Conversation With Meher Castelino

Q. Your latest book “Fashion Musings” what was your inspiration for it?

Obviously, the inspiration was the fashion business, because I’ve been involved with it for so many decades as well as the beauty, business, and the film world. So all these three were inspirations to write this book. I have written it in such a format, which is quite different from the normal prose that one writes. I wanted it to be easy reading. I wanted it to be fun and I wanted it to be suitable for a cross section of readers, right from the young student to the mature person. I wanted it to be enjoyable, I didn’t want to be it to be preachy. I didn’t want to give sermons about fashion, beauty or films; I wanted to send the message in a humorous way. People who have read the different stories have found the message in between the lines. So you need to think a little humorously like me and find out what the message in each story is.

Q. You enjoy writing humour?

Yes, I want it to be informative. I want people to know about the subject, but I don’t want to talk down on them. I want to talk with them. That’s what I like.


Q. Growing up who was your fashion icon, who did you look up to?

I started off as a model, so obviously, my fashion idols were the models, and most of them were in the West. There was Cindy Crawford, she was the one and only, whom I looked up to and I loved her work and read her book, studied everything that she did. But in India, there were a few models before me, who I thought were extremely graceful, very dignified, and very elegant. There was Perin Spencer and Pervis Rustomjee, who were some of the models before I started and I looked up to them for their elegance and their grace and beauty.


Q. The fashion industry in the 60’s, the designers, the models, how did they launch their catalogues, how does it compare to today?

First of all, in the 60’s, there were no designers. There were textile mills that showed their new fabric collections annually or biannually with fashion shows. This went on till the 70’s and 80’s. There was Hakoba, which had shows all over India, right from the north, south, east and west, which made the name Hakoba a generic term for chikankari embroidery. Then there was the DCM, Mafatlal, Morarjee, Khatau all the big mills and India was known for its textiles and its mills. Before 1987, there was Ritu Kumar, who is an expert on textiles. There was also Ravissant by Ravi and Mina Chawla, who were also more textile oriented. In 1987, designer culture started when Ensemble the big store opened in Mumbai, and NIFT opened its branch in Delhi. After that, this whole thing about fashion designers came in, and the textile mills anyway were not doing well and closing down. The whole culture now is designer driven, it is no longer textile driven. 


Q. Being in this industry for so long, you might be familiar with a lot of things, the glamour, the travel, meeting the elite, what is something that still excites you about this industry? What do you look forward to?

I look forward to the different collections. I look forward to something exciting in construction. I also look forward to new designers coming in and new talent coming in. I’m interested in seeing something that is out of the ordinary. I’ve seen lots of lehengas, cholis and duppattas, I want to see something different in these three garments. So my whole excitement is about innovation, construction and something different. I love to see new things happening in the fashion world. Obviously, fashion is continuously changing. Change is very important in fashion. So obviously, I want to see great change in fashion.

Q. Now, with the introduction of social media, the word ‘Fashion’ is becoming more of fast fashion. So according to you, is it losing its elegance? 

Well, social media has definitely exploded the information part of the fashion world. Every second person is a fashion expert suddenly. If they dress well, they think that they know everything about fashion, which is, at times a little sad. But also social media, I think it is extremely important. I have launched and promoted my book only on social media, and it has been very successful and I talking to you in this virtual world. So social media is important. But the knowledge of fashion is very important when you’re informing on social media. There are people, who write about fashion, but they only criticise it, they don’t know the ABC about fashion and therefore are not able to give creative, constructive suggestions. A person when criticizing must give an alternative to the designer on what he or she can do. There is no point in saying, ‘I didn’t like this dress’, fashion writing is not subjective, fashion is very objective. So, you need to see that it is appealing to everybody.

Q. What is a designer’s role today in this industry?

I think that designer’s role is to be extremely responsible in today’s fashion industry. For one thing, the type of clothes that the designer makes must definitely have something that is sustainable, and not only use just the word ‘sustainable’ on the price set. Therefore, the textile, where is it coming from, how is the designer looking after his/her workers, craftsman, all that comes under sustainable fashion that is very important. The other thing is wearability; you can’t make garments, which are meant for the museum, as a showpiece. So wearability is important. Creativity is, of course, important. And the price tag is going to be very important now, because people are not going to be able to spend too much money, they are going to be very careful, they’re going to buy clothes that are timeless, with many lives, they don’t want a dress, which they can just wear in one way, they want the dress to be, worn in different ways. If you’re buying a bridal outfit, it’s for your wedding, obviously, you will wear it for your wedding. But even then there are designers who are creating bridal wear, which you can wear after your wedding in bits and pieces, so you mix and match your clothes. Practicality is in fashion. 

