By Swarnendu Biswas
She is a global figure in fashion but her works go far beyond simple fashion statements. They can be aptly described as supremely stylistic expressions where colours and cuts, fabrics and embroidery have created enduring art forms for generations to admire.
Her sense of style extends to her dynamic personality too. In fact, when you meet Ritu Beri, you cannot help admiring her innate sense of style, irrespective of whether she is dressed in a pair of casual jeans and a t-shirt or in designer wear.
Ritu is extremely elated over the fact that Indian fashion has come of age in the international fashion arena. “These days, India’s fashion is spotted on the fashionable ramps of the world and is a huge source of inspiration,” opines Ritu, omitting to mention her immense contribution in giving Indian fashion industry global recognition.
However, she doesn’t need to, for the prominence of her works, like her ravishing beauty, speaks for itself. If Indian fashion has gained international recognition in the present decade, with so many of our designers showcasing their creations abroad, then the credit for this must go to fashion diva, Ritu Beri, who was the first to give Indian fashion industry global acceptance.
The first Indian fashion designer to showcase her creations on the catwalks of Paris, and the first Asian designer to lead renowned French fashion house, Scherrer, Ritu can be credited for giving the connoisseurs and creators of fashion in the West the glimpse of the style of a fast-evolving modern nation, which is still seen often through a mystical perception.
She showed the West that the so-called land of sadhus and snake charmers can also produce a creator who can match the best designers in the West, and easily dress their most powerful and trendiest celebrities.
“Yes, I was the first Indian designer to present a collection in Paris. I must admit I was mesmerised by the fashion scene there. I believe Paris is one place where style is inspired and fashion thrives,” says Ritu, recollecting her first date with Paris’s fashion scene. “In 1995, I presented a collection in India inspired by France, after spending three months in Paris working with Francois Lesage atelier during the haute couture week in Paris,” she adds.
The Budding of a Fashion Genius
An alumnus of National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi, who did her schooling from Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan, in New Delhi, Ritu launched her label way back in 1990 when Indian fashion industry was at a nascent stage; just awakening to the couture era.
She was amongst the first batch of 25 students at NIFT, who were selected from a plethora of applicants across the nation. After her graduation from Delhi University in 1987, Ritu’s innate creativity in fashion designing took shape in the form of designing clothes for herself, and her close friends.
Soon, in 1988, she enrolled at NIFT and by December 1990, she came with her first fashion studio, whose aesthetic name perhaps reflected her potent aesthetic vision.
Lavanya, her fashion studio, became a runaway success story. Since then there has been no looking back in her journey through glamour and success, awards and accolades, where immense talent and great hard work were her mainstays.
The name of her company is Ritu Beri Designs Pvt. Ltd. “I joined the industry with my label in December 1990, more than two decades earlier,” she recollects with a smile. Within the short span of two decades, she has become an institution in the Indian fashion industry.
Inspirations and Favourites
Ritu considers Francois Lesage, the legendary French embroiderer, known as the guru of embroidery, her mentor and inspiration. “We have had an eighteen-year-old association; he was my history lesson on the French brands and their designers,” says Ritu.
Ritu trained with Francois Lesage in Paris during 1994. She considers herself as a protégé of Lesage, who passed away in December 2011. Lesage, too, seemed greatly impressed by the fountain of creativity that cascaded in Ritu’s mind. He describes her works as “Amazing, modern, fabulously coloured, respectful of Indian tradition, innovative.”
According to him, “Ritu’s collection appears to me as a young and talented expression of her sensibility. Her work, especially for me, is a great moment of the dream, close to the reality of talent in constant evolution into perfection. Ritu’s contemporary expression has given to an Indian tradition of clothes a mood of the Yves Saint Laurent collection of the 80s.”
Before Francois Lesage, Ritu’s early influences were her parents. Her father and mother, with their immaculate dress sense and intrinsic style, cast an enduring influence on her fashion sense and sensibilities at an early age.
