Walk into designer Gaurav Gupta’s 5,500sqft flagship store in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, which opened earlier this year, and you feel like you have walked into a space capsule. The pristine white interiors are sculpted into curved surfaces and forms. The muted colour palette―mostly white and grey―is meant to highlight the garments, hung on mannequins on the second floor. A winding staircase leads there, and when you walk up, there is a spot where the slanting light falls in a specific angle. Standing there, you feel like you have just been given access to a sunlit corner of Gupta’s mind―where whimsy and playfulness jostle with structure and order.
“I want everyone who comes to Mumbai to make the store a must-visit destination,” says Gupta.
His clothes are just as otherworldly as the space in which they are displayed. Satins and crepes enhanced with metal coil embroideries. Lehengas and gowns with exaggerated ruffles and structured silhouettes. Dresses decorated with glass beads and pearls. Tuxedos with bold lines and metallic accents. They are perhaps best described as “frozen art”, and this is the year in which they really came into their own.
It all began with the Paris Haute Couture Week in January, where Gupta became one of only three Indian designers (the others being Rahul Mishra and Vaishali Shadangule) to be selected to showcase their collections. Gupta’s was named ‘Shunya’―Sanskrit for ‘zero’―a number that symbolises both stillness and infinity. The 35 looks which were showcased were intensely sculptural, with elements drawn from fantasy and mythology―metallic veils that partially covered the face, entangled wires as embroideries, gravity-defying arches.... The universe and its vastness serve as inspiration for the 44-year-old designer―there were dresses inspired by garbage, snakes, the ancient Egyptian civilisation…. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in a collection that was described as “subliminal in thought and original in form”.
Hours after the Paris show on January 26, American rapper Cardi B’s stylist, Kollin Carter, got in touch with Gupta. He wanted him to dress her for the Grammys, which was just a few days away on February 6. It was a race against time, but Gupta managed it. And it was worth it, for the electric blue gown that she wore was almost career-defining for the designer. With its over-the-top ruffles and fluid lines, it was like she was dressed in ocean waves. The dress was a huge hit; Harper’s Bazaar called it “actual art” and Vogue called it “the best gag-worthy outfit” at the Grammys. Almost two decades after starting his label, the designer had arrived.
“I have been waiting for this moment,” he says. “With the talent, workmanship and skill that my team has, I knew this would happen sooner or later.”
Not that he is a newcomer to fame. The roster of celebrities he has dressed includes Ms Marvel star Iman Vellani, singers Kylie Minogue, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion, actors Sharon Stone, Jenna Ortega and Jeremy Pope…. At the recently-concluded Cannes Film Festival, too, Gupta had his faithful muses―from American actor Aja Naomi King to Indian actor Vijay Varma and Canadian supermodel Coca Rocha. One red carpet triumph was the black bandhgala sherwani with a golden lion embroidery that he designed for RRR star Jr NTR at the Oscars this year, something that embodied “a true global Indian identity,” according to the designer.
Out of all the celebrities he has designed for, his favourite, he says, is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who wore his gown at Cannes last year―a pink sculpted creation that was inspired by Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, and took 100 craftspeople 20 days to make. “One of my greatest highs was when Aishwarya’s dress was included in The New York Times’s 15 iconic looks from Cannes over the years. She appeared alongside icons like Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna,” he says. “I found her a delight to work with. It was so cool hanging with her and the L’Oreal team at Cannes last year, though it was a real challenge transporting her dress there.”
It has all been a dream come true, and perhaps it is fitting that it all began with a recurring childhood dream―that he was a bird. He thinks it has spurred his creativity in some mystic way. He would dream of flying over skyscrapers and school playgrounds, and when he woke up, he would feel tired, as though from a long night of flying. “I was once reading out a blog I wrote about it to my father and he was like: ‘Don’t tell me. You too?’ Apparently, my dad also had these recurring dreams of being a bird,” he says. “We discovered that my dad, my brothers and I―we were all birds. I have not gone deep into why this happens. I like to keep it abstract and magical.” Gupta says the experience brought a sense of freedom, unfettering his imagination.
In many ways, it is like he exists on two planes―the real and the surreal. This penchant for the abstract and the fantastical made him extremely creative as a child―he loved to draw, sculpt, dance…. The only thing he did not like was academics. “I was a dumb child; I flunked my sixth standard,” he says with a laugh so sudden that it transforms his otherwise serious demeanour. “I was so lost that I used to only look at the clouds and flowers and stars. I did struggle in school because I was bullied for being gay. But it helped that I always had the love and protection of my family and friends.” He did eventually come into his own, topping business studies in school. But joining his father’s steel business afterwards was unappealing. With his love for art and design, NIFT seemed like the natural choice, followed by Central Saint Martins in London. He then went on to work with designers like Hussein Chalayan and Stella McCartney before starting his label in 2005.
Even in his personal life, Gupta is unconventional. It is not every day you find a gay man living with a straight woman. “Navkirat [Sodhi, poet and author] is my soulmate and life partner,” he says. “We don’t understand concepts of marriage or gender, we just have a feeling of pure love, so we decided to be life partners. It is like we are twin flames.” Nowadays, he has his hands full, what with relaunching his ready-to-wear line at the American luxury retailer Neiman Marcus and getting ready for the next Paris Haute Couture Week in July. Still, he makes it a point to have breakfast with Navkirat every morning. In the evening, they unwind by having people over or watching something good on OTT. Despite the set routine, Gupta looks at life with a sense of wonder. His couture is the language he uses to express it.