Q. You spoke about how COVID will limit people spending on the fashion industry, and how each designer has to be sustainable and from where they source their garments, their workers, so that even though the industry may increase, the designer will have a profit crunch. So how do you think they should move forward with the lower spending but higher cost?

I think that in the past, the price tags were a little skyrocketing. There were instances where the designers were making 300 – 400 per cent profit. Now that has to become very realistic. If they want to stay in the business, they obviously have to make profit as always but you need to make sensible profit. You can see from the sales, if the designer is having a sale and offering a 50 per cent discount, or at times even at 70 per cent discount? Is he making a loss? Or what was the price before so that he can afford to give a 70 per cent discount. So from that you can gauge that it’s very important to be very sensible in your price states. 

Q. How do you think we are going to move towards more sustainable clothing?

I think they will have to move towards sustainability. In fact, I think there are more days going to be added on to different fashion weeks, where sustainability will be important and designers who do sustainable clothes will be featured more. They have to go in for better textiles and work more with handlooms; we have a history of sustainability. When I was speaking with one of the weavers, I asked him in Hindi if he knew the meaning of sustainability. He said this word maybe new for them but they have been sustainable for centuries. Our handlooms, our weavers, our craftspeople are all sustainable. They don’t do anything, which is not sustainable. So using the right fabrics, or working with the craftsman giving them fair wages, making sure that they are looked after especially now, in conditions like the pandemic where we have workers with no work and weavers who are doing odd jobs like selling vegetables. So you need to look after your people and that makes you sustainable also, it’s not only that fabric is sustainable, how you look after the people and how the fabric is made. All that helps. So the concept is very important. 

Q. Sustainability is not very fashionable, especially in high-end couture.

Oh, definitely it is, sustainability is not at all boring. In fact, there are so many beautiful designers who make sustainable clothes, which are amazing. Whoever thinks sustainability is boring, doesn’t know anything about fashion. I love anything that is sustainable, made in India, our fabrics, our textiles, our designers, and our brands. So whoever said that it’s boring, I think they need to take a fresh look at their knowledge.

Q. For a common man fashion is brand names and brand names make fashion. So what are your views on the common man assuming brand names is the best fashion that is available.

Sometimes when the competition is so keen, designers feel that their brand name has to be endorsed and promoted. It has to be brought forth, because otherwise they’ll get lost in the jungle of brands. But as far as good dressing is concerned, I feel one should not concentrate on brands When I shop, I don’t look at the brands at all, I buy whatever I like, whatever fits me, whatever suits me. I also try to make sure that I buy something, which is timeless. So I have clothes in my wardrobe, which are 15 – 20 years old. I also see the price that it fits into my budget. A brand name is not at all important. In fact, at times I’ve seen brands with the most horrible designs that I would not even pay Rs 10 or 20, but people are spending lakhs of rupees on it. I think that is just a craze and you need to come down to earth and not go flying about saying, I’m wearing this brand or I’m wearing that brand. Does your personality not stand by itself? Or do you need a brand to make you great; you should have a personality, which is so strong that you are there because of who you are and not because of what you wear? They want the brand to be a sort of an ego massager for them. I buy things from the street, right from Fashion Street on the pavement, if I like something that is nice, it’s great, looks great on me, fits me, which is very important and it fits my budget. I don’t remember ever concentrating to buy because it is brand name. 

Q. In your career spanning so many decades, which Indian designers do you feel have had the most impact in India and abroad?

There have been quite a few designers who have been really good. There was of course Wendell Rodricks who had an identity. I didn’t have to know or see his label, but I could immediately say this is a Wendell Rodricks and that is what is very important for a designer to have an identity, which does not hang on his label. I can say it is his clothes because I know his style. Then of course there’s Manish Arora, who’s made a name for himself with his different types of clothes. Very quirky, very weird, very outlandish, but I can tell this is Manish Arora. Then there is Amit Aggarwal who has this style of using polymers, waste material strips and rubber tubing. I can make out his style without seeing his label. There is Tarun Tahiliani, who has his own style, while Rohit Bal, has his wonderful style.

