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SILVER LININGS

A rare friendship in the vicious world of fashion

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DYNAMIC DUO: Ravi Bajaj is known more for giving Indian touches to Western silhouettes while Suneet Varma for his feminine and flirty collections

In the vicious world of fashion, where designer eats designer, a friendship that has endured almost three decades is that of Ravi Bajaj and Suneet Varma. Both are leading designers, grounded Punjabi men, but as different as chalk from cheese. And yet they are the closest buddies who are not in a relationship, on the Indian fashion scene. Both studied at the same school and lived in the same locality for years without exchanging a word. And then by chance, they ended up at the same design school in London.

Recently both designers marked 25 years in the Indian fashion industry at two separate events. Interestingly, their events define the men - Ravi hosted an elegant evening with candles, Scotch and live singing, while Suneet put up a theatrical, dramatic show. Ravi showed just five garments that are the culmination of his precise, structured expertise;Suneet presented a carnival of his signature designs focusing on exotic beauties who married Maharajas. Ravi chose a live singer to infuse the evening with classy romance;Suneet had a flamenco dancer beat a tattoo on fashionista hearts.

Both designers bring a rare intensity to work and an obsessive streak for getting it just right. But that's where the similarity ends. Suneet is far more social;Ravi keeps to himself and a clutch of friends. Ravi is a connoisseur of good food and wine;Suneet allows him to dictate food, wine and sometimes even what he wears.

Ravi, whose sense of discipline and strong likes and dislikes define his life, looks back on 25 years as he flicks through old photos. "It is very embarrassing !" he declares. "Those first 10 years I did not do much design. It is only in the last decade that I started putting my head to it, doing better work and feeling upbeat about it. "

About being labeled the 'Armani of India', he laughs, "Yes media gives us names and then hangs us by them. " Hailed for the style and elegance he brought to Indian menswear, Ravi has experienced an almost tectonic shift over the last quarter century.

The man who just focused on delivering precise Western cuts and perfect finishes, no matter what the market demand, today talks proudly of the Indian influence and tweaks he has made in silhouettes for clients. So the classic Western suits gave way to Indian influences in menswear such as long jackets and 'navigator' kurtas, while women's jackets, pants and skirts were replaced with saris and anarkalis, with gowns remaining a constant.

Some things Ravi may have let his guard down on, but others he refuses to let go of such as form, structure and fabrics. The fabrics, buttons and linings he uses are, in his words, "crazily expensive". "My clients are willing to pay for good quality, so why shouldn't I give them the best?" Ravi avers. "I have done some work that I do not like, but now I want to just do what I want to do. After all, if someone had forced Jagjit Singh to sing like Kishore Kumar, would he have become as great a phenomenon as he did in his own genre?" Touche!

If Ravi's style has seen a change over 25 years, Suneet has only improved on the oeuvre and style he started with. He has always had a very specific vision not just about the ultra-feminine, dreamy clothes he makes, but even about the woman who wears them - her aspirations, thoughts, activities, down to the imaginary name he gives her. Suneet also brings a dramatic element to his work and onto the ramp.
For him, the past 25 years have been a period of growing up where he has happily soaked experiences and experimented with work. "I never wasted any time and got on eagerly with the learning and working process. "
From sculpted Greek goddess bustiers to jamevar jackets to saris or sarongs, Suneet has never restricted himself as a designer. In the process, he has attracted interesting assignments, whether it was designing hotel uniforms, interiors of a BMW car or styling for movies or for Judith Leiber. Nothing scares him anymore. "I get anxious, " he admits, "but that is more from the adrenaline kick than fright. I know I have done some great work, and some not so great. But what I have learnt is never explain yourself or your actions to anyone. "

A strict Punjabi middle-class upbringing ensured a stable grounding for the duo. One outgoing and gay, the other intense and introverted, they are always present at each other's events and freely exchange advice and suggestions. Back in fashion school, Suneet would stay up late to complete his own and Ravi's assignments;while Ravi would wake him in the morning with a cup of tea. Suneet is the dreamer and Ravi the somewhat disillusioned idealist. Together they've made memorable fashion.

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