Pop culture artists in the West have been wearing Indian couturier Gaurav Gupta’s future primitive phantasia collections on the most famous red carpets in the world – Cannes, Time 100 Gala, Billboards, the Oscars and of course the Grammys for the larger part of the past year. Mary J Blige wore him to the Time 100 Gala in 2022, Megan Thee Stallion wore him to the 94th Oscars in Hollywood, Maluma to the Latin Billboard Awards 2022 in Miami, Lizzo, Jennifer Hudson, Kylie Minogue, Bebe Rexha, Luis Fonsi, Ashanti, Thalia, Saweetie – the names read like a veritable Grammy nomination list! And 2023 is looking even better with the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode Paris (FHCM) inviting him to the Paris haute couture calendar, where he showcased Shunya, his SS23 debut showing at Paris Haute Couture Week at the Palais de Tokyo on Republic Day. The collection has the world lauding his genius that’s intrinsically Indian, yet imaginatively international in style and spirit.
On music’s biggest night on February 5th, the Central Saint Martin’s alumnus’ name was etched permanently in the couture halls of fame worldwide, with Cardi B wearing an electric blue creation straight off his Paris Haute Couture Week runway, from his Shunya collection, at the 65th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The gown that electrified the world has its own identity and name since its outing at the Grammys – it’s called the Cardi Blue. And Cardi’s no stranger to Gupta’s indigenous sculpting genius – she wore an ivory ensemble by him, representative of air that lent a cosmic flair to her character standing in a field of roses in her No Love video in 2022.
Gupta is undeniably the Indian king of couture artistry today, dressing up pop royals and culturati around the world. Rock stars, pop stars, indie and underground artists in the West introduce and dictate fashion and trends in a way that’s incomparable to the impact of Hollywood stars. Of course the reverse is true for India where fashion is dominated by Bollywood stars and Gupta has dressed every major celebrity in India, the most recent international outing being Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan on the Cannes red carpet in 2022.
“I’m finally home – I was always meant to do this,” says Gupta of the worldwide blitzkrieg around him, and about him. “I have always been a conceptual couture mind and I resonate with my education at Central Saint Martin’s in London very well where I unlearnt to learn. Thirty kids from around the world are picked every year at CSM and I was one of them. My experiences in establishing and owning my label in India since 2004, with my brother Saurabh as co-director in our company, and the love and support my 350-strong team and I have earned over the years have led me to these moments. It was very difficult in the early years to find a balance between conceptualism and commercial viability as we don’t follow any rules, but I stuck to my beliefs and the brand’s aesthetic of future primitive fantasy.”
Indeed, all the world is but a red carpet for Gupta and his non-conformist artistry. Given Gupta comes from a family that owns a steel business, he definitely knows a thing or two about running numbers, despite his artistic bent of mind. He has a well-thought out plan for his expansion in the West, that he kicked off with the very successful cultural collaborations, following it up with Neiman Marcus in the US and Moda Operandi, also in the US, carrying his label. Alongside his e-tail business, Gupta has brick and mortar stores in Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata, with his Mumbai store in Kala Ghoda re-opening after a redesign on March 3rd. And when will his MET Gala red carpet moment happen? “Everything has a time and place and it will happen soon.”
Gupta’s international success is a first for an Indian designer on the fashion landscape and he’s changed the couture game in India a second time around, the first being when he transformed couture as a concept for Indian brides that were tied to conservative traditions when he launched his label in 2004. Indian brides started wearing him at a time when only saris and lehengas were considered bridal wear; anything else was just rebellion and anarchy against the cultural traditions of the country. But through his meticulously crafted flamboyant flights of fantasy in cloth, albeit in subdued palettes and nude illusions with some colour thrown in, Gupta, with his unwavering perseverance, brought about a radical change in the way couture was viewed and worn in India, especially at Indian weddings. Today, his contemporary garments are a must on every bride’s wedding wish-list.