Besides the inspirations, she has her favourites too. “I have my all-time favourites like Yves Saint Laurent for his classic cuts and Ralph Lauren for his unique depiction of sophistication. I like the fact that they are understated with a distinct identity,” concurs Ritu.
Among the models, her favourite is Mehr Jessia. “She was a true clotheshorse and always focused first on the clothes she was wearing and then on herself,” states Ritu fondly, as she remembers her creative works with the yesteryears’ supermodel.
The World is Her Ramp
Ritu went on to launch her maiden luxe collection in Paris, in July 1998. This momentous event was preceded by the showcasing of her exquisite creations to critical acclaim across the globe — in Beijing, Mauritius, New York, Washington, Morocco, Russia, Cairo and other places.
Her first international show was in 1994; a couture line that was presented in Beijing, at the festival of India. Since then, over the years, the Ritu Beri label has attracted global recognition and assumed an enviable reputation in the Indian fashion industry.
“I have showcased my collections in many cities like London, Washington, New York, Vienna, Rio, and Dubai,” notes Ritu, in a matter of fact manner. “We have our flagship store in Delhi at Sainik Farms, which caters to many of our clients,” points out the fashionable entrepreneur.
Ritu created history in the realm of Indian fashion by heading Scherrer, way back in 2002, and describes her experience with Scherrer as “fabulous.” “I was the first Asian to head a French fashion house. Back then not many Indian designers had even done shows in Paris and for an Indian designer to be heading a French fashion house was a dream come true. It was a heady feeling for me, though there was also a lot of pressure of expectations from all around,” explains Ritu, while summarising her more than a one-year-long stint with Scherrer, which she quit in 2003.
Ritu is also the only Indian designer who has the distinction of being featured in Promostyl’s Magazine Acustyl, which forecasts fashion trends across the globe.
Today, Ritu Beri who retails her creations from high fashion stores across countries and continents is a name revered by the fashion fraternity across the globe, which includes even the mecca of the fashion world — the Parisian ramp.
She is one of the rare geniuses who has attained the often conflicting milestones of great commercial success and immense critical acclaim for close to two decades through her amazing range and versatility, whose hallmarks are perhaps are her intricate motifs, her block print collections and her creative play of colours.
Over the years, many connoisseurs and corporate leaders have been hugely impressed by Ritu’s path-breaking innovations in the realm of style and fashion.
“Ritu, your collection is really great. The way you implement Swarovski into saris is outstanding,” opined Gernot Langes-Swarovski, one of the Owners of Swarovski Crystal. Mounir Moufarrige, a stalwart in the global luxury industry, and the former CEO of Dunhill, Montblanc, and Chloe, is one of the millions of ardent admirers Ritu’s genius.
According to him, “Like Stella McCartney, Ritu knows exactly what makes a woman tick. I saw one of her shows and was astounded by the sensuality of her clothes, the flow, the cut, the attention to the detail, and the striking identity. She cuts jackets and trousers as I have never seen before,” he once said.
Dressing the Best
Over her two-decade-long fascinating journey through the world of glamour and elegance, Ritu has dressed many international and national personalities.
The former US President, Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Jagger, Ivana Trump, Cher, Katie Holmes, Ursula Andress, Katrina Kaif, Akshay Kumar, Hema Malini, Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan, Raveena Tandon, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta among others, famous Parisian socialite Mrs. Lagerdere, Langes Swarovski & the Swarovski family, Mumbai’s famous socialite Parmeshwar Godrej and the empress of herbal beauty business, Shahnaz Hussain, are only a few of the renowned personalities who have dotted the long list of Ritu’s clientele.
“At the same time I must say that each client is equally important to us,” points out Ritu, reflecting her unassuming demeanour. She admits, “It is always a pleasure dressing up stars like Katrina and Madhuri who have great charisma, style and personality.”
