May ’14 – The Unconventional Designer

Reclusive and intense, yet creative with reinventing the saree that he says is the most versatile garment of all time, Anand Kabra is a unique blend of Indian and western sensibilities. If one nurtured his ideas, the other gave it structure and his collections are nothing short of eclectic.

Minal Khona


He is relatively low profile even though he admits to partying hard when the mood takes him. Always dressed in black and white, Anand Kabra is one of Hyderabad’s more subtle designers. I say subtle because he has stayed true to his passion of designing without catering to publicity gimmicks or pointless fashion shows. Coming as he does from a family of professionals, with a doctor father and a postgraduate mother who chose to be a homemaker, the focus when he was growing up was on education. He says he grew up during the transition phase of the last century when designing was not as much a mainstream career choice it is today. “When I was in school and college I would design sets and costumes for school plays. I would also design my own clothes but it was like a hobby.” So, when 12thgrade came along, Anand toyed with the idea of medicine, enrolled in medical college and consoled himself that designing could remain a hobby. “But I didn’t like medicine. I am too sensitive a person and the first 18 months at college were really bad. It is not a positive environment and I was not happy and I knew I didn’t have it in me to be a doctor. I came back, gave the entrance exam for NIFT, went back to medical college then came back for good. I knew for sure that as a life choice, medicine was not an option for me.”

IMG_6440Anand spent the next 18 months trying to convince his family that he wanted to be a designer. “They were upset, and I had to face the regular questions – what if you leave designing too? The drama, waterworks, arguments… everything followed till they were finally convinced I wanted to be a designer. Then my parents said that if that is what I wanted, they would send me to the best place they could afford.”