Q. Many times the people who are new in this industry, all they care about is who’s the show stopper. It overshadows the collection or what the designer was trying to put through. So is it important to have a showstopper and if not, how can someone rectify this from happening because this is essentially a brand name that is being tied up with the celebrity.

There are several reasons for these showstoppers getting more attention than the designer’s collection. One is that if it’s a sponsored show, sometimes the sponsor wants a showstopper to get attention because they might not be too sure about the designer’s collection getting attention. Second reason could be, a designer might have a showstopper because he or she is not very confident about attracting attention from the media. So that is another reason why the showstopper comes in. But if all this is removed, you only have fashion shows. There were only fashion shows before where were no showstoppers in the 60’s or 70’s when people concentrated on textiles. So different textiles were shown on the ramp and the customers after the show went straight to the shop and bought the fabrics to make garments. Now at times the poor designer’s clothes are not featured, only the showstoppers’ garments are featured in the media and what is the purpose of all that? It’s not complimentary to the designer to not have his/her clothes featured but only have the showstopper featured. This problem can also be blamed on the media. The media is not totally familiar with what the fashion scene is like at times and therefore they put the showstopper’s picture and feel the show is covered. That’s the end of the story.

Q. What are some other dark sides of this industry?

Plagiarism. There was one incident just now you must have read about it, when one designer got the exact embellishments of another designer’s collection from 2015. So first of all, I feel that designers need to be creative and have knowledge of fashion. It is when the designer is not completely knowledgeable, or studied fashion that you have these problems about plagiarism.  They depend on their craftsmen to help them out, or they depend on their tailors to help them out. Therefore the tailor and the craftsman are doing just what they know best.  That’s when all this confusion takes place. Printers also can cause problems if you don’t know about printing and what printing designs are already used before. So designers themselves have to be very careful and check everything not depend on their assistants, interns or team of designers. Design yourself, and then there will not be a problem. 

Q. So a career spanning such a long time in Indian fashion industry, what are some highlights of your career something you look back fondly your best moments in the industry so far?

Ah, actually, obviously, the best memory would be when I was selected Miss India. That was the turning point in my life that opened so many doors for me.  Even today, I feel so blessed and happy when people remember me, because it’s been nearly 56 years since I won the crown. Of course after that are the various foreign trips that I made as a model. I’ve travelled to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia for shows.  We did big shows all over India, like the Calico Dome and Hakoba shows for six months in the South India. For me, those are memorable shows for me. After my modelling career finished, it was being the editor of a men’s fashion magazine, one of the first men’s fashion magazines ever in India, then editor of a women’s fashion magazine, and then going into full time journalism as a fashion writer, when I again travelled to cover different shows, and of course, my stint in Germany for the Dusseldorf Fair which lasted for 15 years, twice a year that’s 30 visits and saw foreign designers putting their collections twice a year. That was amazing. Then going to Paris for the Paris Fashion Week, Italy for the Milan Fashion Week, judging a contest – I have so many lovely memories, I really am very thankful that I was fortunate enough to have them.

Q. We are moving more towards the western culture. For e.g. no one now wants to wear a Sari. What are your thoughts on that?

I think India is still fortunate enough to have the Sari as a traditional garment. In Japan, the Kimono, which was so beautiful, is completely lost. But at least in India, a lot of women, nearly 80 per cent in the villages wear Saris. In the South, a lot of men wear lungis and of course dhotis, so those Indian traditions are still very much there. But I feel that the Sari is one of the most amazing garments ever. Whenever I personally want to make an impression especially abroad, I have worn a Sari have practically eclipsed anyone else that is in the room. I remember I went for a Versace show in Singapore where everybody was wearing Versace or Dior, and I just wore a black and gold Sari. The invitees went crazy over the Sari.  A Sari is a showstopper. I wore a sari during the National Costume round at the Miss Universe and the Miss United Nations contests, which was appreciated.  Nothing can beat the Sari’s beauty and type of weaves that they have. The weavers are geniuses. I don’t know how they do it. When I look at them weaving I cannot understand, they are so good at what they are doing? Even our Kurtas and Anarkalis are beautiful garments they are stunners next to a gown. 

We thank Meher Castelino for taking the time out to converse over Fashion In India! She has been looking at this industry for decades and has penned down her experience in her books. 

To purchase her book – Fashion Musings



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