She hasn’t been heard of much in recent years, but Ritu Beri needs no introduction anyway. As svelte and glamorous as any of the models wearing her creations, Beri is frequently described as the “first lady” of Indian fashion.
It’s a label that’s stuck, probably because it combines truth with journalistic hyperbole.
Beri was amongst the first wave of designers, including the likes of Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, Ritu Kumar, Ashish Soni and Suneet Verma, who rode – and even said to have ushered in – the post-1990s fashion boom. Part of the inaugural batch of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) when it was set up in 1987, Beri was one of the first Indian designers to make a mark internationally, especially in the fashion mecca of Paris, and also the first Indian to head a French fashion house.
There are other firsts, which Beri writes about in the two books that launched earlier this month. The Designs of a Restless Mind and The Fire of a Restless Mind are autobiographical accounts of the 25 years since she first started her label in 1990. “In 1997, I did the ‘Ritu Beri fashion fraternity’ and launched 23 young designers. It was called the India Fashion Week. I was stupid not to copyright that name. It was literally the first fashion week that ever happened in India,” she says as we sit chatting in her office, a large, lavishly-appointed room dominated by a large desk in white painted wood with a black granite top, profusely covered with an baroque inlay design in colourful blue-green turquoise, white mother-of-pearl, yellow and red stone.
“It’s my design,” Beri acknowledges, as are some other things in the room, such as the intricately carved wall mirrors and the chaise longue in red velvet. “I do interiors and furniture for friends,” she adds.
Does this mean that Beri, like many of her peers such as JJ Valaya and Rohit Bal, will be extending her label beyond clothes? No, she says vehemently. “I don’t want to launch anything. I have worked in fashion for 25 years now. I have sold clothes, I have worked with international brands. Now, I only do things that I enjoy. It’s about following a passion and not just the business of it.”
Even in her core area – fashion – Beri seems to have taken a step back. It’s been four years now since one saw her at the two big fashion weeks – the Lakme event in Mumbai and the FDCI one in Delhi. Beri takes the question head on, saying that the detachment from mainstream fashion dates back to when her daughter was born eight years ago. “Whenever I am in the mood and I want to show something and I think I have something to show, you’ll see it. I don’t do it because I have to. It’s your life – it depends on how much pressure you want to put on yourself. You’re doing it (launching collections) because you’re competitive, you want to prove yourself, you want to be up there, in the media – I don’t. I want to do what I want to do,” she says emphatically.
It’s also why her Delhi studio is her only point of sale in India. “People who love me, want me, will come for me anywhere,” she says, looking serene in a black flowing dress with red trimmings, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.
These days, it’s her work with two foundations that takes up much of her time. “I am deeply involved in my charity for children, Blessed Hearts Foundation, and my work for autism.” There’s also The Luxury League, a platform Beri is trying to connect purveyors of luxury in India and the best of Indian traditional craft, with luxury brands and professionals from across the world. “There is a belief that makes the world go around: – One must give back and thus replenish the source one receives everything from’. The Luxury League was borne of that belief. To promote our heritage and to eventually strengthen the influence of India in the global luxury industry,” she says.
If Beri brings as much of the energy and panache that she used to build her career in fashion, then there are exciting times ahead for India’s luxury sector.