That happened to be the London School of Fashion and the experience was a life-changing one. Anand recalls, “Studying overseas makes you grow up and take responsibility. Plus, the course was not a rigid and regimental one like we have here. There was no right or wrong in what we did, except of course bad design. Those four years in London helped me come into my own.”
This was in the late 90s and Anand knew he had found his calling. He says, “I had come home from London after finishing my course to recharge before going back to do my Master’s at Central St Martin’s College. I did not plan to come back for good at all. The plan was that I would stay on and work from there.”
For Anand, being born and brought up in Hyderabad, coming back to become a designer here was not a deterrent. “Hyderabad was home, it had everything I needed to work and somehow everything fell into place and I never went back for my Master’s degree. I am now a big believer that if something has to happen, it will even if you don’t plan.” So here was Anand at a loose end when well known art patron and writer Anju Poddar decided to have him create something for her. “That was truly the start of my label and I have Anju aunty to thank for it. She took the chance and asked me to design for her.”
It was purely word-of-mouth that helped Anand get noticed. “Shalini Bhoopal, the daughter of GVK Reddy came up to me once andIMG_6389 asked me to design a saree for her as she had a big wedding to attend. The budget she quoted left me flabbergasted and I was wondering what I could do to justify that amount. Finally, I worked on a peach-coloured saree and one vintage piece of embroidery. At that time, peach was not a colour most designers were using. We worked around the vintage piece with an antique border and I made avery heavy blouse for it and accessorised it with jootis and a batua. The saree got a lot of eyeballs and it grew from there.”
People seeing his clients wearing his clothes started taking notice and it was not long before the owner of Aza saw his clothes and his collections – both prêt and bridal — are now retailed through Aza in Delhi and Mumbai; Ensemble, also in Delhi and Mumbai and Evoluzione and Collage in Chennai and Anahita in Hyderabad. In 2006, Anand decided he wanted to take his label to the next level so started participating at Fashion Weeks. “Before that I was fine tuning what I had learnt and learning never stops, so every collection teaches me something.”
What then would Anand define as the DNA of his label? “It would have to be a mix of several things,” he says. “I love Indian costumes, Indian history and the costumes that were a result of that lifestyle. The saree fascinates me no end and I salute the genius who created it. The garment is a one-size-fits-all and flatters all and it defies age, race, shape and colour. For me then, contemporary Indian wear would be by signature and that is because of the way I view garments. Where you see a lehenga choli, I see a skirt and a top. Where you see a salwar kameez I see a tunic and a trouser. That along with my Hyderabadi sensibilities of colour combinations and embroideries are my label’s DNA, I would say.”
So one finds combinations of red and black in a bridal outfit with a motif that is scaled and placed differently, a structured cream and gold saree that drapes like one without the fuss of having to wear it around oneself. There is a certain timelessness about his clothes where the wearer can change one component of the garment, add a dramatic accessory and change the entire look of the ensemble. They also have an element of surprise about them where you can tell it is an Anand Kabra design but you cannot really distinguish what it is that sets it apart.
IMG_6430The silhouettes, the colours he uses, the cuts and fabrics are echoes of his belief that the person should wear the clothes and not the other way around. Retailing from Rs 29500 upwards with no upper limit, Anand’s clothes remain essentially Indian with a very contemporary look and feel.
Who then would be designers he is inspired by I ask. Unlike some insecure folks in the business, he is lavish with his praise. He says, “I think the first and second generation of designers like Rohit Khosla, Rohit Bal, Suneet Varma, Tarun Tahiliani, Abu-Sandeep have paved the path and made it easier for us to design. They were the ones who initiated the concept of design and I can only imagine how hard it must have been for them to take it as a full-time profession. I think it is a fabulous legacy they have created for us.”
On the international front, he is inspired by “American designers for the sheer scale, volumes and business acumen which is so bang-on; the Japanese for their clean, traditional design philosophy which is still so relevant; the French for their chic sense of style; the Italians for their subtle sense of sensuality and the British designers for their quirky street style and how they are so not afraid to introduce new things.”
Having said that who would be the one person he would like to design for? “Cliched as it sounds, I would have to say Madonna. She stands for change, is in the prime of her life, owns her look, is unapologetic about the way she lives and there is a certain authenticity about the way she dresses – there is nothing gimmicky about her.” On the Indian front, he has worked with actresses like Shriya Saran, Charmee and Hansika. And he absolutely loves the way Deepika Padukone carries herself in a saree. Having dressed her for a promotional function recently, Anand reveals, “There is no vulgarity about her no matter what she wears. She could be wearing the tiniest of cholis, baring a huge midriff but she still looks gorgeous in a saree. She is not a slave to fashion and I would say she wears her clothes really well. There are others who dress well too but she doesn’t let the clothes wear her – whether it is Indian or western clothes.”
Another actress he raves about and who should be an inspiration to big women all over is Vidya Balan. Anand says, “I love herIMG_6424 attitude where she can’t be bothered if the pallu is not pinned properly or the saree is bunching up. She is beyond all the stereotypical notions of a person in the glamour business and what would look shabby on anyone else, she carries off perfectly. She is bigger than her clothes and her personality always conveys that.” While Tollywood has happened, Anand admits that doing a Bollywood film would be a big high for him as that “would take my clothes to the masses.” On the personal front, Anand remains an intense person who is “a man of extremes. If I party, I party like there is no tomorrow and there are times when I want to be all alone, quiet with my thoughts. There is no balance in what I do at times – I can listen to a song I like 500 times and then never listen to it again. I do the same with food where I can eat one thing all day then forget about it the next. Now I have stopped being apologetic and accepted that this is who I am.
Surprisingly, he admits that wearing colour disturbs him. “I don’t know why and I have experimented with wearing colour, but it leaves me disturbed. So I stick to black and whites and a bit of grey,” he admits with candour.
There is a touch of idealism in what he does and believes in too. With every collection, Anand tries to use handloom fabrics locally sourced from Andhra Pradesh to promote local weavers. He tweaks the khada dupatta and local styles to give them a contemporary touch and believes that his generation has a moral responsibility to the designers of the future to keep alive traditional weaves and designs. “Once they are gone, there is no retrieving them so we must do what we can to save our rich weaves,” he sums up. With his unconventional views and contemporary clothes, wearing black and white while being surrounded by colour; and an abiding love for the finer things in life make Anand Kabra an unusual designer for sure.