Reluctant muse and '90s supermodel Mehr Jessia Rampal remembers the friend, possibly India’s first stylist, who turned the tide for Indian fashion design
Rohit Khosla with models during a shoot
It wouldn't be misplaced to say he started it all, especially since no one knew what being a fashion designer meant when Rohit Khosla wanted to be one. The story of the fashion design industry in this country is inextricably linked with the evolution of his own career.
A young man from Delhi, trained in England and New York, returned to become possibly India's first stylist, working on campaigns for advertising and garment houses. On the side, he'd make the clothes he wanted to create, those that spoke of a contemporary aesthetic although Indian in spirit. Setting up studio in Delhi's Friends Colony meant that the Rohit Khosla label was finally possible to put out into the market. But his uniqueness went beyond his talent and success. It had to do with building a community -- of likeminded designers, free-spirited models and photographers with an avant-guarde approach at a time when fashion photography didn't exist.
Mehr Jessia Rampal first met him at an airport, and went on to collaborate with him on their first project for textile house Vimal. The partnership would turn into a friendship that's still remembered by the fraternity although Khosla passed away in 1994 after battling cancer.
"For me as a designer, working with Mehr Jessia is truly inspirational. I see her as my muse! Her image lingers in my mind when designing constantly. Our minds work in the same direction, we understand each other instinctively without having to verbalise -- and it shows..." Khosla would write about her in Rohit Khosla: Vanguard, a book published after his death by sister Rohini.
Jessia Rampal remembers a designer, artiste, friend, and all that he did for fledgling Indian fashion in the '90s.
Mehr and Madhu Sapre model garments from the Wild Side collection (1992) inspired by the jungle and marked by skintight silhouettes
Before and after Rohit
Before Rohit launched his career, the Indian fashion landscape depended on darjis copying designs from the West. Back then, the defining image of Indian fashion was the embellished ghagra choli variety of Indian wear. He arrived in 1986 with an evocative boldness that inspired the Indian design fraternity to find its voice. And he wasn't afraid to shock people.
I remember hearing gasps in the audience when the music blared and I walked the ramp in a bra-inspired choli. He had this ability to balance Western wear and Indianness. He built a reputation on exquisite taste, and was inspired by the purity of textiles and original ideas, launching a movement in Indian women's fashion in the 1990s.
Rohit didn't have an iota of selfishness. He encouraged fellow designers like Tarun Tahiliani to set up one of the city's first designer boutiques, in 1987. He helped out with the choreography, styling and even music selection for the store's in-house shows. He would insist on keeping the focus on the clothes instead of indulge in theatrics.
Mehr wears a creation in silk crepe de chine with striking hand-painting from Rohit Khosla’s The Last Collection (1994). ALL PICS COURTESY © PRABUDDHA DASGUPTA; Published in Vanguard, The Ultimate Classic On Indian Fashion by Rohit Khosla; India Book House Limited
I was waiting to board a flight from Delhi to Mumbai after a show. It was 4 in the morning, and I was sitting on the floor of the terminal, leaning against a pillar -- tired, sleepy and impatient to get on board. Rohit arrived, and a common friend made the introduction. He stood there impeccably dressed while there I sat, groggy with disheveled hair. I looked up at him and thought, I've never seen a more gorgeous man in my life. He asked me whether I was free to work on the Vimal campaign. I travelled with him to Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Ahmedabad for the shoot, and we quickly became close friends.
This was a spectacular team to work with -- photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta and stylists Rohit and Simi Garewal.
Rohit was India's first stylist. Our working association continued with the Garden Vareli shoot along with model Shyamoli Varma.
Designer and muse
I don't think we deliberately worked towards the 'designer and muse' status. It's the media that slotted us thus. They defined our relationship.
We were very close, yes. We are born a day apart; he, on November 29, and I, on November 30. We spent a lot of off-duty time together, chilling at his Delhi home, talking over home-cooked Punjabi khaana, and generally bitching about the world. I had my first Tiramisu with him.
We used to walk in together at Ghungroo, one of Delhi's most sought after nightclubs, and almost inevitably heads would turn. He had an unmistakable magnetism. If I liked any of his designs, I dare not tell him, because he would unfailingly gift it to me after the show with, 'Mehr, this is for you'.
I pray for Rohit every morning and evening. I can't say that I miss him because, honestly, I feel his presence around me.