She is passionate about enhancing a woman’s individuality and persona. “I love to see the women whom I dress looking glamorous,” admits Ritu.
In her celebrated book Firefly — A Fairytale, the visionary designer has expressed her passion for dressing up women quite beautifully. “I strive to bring to life traditional Indian motifs for the modern global woman. My muse is every woman who looks inside for inspiration,” wrote Ritu eloquently in the book.
Awards and Accolades
Ritu’s journey towards the pinnacle of success is interspersed with awards and accolades. In October 2010, she became the recipient of the prestigious Chevalier des Art et des Lettres award from the Government of France, for her contribution to the enrichment of Indo-French cultural relationship. The award is one of the highest civilian awards conferred by the French government annually.
On the occasion of conferring Ritu with this rare honour, the then Ambassador of France to India, Jerome Bonnafont said, “We see Ritu as a link between the two countries.
By conferring this award upon Ritu, we also see it as a way to enhance the cultural relationship between India and France.” He also said that his country saw Ritu Beri as an “embodiment of haute-couture in India.”
Ritu was also the recipient of the prestigious Kalpana Chawla Excellence Awards in 2007 for her contribution to the fashion industry. Among many other awards, she was also bestowed with the ‘Mahila Shiromani Award,’ presented to her by India’s First Lady; an award which Ritu holds very dear to her.
So it comes as no wonder that the Time magazine featured Ritu as one of the ‘People to Watch in International Business.’ Back home in India, the esteemed news daily ‘The Telegraph’ listed Ritu among The 50 Most Important People in India.
Ritu, who comes from an army background (her father was in the army), cites the Ritu Beri A/W 2011 collection as one of her favourite creations.
“Ritu Beri A/W 2011 has to be among one of my favourite collections. It was a tribute to the Indian Army. The silhouettes are contemporary; engineered cuts tinged with flamboyance, which add glamour to the collection. The collection comprises of military inspired coats, high standing collars, double-breasted jackets, accentuated with metal buttons,” she explains enthusiastically while adding, “accessories like badges, medallions, metal tapes, ornate trims and other interesting details together sets off the slick military mood.”
Among her own collections, about which she is reluctant to talk about, one of her favourite collections in recent times is ‘Summerleas’, which according to her, is “inspired by our rich culture and heritage. The line comprises opulent and elaborate silhouettes. The spirit is intrinsically feminine, romantic but flamboyant.”
I wanted to know more about this sensual creation. “The collection comprises rich, artistic hand-work, modelled into contemporary silhouettes with subtle details of embroidery to enhance the soft feminine appeal,” elaborates Ritu.
To me, the underlying concept behind this captivating collection seemed to develop a modern look while at the same time retaining the traditional attributes for a woman; a woman who has evolved gracefully with the fast pace of time and yet has the conviction to look inwardly into her soul.
A Powerful Fashion Vision
Ritu observes that the Indian fashion industry has gone through a tremendous transformation since the last two decades.
“The Indian fashion industry has undergone a great metamorphosis, since I joined the industry, back in 1990. Back then fashion was viewed as only a diversion for the small group of the elite population. Then fashion was more to do with ritual dressing like dressing for weddings, festivals, reception, etc. but now it is more about being well dressed & trendy all the time,” she states.
Ritu continues, “Now with the exposure to international fashion brands in India, the consumer has become more aware and open to dressing up on a daily basis. They also realise the effort that goes into designer clothes, and are willing to pay the price for it.”
Although she is extremely enthusiastic about the contemporary fashion scenario in India, she prudently advises, “With the budding competition and the complexities arising in this industry one should be consistently intelligent, focused and hardworking to make it here; never letting go of one’s creative side.”
Her advice for aspiring fashion designers and entrepreneurs who want to make it big in the fashion industry is, “They shouldn’t be limited by the set conventions in the exploration of their creativity and should think big and be hugely experimental.”
