It’s a nippy Wednesday noon and I am standing outside designer Manish Arora’s store in Delhi’s hip Dhan Mill Compound, gazing at his signature heart motifs on the store front. His white-and-gold ambassador is parked beside me, glistening in the winter sun. It’s gleaming inside as well: the seats are upholstered in quirky bright glittery motifs and there’s a giant heart on the driver’s seat.
Inside Manish’s cabin, his work table is a bright pink, holding at this moment a gold ashtray and a box with mini-hearts. The designer’s unabashed love for bold, vibrant hues percolates not just his design but also his personality, belongings and surroundings. Pink and gold are his religion.
It’s this bold and colourful design aesthetic that captured the attention of the French Vogue editors and landed Manish an invitation to the 2007 Paris Fashion Week. Since then, he’s been showcasing the Manish Arora Paris collections biannually, and became the first Indian designer to head a French luxury label – Paco Rabanne. More recently, he became the first Indian designer to be awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour), the highest French civilian distinction in 2016.
The man lives life larger than most people can even imagine, and shares with us the stories behind his many loves.
Love for Paris
Manish first visited Paris on the invitation of a friend after he made his first India Fashion Week collection, sharing a tiny apartment with three people, and sleeping on a mattress beneath the dining table.
The unusualness of his sleeping arrangements did not prevent him from falling head over heels in love with Paris – not because of its much-vaunted style, but because the city allowed him to be himself.
“Being in a place where sexuality is not an issue was a very big deal for me,” says Manish. “It was very liberating.”
A huge party animal at the time, Manish seldom met his hostess, Catherine Levy. “She’d go to work in the morning and I’d be coming back home then, and by the time she was back, I’d be out again. We didn’t have that much communication but we really liked each other,” says Manish.
“Every morning I go to office like it’s my last day on this planet, or it is the biggest party in town!”
Catherine became a great friend, and now makes all the jewellery for his collections. No wonder: it was she who tried to break him into the Paris fashion scene by getting him to meet Sarah Andelman, the owner of Colette, the most iconic shop in France.
“I looked like a freak, wearing a lungi with a bomber jacket,” chuckles Manish. “I folded all my samples in my handbag and went to meet Sarah. No work came from that meeting, but that was my first trip to Paris!”
Love for bling
Combine his Punjabi roots with a childhood spent in India’s Tinseltown, Mumbai, and it’s easy to decode Manish’s love for bling. He was so obsessed with Bollywood that he collected all the film magazines of the 1980s and still has hundreds of copies stored at his mother’s place in Mumbai.
“More than anything else, the visual appeal of Bollywood – the whole over-the-topness of the movie sets, the song dramatisations, appealed to me,” says Manish. “I think that’s what reflects in my work.”
He still remembers Rekha’s glam avatar from Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). “I went ‘wow’, seeing that kind of over-the-top fashion! It was unforgettable,” he says.
Love for colours
Manish had no idea he had an eye for colour till he first displayed his collections in London and the media began highlighting ‘a certain Indian designer and his love for colour’.
“I come from a country where women wear reds and blues and greens all together unknowingly and still look amazing. I think that’s where I get it from,” says Manish.
His memory works photographically, he says, and “when you work, these images and colours kind of spill out,” he explains.
Love for buddies
“There’s a saying: Family you are born with, but friends you can choose. And that’s what I have earned in my life,” says Manish.
This is why he makes certain to live in the same neighbourhoods as they do, so he can simply stroll to their homes when he needs them or they need him.
“Human beings are not supposed to be monogamous, right? There aren’t many people who are happy being monogamous”
As an only child, friends have always been important to Manish. When he moved to Delhi at 17 to study at NIFT, having his life revolve around his friends was a natural progression.
“I was one of the youngest, with batch mates like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Namrata Joshipura, and Payal Pratap Singh,” recalls Manish. “These are the friends I made then, and they are still very close to me.”
Love for clothes
Manish’s designs reflect his personal style, which means that his idea of office wear is most other people’s idea of what to wear to carnivals.
“Every morning I come to office like it’s my last day on this planet, or it is the biggest party in town,” he says. And then he claims he takes just 10 minutes to get dressed, “because I know exactly what I’m going to wear for the day.”
“I love myself so much that I want to come across like that to myself. I don’t dress for others!”
His style philosophy is simple: “I love myself so much that I want to come across like that to myself. I don’t dress for others,” he says. Clothes are his catnip and he will buy anything he likes irrespective of prices and brands.
Love for accessories
You can’t miss the rings on Manish’s fingers (at least one of which is heart-shaped), and his statement glasses. Accessories turn him on, so since he can’t find enough quirky trimmings in the markets, he manufactures them himself.
“People really go crazy with accessories, but with clothes they are a little more conservative,” says Manish. “That’s where I can go all out and still be bought, because you can make a crazy bag, an over-the-top bag, and people will readily experiment with it.”
Love for pets
Manish is the proud parent of four-month-old Dilbar, a pup who not only has a heart in his name, but also one on his forehead.
“He has an actual heart on his forehead!” exclaims Manish. “He was adopted by my assistant’s friend, but when he started distracting their child, they wanted to put him back on the street, so I took him.”
Love for cars (actually, one particular car)
The only car Manish can recognise and therefore loves is the now-no-longer-produced Ambassador. That’s because he’s terrible at differentiating between vehicles: he only knows cars as small, medium, or large.
“They [my family] should know that if I’m not married at age 46, there must be something!”
So the good old Amby makes Manish’s engine run – the one parked outside his store now is his third. “I love my Ambassador,” declares Manish. “It’s a beautiful design, it’s comfortable and you feel very safe in it. You need something like a tank on Delhi roads and this is just that!”
Love for burgers
He flits between Delhi, Paris and London, which exposes him to connoisseur-level food, but Manish loves McDonald’s. “I don’t know what they put in it, but there is something…” he says.
Love for family
Manish’s immediate family consists of his mother and himself. However, the two often participate in get-togethers with their extended family, and if he is where they are for even two hours, he makes sure to visit and they make sure to feed him all his favourites.
They also make sure to keep up the Indian family tradition and ask Manish when he plans to marry, which makes him laugh. “They should know that if I’m not married by age 46, there must be something,” he chuckles. “Still, they have to ask as though if they didn’t ask, they would feel bad for themselves.”
Love for lovers
In the Swarovski museum in Vienna, there’s a room designed by Manish where visitors are supposed to write a message of love on the wall. The first to write on it was, of course, Manish himself. “I wrote that I have so much love to give that one is not enough,” he says. “And that’s my story of love. I’ve had long relationships in the past, yet I’ve always had more love to give.”
His longest relationship lasted 12 years. His lover, an Italian, often visited Delhi to work on the production side of fashion. “I met him in Delhi, and when I started showing in Paris and London, it was perfect,” says Manish. “We’d be together every month, but over the years we grew apart.”
“I find men who know more than me very attractive. It is a very good turn on”
The two are still friends, because Manish believes one can have one relationship, but can still love many. “Human beings are not supposed to be monogamous, right? And we are not,” he says. “We are just pretending to be, or we are suffering monogamy. There aren’t many people who are happy being monogamous.”
He is always attracted to people he can look up to. “I find men who know more than me very attractive. It excites me and is a very good turn on. But such men are so difficult to find now because I am so experienced myself!”