Rina Dhaka: The Indian Fashion Designer Ruling The Global Runway

·6-min read

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.”

These words by iconic American artist and film director Andy Warhol have inspired many lovers of art all over the world, including ace fashion designer Rina Dhaka.

Rina Dhaka
Rina Dhaka

Rina ventured into the world of fashion in the late 80’s, without any quest for fame or money - all that mattered was creating art. Over the last two decades, she has tasted fame across quarters, and has designed clothes for international bigwigs like Naomi Campbell, Uma Thurman, and Lara Dutta. She has also showcased her work at The Louvre, Paris, and Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 2004, Rina won the ‘Best Designer’ award at Miami Fashion Week as well as the ‘Best Women Entrepreneur’ for the state of Delhi. She was also awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award and the Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence Award in 2019.

Her label ‘Rina Dhaka’ finds a place of pride in stores like Carma (New Delhi), Design Studio (Mumbai), Kimaya (Mumbai), Selfridges (London), Coin (Italy), and Lord and Taylor (New York). Her work has also been featured in global publications such as Marie Claire Paris, Madame Figaro Paris, Vogue London, New York Post, and Vanity Fair, among others.

In an exclusive chat with MAKERS India recently, she spoke about how her journey has been parallel to the growth of fashion industry in India.

“When I entered the world of fashion, there was no yardstick for me or my contemporaries to follow; no rules at all. It was a time when it was all about art and artists. There was complete freedom,” reminisces Rina. She also elaborated on where the Indian fashion industry is now, and how it has changed over the last three decades.

Rina Dhaka at her show at the Wills India Fashion Week in New Delhi, 23 March 2007.  (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)
Rina Dhaka at her show at the Wills India Fashion Week in New Delhi, 23 March 2007. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Foray into fashion

Renowned as ‘The Gaultier of the East,’ Rina’s foray into fashion was rather “accidental.” Having been brought up in a conservative household in Rajasthan, she was subjected to certain stereotypes and was looking for an escape. Her father, an organic cotton farmer, wanted her to get married at a young age. But Rina wanted to live life on her own terms.

After Rina graduated from the Government College for Girls (GCG) in Chandigarh, her family moved to Delhi. Her father enrolled Rina into a fashion design course in Delhi as a way to “domesticate” her; but it turned out to be her moment of reckoning.

Although no woman in her family had gone out to work before then, at the age of 18, Rina interned at Intercraft, then the biggest garment exporter in the country. Around the same time, she encountered her peers, Rohit Bal, Gitanjali Kashyap, and the late Rohit Khosla, who would encourage her to try out new things. In fact, Rina started her fashion line at Khosla’s atelier.

“There was no fashion in the world then; there were no designers per se,” Rina recollects. “Of course, there were the legends like Coco Chanel. But iconic stores like Bloomingdales, JCPenney, and Selfridges, ruled the scene. The concept of individual designers and fashion weeks did not exist then,” she adds.

Sushmita Sen (L) walks the runway with Rina Dhaka (R) during day 1 of Myntra Fashion Weekend 2014 at The Palladium Hotel on October 3, 2014 in Mumbai, India.  (Photo by Chirag Wakaskar/WireImage)
Sushmita Sen (L) walks the runway with Rina Dhaka (R) during day 1 of Myntra Fashion Weekend 2014 at The Palladium Hotel on October 3, 2014 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Chirag Wakaskar/WireImage)

Fashion, from then to now

Taking a trip down memory lane, Rina recalls a time when fashion was not about money or competition, it was all about creating masterpieces.

“I am very fortunate to have experienced an era like that. This creativity led to the creation of an industry after a while – with media, makeup and hair, modeling, Bollywood, technicians ,and backstage guys.,” shares Rina.

In the early years, Rina and her fold were identified as “Indian fusion designers.”

“We were stepping stones to where the industry went,” says Rina, who is credited with the invention of the lycra churidar in the 90’s that went on to become mainstream.

Bollywood, too, helped in catapulting the fashion industry into the limelight, ever since the concept of “showstoppers” was introduced over a decade ago.

A few years ago, Rina also ventured into the startup space, with an innovative model in fashion sector. Along with Sabena Puri and Sanchit Baweja, she founded Stage3 - a fashion rental and styling platform that aims to make glamorous fashion affordable– in 2016. The company also sells capsule collections via its homegrown fashion brand, Alaya.

Inclusivity and Body Positivity

Slender women have always ruled the ramps in skin-fit clothes; there’s not even a faint memory of any plus-sized model rocking a bikini or swimsuit.

But things are starting to look up for the fashion industry now. In 2016, Lakme Fashion Week started ramp walks by plus-size models. In 2019, Rina collaborated with aLL - The Plus Size Store to showcase its new couture line - aLL PRIMERO. The line ranges from formal to lunch wear, smart casuals to ready-to-wear separates.

A scene from Rina Dhaka's fashion show which promotes size inclusivity
A scene from Rina Dhaka's fashion show which promotes size inclusivity

During an audition for her plus-size show, Rina had spotted Sakshi Sindwani (now plus-size model) in the audience. “ I think we sent out a message a night before, 330 women came.to audition for the show. Sakshi wasn’t even a contestant, she was in the audience and I found her really beautiful,” Rina recollects. Sakshi has gone to appear on the covers of top fashion magazines like Vogue and Grazia, and is a prominent body positivity influencer now.

“Plus size models are now very much a part of the runway industry. In fact, even the cataloguing industry is using plus-sized models for photoshoots. I have enjoyed working with aLL; I hope stores like that continue to engage designers seasonally,” adds Rina.

Plan for the present

With the Coronavirus pandemic hitting the fashion industry, Rina believes there will be more virtual fashion shows in the future; but the transition will be slow, especially in shows translating into sales. Rina has earlier done a virtual fashion show earlier at India Runway Week, for lingerie brand Avon.

“Due to budget shortage, we decided to do a virtual show. We created 7-8 looks on a model, and we restyled it like a virtual show. Fashion is about buzz, and getting revved up, we feel excited about creating the collection and showcasing it - that part can be taken care of virtually,” shares Rina.

Currently, Rina is on a mission to help the needy during the COVID-19 crisis. “Our factory is making masks. Initially, it was started to give tailors some work; but we have been carrying it on for four months now. It is not to make any profits. I also work with an NGO in Delhi, ensuring ration is distributed,” she says.

Rina’s illustrious career is an inspiration to several women who want to carve a niche for themselves, but are held back by traditional stereotypes. If there’s one person she’d like to thank, it is herself.

“I do a lot of work myself, I have been there with my workers for hours at end. I underwent what they underwent. Also, I feel one has to be a muse of their own collection. It’s always your own story”, says Rina, signing off.

(Edited by Athira Nair)

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