Ritu doesn’t believe that fashion and style are meant only for the elite, and at Ritu Beri Designs, there is a wide range on offer, catering to the various strata of the society. She strongly favours infusing fashion with an egalitarian character. “Fashion for me is not just restricted to designing clothes for the supermodel walking down the ramps. It is also about real people in real situations,” asserts the diva.
As the first lady of Indian fashion, she believes that across the globe, there is a sure-shot formula for driving economies in pricing, and that is produced in large volumes.
“Therefore, in order to ensure that the consumer of the Indian fashion industry is delivered with a price that in the Indian economic context is value for money, large volumes for production are essential. Large volumes not only reduce the cost of production but also attract the best vendors from across the world to adequately facilitate the production,” Ritu explains to me patiently, while dispelling my ignorance of fashion economics.
According to her, the mission of the Indian fashion industry should be to deliver the Indian consumers “with a huge range of apparel that meets the criteria of brand-equity, stylised clothing and value for money for a prêt-a-porter or ready-to-wear line of clothing.”
I couldn’t help being impressed by her vision. “This trend should be replicated in the accessories segment too,” she points out. Keeping this structure in mind, Ritu has envisioned to open Ritu Beri pret outlets nationwide, which she believes, would bring revolution in the Indian fashion industry by taking fashion to the masses.
A Platform for Great Potential
Ritu not only endeavours to scale new heights in designing excellence but is passionate about providing a platform for talented designers who are deprived of the right opportunity.
During her days of struggle, Ritu made a promise to herself of becoming a helping hand for fashion designers with potential, whenever she was in a position to do so. This desire took the shape of the Ritu Beri Fashion Fraternity, which was established in the 50th year of India’s independence.
The Ritu Beri Fashion Fraternity (RBFF) is a registered trust, dedicated to bringing talented and promising fashion designers to the forefront of the fashion industry by providing them with opportunities to establish themselves in the field, and offering them ongoing guidance and help in their careers in fashion.
“Ritu Beri Fashion Fraternity provides new designers with the opportunity to establish themselves in the industry. The foundation acts as the guiding force for their careers and helps make the new designers familiar with the nuances of the profession, and also provides them with adequate exposure to attract publicity,” explains Ritu.
Fashion with Heart
Ritu’s creative mind complements a kind heart that is always striving to give back something constructive to society, whether be it in the form of time, effort or philanthropy.
“Today, besides satiating my passion for fashion, I am deeply involved with a charity for children. I am involved with The Blessed Hearts Foundation, which is created to support the underprivileged children of India,” says Ritu, her passion to make a difference emanating from her voice.
The Blessed Hearts Foundation works to improve and uplift the condition of the less fortunate children. The philosophy of the foundation is to create a magnificent future for the children of India. “It also works to raise funds for ‘auction for autism’. We work to raise funds for autism and try to create greater awareness for the same in our country,” articulates Ritu.
The proceeds from the sales of her Baby Beri collection, Ritu’s line of occasion wear for kids, is donated to The Blessed Hearts Foundation. During Ritu’s creative journey to dress her daughter, Gia, she discovered that in India children’s wear is largely restricted to ready-to-wear. So she decided to design occasion wear for tiny tots.
This led to the birth of the Baby Beri collection. “Designing kid’s clothing is a playful and joyful experience,” views Ritu. While discussing the Baby Beri collection, Ritu points out that, “The endeavour was to create designs that are stylish, trendy and comfortable all at the same time. The idea was to bring out the youthfulness and cheerfulness among kids.”
Ritu’s consciousness towards the environment and her sensitivity towards four-legged creatures became evident when she came out with a singular line of animal styled product range named ‘Caring Means Sharing.’ The project was directed to fund animal care centres.
“I did it in collaboration with Mrs Maneka Gandhi. The collection comprised of t-shirts, caps, stuffed toys, mugs, notepads, posters, postcards, pens and key chains. The funds raised through the sales of this product line for People for Animals was instrumental in the creation of additional animal care centers throughout India,” informs Ritu.
