PARIS — Almost a decade after his first show at Paris Fashion Week, Rahul Mishra is back in the French capital to launch his new ready-to-wear brand backed by Reliance, the industrial giant that is riding a boom in India’s economy to stoke the growth of domestic and international luxury brands.
Mishra has focused on custom creations since 2020, when he became the first Indian designer to become a guest member of the Paris Couture Week calendar. Last year he signed a joint venture with Reliance that gave India’s largest company a 60 percent stake in his label.
Now they are ready to bring his new ready-to-wear brand, AFEW Rahul Mishra, to a global stage with a presentation on Wednesday at the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum.
In an exclusive interview with WWD, Mishra and Darshan Mehta, managing director of Reliance Brands Limited, or RBL, detailed the strategy behind the label, and their plans to open stores in India and overseas.
“India just simply continues to rock ‘n’ roll,” said Mehta, noting that the world’s most populous country registered growth of 7.8 percent in the second quarter, bucking the trend seen in inflation-hit regions, including Western Europe.
“We have 76 partnerships and 91 brands. Out of the 76 partnerships, 24 are joint ventures and there’s more happening. I’ve never seen, since I set up this company 16 years ago, a more heightened India moment. Every single one of my partners is coming to this country, talking to us and saying, ‘what can we do more in India?’” he added.
That’s good news for Mishra and his wife and business partner Divya, whose couture business is booming. At his flagship in New Delhi, sales between Sept. 1 and 10 matched the full-month sales of September 2022 and within the next six months he will open a new store in the Indian capital that will be almost six times the size of the existing space.
“We are planning to open a new retail store every month, literally, in the next six months,” Mishra said of his planned expansion in India.
“We have been extremely lucky to have Reliance Brands on our side. This deal has brought a lot of financial comfort. This deal has also brought a lot of dreams which I had, but the dreams were for 10 years, 15 years down the line,” he added. “It has brought everything within visible distance.”
Among the planned openings is a boutique at Jio World Plaza, the much-hyped luxury mall that Reliance plans to open in Mumbai on Oct. 31. “The biggest Vuitton store is going to be there, and the biggest Cartier and Gucci and Valentino,” Mehta reeled off.
RBL runs a portfolio of 905 monobrand boutiques and 1,264 shop-in-shops across more than 60 cities in India, with brand partners including Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors, Tiffany & Co. and Versace.
Following a recent funding round where investors included the Qatar Investment Authority and U.S. private equity firm KKR, Reliance Retail Ventures Limited, the holding company for the group’s retail activities, is now valued at $100 billion.
In addition to Mumbai and New Delhi, Reliance plans to open AFEW boutiques in Hyderabad and Bangalore, and a new e-commerce site will bow in mid-October. Further flagships are planned in key fashion cities worldwide including Paris, London and potentially Dubai.
The brand represents a fresh start in ready-to-wear for Mishra, who made his debut in 2006 at Lakme Fashion Week and went on to win the International Woolmark Prize in 2014.
RBL, which has invested in several other Indian fashion brands including Manish Malhotra and Ritu Kumar, was drawn by the prospect of marrying Mishra’s design ethos with local craftmanship and its own platform, with capabilities ranging from supply chain to technology, real estate and manufacturing.
“Rahul combines a very contemporary design aesthetic, which is very much him and very subtly, but very sharply, interwoven with Indian craft. I also believe that for him, sustainability is not a buzzword. It’s truly a very deep-rooted philosophy,” Mehta said. “He’s truly a fabulous storyteller.”
The name AFEW, developed with London-based agency Michael Nash Associates, is an acronym that stands for Air, Fire, Earth, Water. “According to Hindu mythology, all matter is composed of air, fire, earth, water and space, which is in between everything,” Mishra said.
The collection, which he dubbed “easy-to-wear,” is designed to provide a more accessible version of his craft-intensive couture designs. “For me, the idea of AFEW is also it has got a few ideas from couture, but far more practical. Our intention is to create a few clothes, not necessarily overfill the planet,” the designer explained.
Equally important is providing employment for India’s wealth of craftspeople, who will produce the majority of its women’s ready-to-wear collection and accessories. “For me, it becomes not just environmental sustainability, it’s also ethical sustainability,” Mishra said.
Curated by stylist Jenke Ahmed Tailly, the debut collection features shirts, blazers and cocktail dresses with oversized floral embroideries, with retail prices ranging from 350 euros to 2,500 euros. The designs are inspired by nature, with a slouchy pantsuit featuring a landscape print overlaid with fishscale sequins, or a lime-green shirt sprouting 3D palm leaves.
“The intent is maybe instead of 10,000 human hours, it gets 100 human hours, so the costs become more accessible, the quality and finish in such a way that even hand embroidery can be washed in a machine,” Mishra explained.
The jewelry is made of sterling silver and recycled brass, while the bags are woven with kauna grass in Manipur, a state known for its basket weaving, and embellished with hand-embroidered motifs.
The decision to unveil the brand in Paris was natural for Mishra, who has been embraced by France, which earlier this month named him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Given by the Culture Ministry, the distinction recognizes significant contributions to the arts and literature.
“We love the fact that Paris is the fashion capital of the world. When it comes to fashion, everything originates from there,” said Mishra.
Mehta is betting that the brand will resonate not just with the Indian diaspora, but with customers worldwide. But unlike an investment fund, Reliance is taking a long-term view of the project.
“We are not in a hurry to write orders, we are in a hurry to get good critical response and I will watch that, and I will watch back-to-back a second collection,” said Mehta. “The biggest thing is patience and I want to be very conscious of not putting someone like Rahul ever, ever, on a treadmill of an outcome.”
Even when the line goes into wider distribution, Reliance will take a selective approach, he said. “We will control our product. We may open one or two concessions. Even online, it will be only our platform, we will never do third-party platforms. We don’t believe in the concept of wholesale. I must know who my end consumer is,” he said.
That confidence reflects the economic might of Reliance’s retail division, which posted annual revenues of $31.7 billion and a net profit of $1.1 billion in the financial year ending March 31. In recent months, Mehta has met with luxury executives including Kering chairman and chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault and Chanel CEO Leena Nair to talk about future opportunities.
“They’re all making a beeline into India, so there’s so much focus. Sometimes, it’s quite overwhelming, in a good, fun way,” he said. He sees the exchange going both ways, with India increasingly exporting its culture to the rest of the world.
“You will see this colorful influx: fashion, food, arts. I’m very confident that you’re going to see all of that happening in a good way. It’s truly the India time arriving,” he predicted.