Published in Mint Lounge July 8, 2017
(Text edited from original). Photograph by Abhijit Bhatlekar
Her brand-new cat interjects his way playfully into many parts of our conversation, and artist-turned-designer Payal Khandwala deals with the situation with the same composure that she would any other area of her life. Khandwala draws from her vivacious artist’s palette for the eponymous clothing line she first showcased in March 2012, 10 years after she moved back from New York to Mumbai.
Khandwala went to New York to study fine arts at the Parsons School of Design in 1995 and then worked with menswear designer Sandy Dalal in the US.
Unable to find clothes that she liked, and sensing the potential market for a prêt line, she decided to move from canvas to fabric. The line has taken on a life of its own: She started by retailing at Good Earth and now has two stores in Mumbai, and is stocked in multiple stores in four metros.
Khandwala, 43, has repeatedly made it to best-dressed lists for her individual sense of style, which is bold-hued, sleek and non-fussy. Her eyes are always made up dramatically, her petite frame is enveloped in colourful drapes, trousers and antique silver accessories. But what she wears best is her grounded attitude to life and style. After all, she is the one who popularized lehngas with pockets for women.
Colour-coordinated brocade saris.
The saris in her wardrobe are grouped and hung in order of colour shades and sometimes, she says, she will just “undo it to avoid becoming a slave to that kind of discipline”. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Should we be surprised that your living spaces are minimalist and muted?
I am very practical; I don’t like fuss and clutter. Not only is it the way I design, it’s also the way I live. While I like accents of colour, I want the environment to be neutral. Besides, I can’t wear and be around colour simultaneously!
How different is your look now from your New York avatar?
As a student I didn’t have any money, but New York is full of flea markets and vintage stores. I was more bohemian: pairing jeans with a top, shawl or kaftan. I became more minimalistic when I began making clothes for myself, and with age, perhaps. I don’t want too much of either sophistication or free-spiritedness.
Distressed jeans from Hong Kong.
You’ve struggled to find lowers that worked for you, how did you figure them out?
I love jeans because they stand the test of time (she’s “obsessed” with a pale pair from a mall in Hong Kong that is loose-fitting, distressed and bootleg). I always found everything else more formal, while high-street options are largely trend-based. So now if I want to wear a particular kind of pant (she counts the palazzo as a staple), I just make it.
Anything from “back then” that makes you cringe?
You won’t see me wearing colourful patent leather wedges or fluorescent colours. I disliked the 1980s and 1990s. It was the worst time for fashion. I did it then and it was a disaster. I have learnt my lesson.
Didn’t you have a love affair with saris?
I took two Abraham & Thakore cotton saris with me to New York, but it became a lot easier when I moved back to Mumbai, because of the weather. Being a part of the art circle, or maybe as a reaction to having been away so long, I began wearing saris more frequently, pairing them with tank tops or jackets that I procured from Vietnam, Cambodia or Istanbul. I easily have more than 80 saris (none of which are from my mother), including 50- to 70-year-old vintage brocade saris, and lehngas woven with pure gold thread, and an early Sabyasachi.
Silver necklace from Istanbul.
Tell us about your eclectic jewellery collection.
I have a lot of silver jewellery: I wore it with saris for my wedding. I’ve not bought anything in ages, because there is very little of the genuine kind in circulation—they just make pieces that look antique. I’ve picked up stuff from Rajasthan (Jaipur and Udaipur), Istanbul and, earlier, from Amrapali. I am also fond of necklaces that are like thin discs made out of coconut or vinyl put together and tribal, Maasai-style pieces. I’m currently in love with flower-shaped leather rings that I picked out in multiple shades from a little Spanish store, Tierra (now shut down), in New York.
A pair of indigo brogues from Miz Mooz, New York
Do you believe in a “look”?
If you have a distinct sense of style, it will automatically come with a “look”. Any decision you make—if it comes from a place that is not external or trend-driven—is based on your personality. For instance, I’m an informal person. I will go to a restaurant and cross my legs and sit; so you will very rarely see me wearing anything that is short and tight.
Which is more important, fashion or style?
Style, of course! And that makes you question the male gaze. In much the way that Coco Chanel was trying to do by questioning the need for women to wear corsets—because there were men designing for women, with their idea of what a girl should look like. I feel now there is finally some conversation about this.
Reversible handwoven jacket from Payal Khandwala.
What do you believe is key to making, wearing and choosing clothes?
It is simply a matter of taste that will connect all three. And while I know colour is what everyone responds to, the bedrock of a good outfit (for anybody of any size and shape) is proportion. It’s like assuming that a long skinny rectangle can be equal to a square. As you “cover up” with clothes, you are cheating: Perhaps three people in the world have a body that looks perfectly proportionate. The rest of us are stuck with bits and bobs and the lines we’ve earned and stretch marks we have fought for.
Payal’s colour wheel
Khandwala gives us her markers for special occasions
Brunch: Think beyond white. It works, but it’s predictable. I recommend citrine or coral.
Cocktail: Don’t feel compelled to pick black, go with a deeper bold colour. I’m partial to jewel colours, so sapphire blue, emerald green, perhaps with a hint of metallic.
Romantic date: Pick a colour that is an extension of your personality. This is probably the best time to be at your most comfortable. If you’re bold, I would recommend crimson; free spirits can try chartreuse; if you lean towards shyness, then powder blue, silver, or blush rose.
When in doubt: Neutrals like charcoal, black, navy, indigo and white work in most situations, so when unsure, turn to one of these shades. Whichever colour you pick, the key is to wear it with confidence.