Feminine, Romantic and Flamboyant
I requested the breathtakingly beautiful diva to describe her seminal works, which are often too beautiful to describe. That was my humble effort to define the genius in her. “I love to explore the impossibilities and work in an inspired mode… I design to satisfy my creativity,” affirms the great lady.
She believes the line, proportion, cut and simplicity are the basic elements of designing and creating a piece. “My designs embody my evolution as a human being, and encompasses all the influences I have had in life,” she informs.
After probing further on her favourite fabrics, Ritu reveals, “I love to work with exotic fabrics like brocades, jacquards, chiffons and georgettes… fabrics that lend sensuality to looks, and I endeavour to blend the old world charm of traditional embroideries with modern day patterns and shapes to create interesting textures that allure.” She describes her style of designs as “intrinsically feminine, romantic with a flamboyant twist.”
Looking back on her wonderful innings where she had played a pivotal role in redefining Indian fashion, Ritu recollects, “Through the past twenty years, I have chased my dreams and worked on ambitious projects. I have been lucky to experience the world of fashion in India and abroad.”
She admits to having evolved a lot over the years as a designer and a person, but the fire to do something radical is still burning inside her. As always, she still thrives on challenges.
“Today I continue doing my usual work, but what I enjoy doing the most are challenging projects that are worth my time away from my beautiful daughter, Gia. I am negotiating with certain international brands and hopefully, interesting stuff will happen soon,” she reveals.
Writing Success Stories
Besides creating new frontiers in fashion, her other aims include writing many inspirational books. In fact, writing is nothing new for this multifaceted lady, whose thoughts flow like a mighty but placid river, whether on a conversation or on introspection, or on a laptop.
Besides having two books to her credit, she has also written for various esteemed publications. “I have written columns in the past, where I have been associated with publications like The Asian Age, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Femina, to name a few,” she comments.
Her much talked about book, Firefly – A Fairytale, deals with Ritu’s experiences in the fashion industry, which of course includes her experiences in Paris that helped in shaping the legend of Ritu Beri.
“It is not an autobiography and I prefer to call it a fairy tale,” Ritu corrects me, guessing that I thought it must be an autobiography. François Lesage wrote the foreword to the book, which, at Rs. 1 lakh per copy, is the most expensive book published in India.
Earlier, the internationally renowned publishing house Penguin had commissioned Ritu to write the book, but abandoned the project after hearing the price for the book that she had in mind.
Eventually, Ritu herself published the book, which has a limited edition of 100 copies for the Indian market. However, though Firefly – A Fairy Tale talks about Ritu’s experiences in the fashion industry, the book is about much more than fashion.
“The book is about all creative things like architecture, history, women and their beauty. It illustrates unbelievable similarities among various cultures of the world and is about innumerable influences on fashion like the intrigue of history, the drama of architecture, the experimental play of photography, the magic of Paris, and the refined art. There is a chapter on Paris that has played an important part in my evolution as a designer,” elaborates Ritu on the launch of Firefly —A Fairytale, in 2006.
Besides this magnum opus on architecture, history, art and fashion, she has also penned a book titled ‘101 Ways to Look Your Best,’ a topic that many a die-hard fashion aficionado and casual lover of fashion and style are likely to appreciate.
Despite achieving cult status in the Indian fashion industry, Ritu feels she is continually learning and developing herself as a designer. In fact, this attitude encourages her to create new horizons in the realm of style.
“Over the years, I have learnt a lot and evolved tremendously as a designer and even more as a person, and today, I have come a full circle where I know what I should do and more importantly, what I should not do,” emphasised Ritu, with her face wearing her familiar radiant smile.
I suddenly realised I was interacting with a living embodiment of style, whose intrinsic and classy fashion statements are not likely to get dated even in the distant future.