Esquire were like gospels for us lesser mortals, learning about fashion when we had to pose as poor India’s fashion critics (sigh!). But the man’s magnanimity showed in how he would often call scribes like me to “discuss” the content of his next article! (Yes, humility did prevail then, let me inform you vain generation who carry your own Vanity Fair on your back: Your ‘Facebook’.)
In the next few years design changed forever. He belted out one dazzling collection after another. Creating exquisite embroidery out of the “everyday” rassi (rope) and wood. In his hands plisse turned Indian and he founded the first ever collection from crinkled cotton, left to frame your body like the cadence of a well-written poetry. He launched black for colourful India through his seductive Le Nuit De Sirenes Collection. Fitted bustier, short black skirts, cropped jackets, a fringed bra top… there was no stopping this mind. Critics were left flapping their jaw.
Next the desert wind blew Rohit’s mind and he combined Moorish design with mirror work from Kutch in the collection Enfant Terrible. Gujarat remained his source even in the next Dust and Coal collection where he kept his forms Indian and festive. The Kelim called and colours emerged in full gusto. A design bastion that continued to his last collection of hand painted ensembles. While he added brush and paint to his vision, Rohit created the rest of the magic through waif like forms and river like flows through this very fluid collection.
Even when health was no longer his friend, time was ticking by and a horrible, fatal illness was rudely and selfishly snuffing his spirit, he designed till D day… talked of his next collection and fooled his mind into immortality.
But the end arrived and if I were to say it in a line: Rohit came, he saw and he changed it all forever. Paving the way for modern Indian couture as you and I take for granted, rave and rant about and compare their fashion to the eons-old movement in Europe.
What we forget was that all this was founded selflessly by someone who never even got to taste the fruit off the tree he sowed. Thank you, Rohit Khosla! I know there will never be another like you.