“I have noticed that we are driving a non-conformist culture which is abstract, yet liberating at the same time. We nurtured this notion in the country when brides were only wearing traditional clothes, but now brides of all nationalities wear our cultural couture for their weddings. Our white wedding gown is extremely popular with African girls. What is exciting for me is not the gown, but the aesthetic that a woman is like art and she’s wearing live art on the most important day of her life. She’s breaking convention by not wearing what her mother or her sister or her aunt wore. She is celebrating the fantasy of life. I invented the sari gown which is now a staple in every designer’s collection. We pioneered a movement of a new Indian wear culture with our futuristic, contemporary aesthetic, and we make lehengas and saris our way. I like to play around with pre-conceived definitions and redefine them in my own way. I am excited when I can tickle people’s brains with the new fantasies I create – I don’t live for the applause – I live for the gasps of excitement, the goosebump moments. I love sub-cultures and new cultures and that’s really what drives me.”
The Delhi-raised Gupta believes that the celebrities who wear his label in the West get attracted to the brand organically. “Everyone who has worn us are all icons and pop culturists in all facets of their lives. Their voices resonate with us and when one is a true artist, the attraction is infinite. I mean Mary J Blige, Maluma, Lizzo, Cardi B, Sharon Stone – they are icons who have changed the world with their individualism and voices. And Sharon Stone wearing our golden gown was live art in the SNL bit with Sam Smith and the choir singing around her! And Paris couldn’t have happened at a better time for me. The love for Shunya has been incredible!”
Relieved is how Gupta feels today, having realised a long cherished dream with his Paris Haute Couture Week SS23 showing in January. “I have been waiting to make this moment happen and I have been ready for it for a while. To be invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode for the 2023 couture calendar is just incredible. Couture culture and the thought process of geniuses makes sense to me. I don’t work with references, time or place but the Paris crew delivered exactly what I wanted for Shunya. Their reverence for my vision was wonderful. I wanted a new hair style for the models because the last new hair that is in my sub-conscious memory is that of Alexander McQueen’s show more than a decade ago. The show’s soundtrack was an original that comprised of the tabla, cello, tribal sounds with an electronic overlay that was specially composed for the show by producers Gaurav Raina aka Grain and Curtain Blue.”
Gupta is a firm believer in humanitarian acts and is of the opinion that “every public figure should have a humanitarian outlook and talk about justice.” Having met Nelson Mandela when he was a youngster, he tries to bring about active change in his personal and professional life. “The Shunya show had trans models, African models, curvaceous girls – couture shows don’t do that. Togetherness and love is infinite and the image of two models walking down the runway, conjoined by the dress is an image that will stick for years to come. Zinnia, the Indian model, is an anthropologist off the runway and there is so much more to her and the other models than just the physical representations. Shunya was truly an international show. Honestly, in the last 18 years I’ve never been as satisfied with my work as I’ve been with Shunya and working with all these people. It’s wild to hear the Chinese and Russians discussing Shunya and my infinity theme that stemmed from the discovery of zero by an Indian, Aryabhatta.”
From introducing his definitive couture voice to resistant Indians, he’s taken Indian couture that is made in India, by Indians, to the world. His non-conformist expressions with fabric and form on the human body are being lionized globally. Indians have always flaunted Western labels, and now, Americans, Albanians, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Africans, Australians, Mexicans – people of all nationalities are wearing an Indian couturier with pride on the biggest nights of their lives. Just by standing his ground on his aesthetic of couture, Gupta gave himself to the world in a manner most authentic, and he’s being seen and heard exactly for who he is as a couture artist.
Gupta credits his supportive family for his rise from zero to the infinite possibilities in the world, echoing the theme of his Shunya collection which was all about a zero turning into infinity with a little shake. “I am surrounded by angels in my life – my parents, my brother Saurabh and Navkirat, my soulmate who I live with and all my friends that I meet along my path and my team. My parents and Saurabh have played a very big role in my life as they support all that I want to do. I am full of gratitude for every one that is in my life. Had it not been for Saurabh, I would still be working in Istanbul today, where I was headhunted straight after CSM! This is just the beginning for us – from here to infinity!”
This feature first appeared in Rolling Stone on February 23rd, 2023