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| Updated on March 28, 2019

Growing wings: The label now has seven stores across India   -  ISHAAN SURI

Haute couture: The flagship label now has seven stores across cities such as Jodhpur, New Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Surat   -  ISHAAN SURI

Global outlook: Besides India, there are plans to expand into more markets

Aesthetically inclined: Raghavendra Rathore has ventured into the interior design and curated travel experiences

Unisex Bandhgalas for women, Rathore’s new invention   -  Arham Khan

Ace couturier Raghavendra Rathore on his eponymous label completing 25 years, expanding his brand and plans for the future

You may know him as one of the country’s renowned luxury menswear designers, or better, as the man who popularised the quintessentially Indian bandhgala, making it a go-to in men’s wardrobes for weddings or formal occasions. From setting up his first atelier in Jodhpur, to launching several successful fashion lines, to now expanding his label — there’s much for the designer to celebrate, 25 years on.

“Doing my first ever runway show, 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined being a brand bigger than just a store in Jodhpur,” says the 51-year-old Raghavendra Rathore, smiling, as he reflects on his journey since then. I’m settling into a chat with the dapper, unassuming designer at a luxury Mumbai hotel in the city’s commercial precinct. Impeccably dressed, you know his sartorial sense of style is what has earned him the reputation as one of the country’s celebrated couturiers.

“The beauty in how the brand has grown is really the product that we offer,” he goes on to add. We didn’t start with a business model in place but a product that we believed in. “Besides, there wasn’t much context to business and fashion in those days.”

Belonging to the royal family of Jodhpur, Rathore has a strong lineage when it comes to style. His great-grandfather, then Maharaja of Jodhpur, was known for his fashion ethos, lending his aesthetic to modernise the angarkha, leading to the achkan and finally to the bandhgala that we know so well today. After completing his education at Mayo College, Ajmer, Rathore went to New York, enrolling at the Parsons School of Design. He spent several years in New York, working with fashion houses like DKNY and Oscar de la Renta. “The biggest learning for me perhaps, was that fashion is about people and building connections through your clothes,” he says. That also became the starting point of his label, when he returned to India in 1994, in his quest to redefine the classic bandhgala and give it a contemporary appeal. So, of course, Jodhpur served as inspiration, with his clothes defined by the heritage and richness of the city, along with his own flair. “Interestingly, one of the first questions people asked me was, who is going to find out that you’re making this in Jodhpur? Why will anyone come to you? My father used to tell me, make a good product and people will find you,” he says. The rest as they say, is history. Today, besides his bespoke menswear label, Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur, which offers custom-made clothing, including bandhgala suits, jackets, achkans and more, he also has a ready-to-wear menswear line, under Imperial India Co. offering kurtas, shirts, waistcoats, bandhgala jackets, among others, and a wedding and events design business, under the Jodhpur Design Company. The designer dabbles in interiors as well, and if time permits, curating one-of-a-kind, bespoke travel experiences in Rajasthan.

The flagship label now has seven stores across cities such as Jodhpur, Jaipur, New Delhi, Mumbai and Surat, and also offers accessories ranging from fine jewellery and custom-made cuff links to buttons, pocket-squares, shoes and more.

At the recently held Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, he relaunched a line of women’s bandhgalas, with edgy silhouettes and breezy fabrics.

He’s dressed well-known celebrities ranging from actors Saif Ali Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Ranveer Singh to cricketer Virat Kohli, and royalty from across the world. Clients appreciate his brand because of its approach. It has earned him a loyal clientele over the years. In June 2018, luxury Italian fashion house, Ermenegildo Zegna, along with Reliance Brands Ltd (which retails Zegna in India) together picked up a stake in Rathore’s label, for an undisclosed amount. The resources that these two bring, Rathore believes, will be a game changer for the brand.

“I had been putting some thought into taking the brand to the next level and evolving the product we have to offer,” he says. Things just fell into place with the new entrants. Having two big partners on board, has given us the financial depth to leverage a business model that is now completely unique to the brand,” he explains. The deal is interesting, not just from the perspective of an international fashion house invest in a homegrown Indian label, but one that’s in the luxury segment, unlike other investments in the fashion space that have focused on the premium end of the market. “Indian designers are more open to selling now,” he notes. “Previously, there would be concerns about creative differences or other hindrances. All that has changed.”

So how does this collaboration stand to benefit the label? “Access to fabric is a huge starting point, and the fact that Zegna has over 340 stores worldwide gives us a lot of potential to explore that,” he says. “Our focus now, is to give multiple choices of everything that makes a man’s wardrobe,” he says.

Customers can also look forward to a new and improved in-store experience. The newly-refurbished DLF Emporio store in Delhi is one such example. “We’re trying to give customers an experience that’s a hybrid of bespoke and retail,” points out Rathore. This would involve using a good mix of technology and ensuring as personalised an experience as possible.

Rathore believes that going forward, the growth will come not just from the flagship label, which is bespoke wear, but also through collaborations and partnerships with like-minded luxury brands across the world. This could be through trunk shows, seasonal pop-ups and so on. He points out that luxury brands have a limited audience, given the niche segment they occupy. “So, we will also try adapting our products to suit a wider audience at more accessible price points, but without diluting the brand,” he says.

Besides India, there are plans to expand into more markets, but Rathore is careful about how he wants to craft the brand strategy, taking it one step at a time. Another project close to his heart, is his latest venture, the Gurukul School of Design — a fashion design school in Jaipur, offering a comprehensive four-year design course. The course aims to cover everything from teaching design, to helping students with the necessary tools to become an entrepreneur. “By the end of it, they will have learned how to market themselves, and run their own brand and business.”

Ask him about some of the most defining moments in his career, and he says that one would certainly be of his first ever fashion show, where fellow designers such as Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal and Suneet Verma, among others, pitched in to help pull it off. “From helping with the models to choreography to sourcing fabrics, they all helped in giving birth to my brand,” he reminisces. Over the course of the last 25 years, Rathore has gone from being a menswear designer to a lifestyle brand. He admits that the process has been organic and in large part, thanks to the clientele that keeps coming back for the aesthetic that his brand stands for. And when he isn’t busy building on his brand, he spends most of his time in Jodhpur, focusing on his art and painting. Being close to his roots and home also reminds him how important it is to be a sustainable fashion brand. For survival, it is important to stick to one’s roots and tell one’s story. “Given how fashion retail is changing globally, the only way to survive is to make your product unique and relevant,” he concludes.

Arzoo Dina is a Mumbai-based lifestyle writer

Published on March 28, 2019

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