In an elegant 19th-century apartment in a chic Paris neighbourhood, there was the familiar bustle of pre-fashion show activity. Models arriving for fittings, assistants dashing about with scissors and thread, and celebrities dropping by to choose their front row looks from the rails of colourful clothes lining the rooms. Calmly overseeing this commotion was Gaurav Gupta.
The Indian couturier was preparing for his official haute couture debut the following day, with a show scheduled straight after Fendi Couture. The prestigious Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode has previously championed the Indian talents of Vaishali S and Rahul Mishra, and for the January collections, Gupta joined the ranks with Mishra, as a guest designer.
The collection was called Zero Infinity, a seeming paradox juxtaposing stillness with movement – but if you saw Cardi B in her “dancing in the wind” blue outfit at the Grammy Awards last month, you start to get the picture. Gupta has deftly moulded light, ribbed organza into pleated waves that wrap around the head and body in one continuous rippling line seemingly without beginning or end – in other words, infinite. Cardi B wore look nine from the show, but nude-coloured versions on the catwalk prompted one front row commentator beside me to describe the dresses as being like “the swirling sands of the desert”.
Infinity is a signature sculptural technique for the designer. “I’ve always loved drape and structure, certainly going back 10 years,” Gupta says during the fittings. “I like exploring volume and 3D embroidery,” he adds as I watch him working with his team on a dress of sand-coloured waves that conjoins one black and one white model together.
A gesture of unity, a political statement perhaps, but exquisitely expressed. Gupta is quite a political personality. He describes himself as an activist, and among his interests are climate change.
“I remember,” he says, “when I was talking about the air pollution crisis in India, during a television debate with some politicians, and trying to get the message across of how important it is for us to have the right to breathe [clean air].”
Politics and bureaucracy slow down any change but, says Gupta, “for me it’s personal. We need to be using all mediums to get our message across”. He acknowledges that championing sustainability and highlighting climate change are a lot for some people to understand, but believes that, as someone in the public eye, “one has to keep talking about this, to be honest and to find ways to collaborate and join hands and make a difference on the ground, in the oceans and on the beaches. We all have to do our bit.”
The designer recalls spending an inspiring three hours talking to Dame Vivienne Westwood about climate change when they met in 2019 at the Animal Ball, a cause that Gupta supports, raising money for elephant and tiger populations in Asia. He was captivated by her passion and knowledge. “She was the ultimate icon who made us think differently about climate change,” he says.
Nevertheless, he feels the understanding of climate change and issues around sustainability are still making slow progress in India. “A lot more needs to be happening. I don’t think the eventual client who is consuming fashion or most commercial products has an understanding or awareness around sustainability.”
He, however, is making his own contribution in terms of ensuring a good working environment for his fashion and embroidery ateliers. His brand uses recycled packaging, and a year ago, he created a whole collection using recycled ocean plastics.
“I want to make more clothes out of waste. In fact, I personally wear a few upcycled clothes and I only drive electric cars. I think it’s not just about a brand, one has to do this personally as well. Sustainability should be a reflection of all the activity in your life.”
Gupta founded his eponymous label in 2005, after graduating from Central Saint Martins in London, the alma mater of Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and then working for conceptual designer Hussein Chalayan. Over the past 18 years, his collections have embraced the skills of India’s gifted embroiderers, combined with his own whirlwind sculptural techniques to create glamorous gowns that appear on best-dressed lists in India and the Middle East, as well as in music videos and on the red carpet. The bridal market is a big part of business in India, but from haute couture he has expanded into evening ready-to-wear.
His Middle Eastern clients, royal families and private clients fly into Delhi requesting bespoke designs. “We offer them something unique that they cannot buy at home,” Gupta says. His label is expanding its footprint with strategic partnerships with groups such as Neiman Marcus and Moda Operandi in the USA. “I’ve always wanted to be global, but when I’m ready and financially sustainable in India first.
“We’ve fine-tuned the machinery, and now have girls and women from 15 to 80 years old wearing us, and men of all age groups. They go that extra step to wear us because they want to enter our fantasy world.”
As a creator, Gupta describes himself as a non-conformist. “I don’t follow pattern making, but work with structured draping, mostly on a mannequin.” Every client has their own mannequin for precision fitting. There are up to 10 processes that a design goes through, from calico toile through stages of cutting handloomed fabrics, pleating and moulding the silhouettes, embroidery [he also uses bugle beads to create the 3D ribbing that holds the fabric in its wave-like structure] to the finished garment.
He explains his aesthetic as abstraction and fantasy. “I call the look future-primitive; you could even imagine it in a fantasy costume drama,” he quips.
There is no referencing, and no mood board when he starts the design process. “It’s fluid freedom,” he says. If you were to point to any influence, then he is drawn to architecture and the anatomy, which inspire the fantastical shapes that make such a statement on the red carpet and spread into the experiential environments he has created in his stores around India. The boutiques are surreal, conceptual fantasy palaces that get nominated for architectural awards.
Gupta has long been a red-carpet favourite, dressing Sharon Stone, Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai, Iman Vellani (the first south Asian Ms Marvel comic heroine) and music industry stars Mary J Blige, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and recent Grammy award winner, Lizzo.
They have all embraced his billowing, sculpted silhouettes, which they wear for the red carpet, music videos and concert posters. “I love people like Lizzo, who are cool musicians that stand for something and are on the edge of culture. I believe we have to move and evolve with the times,” Gupta adds of fashion’s diversity issues.
Watching Cardi B wearing his showstopper wave dress at the Grammys last month felt fantastic, he says. “It was exhilarating and actually really heart-warming to see how one dress can be on every media channel in the world. It was a magical moment.”