What is the best thing a man can wear? According to fashion designer Paresh Lamba, it is a classic suit. He says that’s what women want, too. “I ask women what they think… any woman would say that a man looks best in a suit. A jacket takes a man from ordinary to extraordinary. You could be in a crowd wearing a shirt… you wear a nice suit and suddenly you stand out. I am always telling men, ‘You should have jackets’. Overplay it, don’t underplay it.”

And when Lamba speaks, men listen. One of India’s leading men’s designers, he is sought after by top-notch corporates, actors and even politicians to add a dash of style to their wardrobe. If you thought former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa looked well-attired during the 2010 Global Investors Meet in Bangalore, the credit goes to Lamba.

We meet at his flagship store located on Bangalore’s upmarket MG Road. There is a buzz of energy around him, surely from a passion for what he does. “I enjoy creating something new every day that makes somebody look good. That is my adrenaline,” he says.

He developed interest in fashion at an early age — “I was enamoured by clothes as a kid” — but didn’t plan a career in designing clothes. He found his father’s business, production and distribution of films, “boring” and instead set out to become a shoe designer. “I was going to set up a factory near Delhi. I got my land and loans approved for a joint venture with an Italian company.”

But after a visit to his cousin’s shoe store in Bangalore, he changed his mind in favour of a clothes business. He decided to focus on menswear: “I started going out, meeting people… I saw exquisitely dressed women, but men who needed help.”

That was in the early 1990s — when fashion, let alone couture and bespoke, wasn’t exactly a buzz word on the street. Lamba’s decision was met with scepticism. “My father said, ‘What the hell are you getting into?’” he recalls with a grin. The place he chose to drop anchor at raised eyebrows too. “At that time, north India was more fashionable. When I told people I was moving to Bangalore, they said: ‘People don’t even wear shoes in south India! What are you going to teach them about clothes?’”.

It was a risky move, but his instinct rightly led him to believe there was immense potential waiting to be tapped. A commerce graduate, he learnt the art of clothes-making on the shopfloor with his kaarigar (craftsmen). Initially he “ruined a lot of people’s clothes”, but soon managed to turn things around and his business grew.

Today, of course, he finds fashion is big business in India thanks to globalisation and economic growth. “Indians are exposed to a lot more. Affluence is big… young kids starting their careers are earning salaries their parents probably retired at. And fashion is pitched into it, because it’s all about the ‘looking good mantra’.”

So it is no longer about picking a pair of trousers and a shirt off the rack — the focus is firmly on fit and style. “People want to experiment with clothes. They want something different — the slimmer silhouette, contemporary style… that’s why they go to a designer instead of a tailor.” The trendsetters are a small group — about “one per cent”, he reckons — but their influence is being felt. “They don’t start off in the morning, and end up partying in the same clothes at night. People carry changes now, or accessorise with the same outfit.”

Does he believe the others will follow in making better sartorial choices? “As people get exposed to more, as their aspirations increase, they will…”

Lamba’s forté is “structured clothing”, such as suits, jackets, and formal clothing. His Paresh Lamba Signatures line exudes a manly vibe. Classic colours like navy blue, back, grey and brown feature prominently in the formal wear, for which the fabric is imported from Italy and Japan. Ethnic fabric and brocade from traditional manufacturing centres such as Benaras and Lucknow are used to create rich wedding outfits, while “bling, brocade, embroidery, a lot of stuff” are used to enliven club-wear.

Of his work, he says about 90 per cent is bespoke. Most of his customers prefer “a one-on-one, take advice, especially for weddings. Even the corporates like interacting and getting things done.” Formal clothing aside, he works on trousseaus for grooms. “Weddings are big in this country. Whether we have recession or not, single or double-digit inflation, people go crazy!”

Little wonder that PLS is booked three months in advance during wedding season. Lamba works only out of his studio on MG Road. He has no other store, but his designs are sold by Personna in Hyderabad.

He says more than the climb to the top, it is harder staying there; now, he has to “deliver 120 per cent” And there is no room for error. “My kaarigar will tell me, ‘You are trying to point out this mistake? This is hardly anything!’ I say, ‘It might be hardly anything for somebody else, but we have a brand. People come here expecting the best’.”

A bigger challenge is finding the right talent. “I may have a vision, but that vision has to be created by hand. Workers who used to do handwork for generations are becoming rare; their kids are not getting into this. We have state-of-the-art machines, but ultimately it is all handwork. This is not a government export business with assembly line production. This is couture.”

And…why not design for women too?

He laughs: “I can’t handle women! The only woman I can handle – I am married to her!”

Pictures by G.R.N. Somashekar

(This article was published on July 19, 2012)
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