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Mahnum Najaf Sayal in conversation with Nitika Gujral the creative force behind her namesake label.
I still remember the first time I spoke to Nitika - it was a Zoom call. Oblivious to who might be on the other end, the smooth conversation ended with a humble woman – who certainly left an impression of being a woman of substance.
Nitika Gujral – a label synonymous with traditional craft infused with modernity. Gujral started her voyage four decades back, aiming to amplify the wearer’s individual inherent style. Her inimitable flair combined with her passion in keeping the rich cultural heritage alive and blending it with contemporary aesthetic techniques is what sets the design house Nitika Gujral apart. And in the unbridled world of couture, it is truly spectacular!
1). Tell us briefly about your early years as a child, and your educational background. Also, what inspired you to choose this path?
I have very fond memories of my early childhood. Being the eldest of three siblings, I grew up in a large joint family in West Delhi. I did my schooling from The Sprindales School and pursued my graduation from Delhi University. Even during my teenage years in the early 1980s, I held a profound fascination, experimenting and creating new designs from fabrics and trims that I would source from the local market. This was before the emergence of any kind of formal education for Fashion Designers in India. My extended joint family and their circle of friends became my initial clientele. This encouraged me to hold my first solo exhibition as a teenager, straight out of high school. The overwhelming response to this venture solidified my belief that I had found my life’s vocation.
2). Could you share a bit about your creative journey, and the vision you had in mind when you were starting your label?
Since there were no formal design schools in India when I started, everything I have learned about all the processes that go into creating a fashion garment has been from all the craftsmen and workers I had the privilege of engaging with. It’s very early in my journey as a designer that I realized the massive treasure of artisanship and craft that we are blessed with in India, both in terms of fabric and embroidery techniques. To preserve this heritage, it was imperative as a designer to adapt the age-old techniques to modern silhouettes. This is what has been the constant endeavor of our label.
3). What challenges did you face during this journey? What or who was your main support system?
The challenges were varied as one progressed from the 1990s, where dress codes were still influenced by regional sensibilities. It was a herculean task to expand the market for ready-to-wear ethnic fashion. Fortunately, with the advent of television and its widespread reach, fashion trends gained greater acceptance across diverse markets. The subsequent explosion of social media left ethnic fashion with no option but to keep pace with constantly evolving international trends. To preserve one’s commitment to traditional crafts and heritage, innovation was imperative on this journey.
I married early and was blessed with three children. Shortly thereafter, my husband too joined me in the business. To run a successful business while raising three children was a huge challenge and I don’t think this would have been possible without the support of both of our parents. I think as Indians we are especially blessed with the steadfast support of our family!
4). Traditional Indian dresses often carry deep cultural significance. Where do you draw inspiration for your bridal collections? Are there any specific cultural elements or stories that influence your work?
India, a land known for its vibrant festivals and it’s no wonder that an Indian wedding is also reflective of that festive spirit. There are so many customs surrounding the wedding events. Each of which requires elaborate planning and also provides yet another occasion for dressing up in order to celebrate. At our label, we believe in taking away all the stress associated with ordering the various outfits required for these occasions. We are always open to customization and our team works patiently with each client, brides, grooms-to-be, and everyone in between, working together to craft the perfect look for every celebration. At Nitika Gujral, we firmly believe that a flawlessly dressed client becomes our finest brand ambassador.
5). In a world where fast fashion prevails, how do you infuse your cultural heritage into your designs while keeping them fresh and modern?
Our commitment to preserving our rich heritage of craftsmanship is foremost in our styling. We believe in creating modern silhouettes for the fashion-conscious while always integrating them with traditional workmanship. One big learning from the weddings of both our daughters was the desire of modern couples to actively partake in the festive celebrations at their weddings. As a result, our outfits, especially the lehengas, though ornate in appearance, are surprisingly lightweight, allowing brides the freedom to dance at their weddings! A happy, boisterous, up-beat couple is what we like to think of as a Nitika Gujral couple!
6). Could you share a memorable moment or experience in your career that has been particularly meaningful to you as a designer?
At my own wedding, I couldn’t afford a lehenga, so I wore a salwar suit instead. There is nothing more gratifying for me than to dress young brides in their dream lehenga. About a year back we had a bride from a small town in Jharkhand who ordered from us through a video consultation. She had put aside money for a full year in order to be able to buy a Nitika Gujral bridal. Witnessing the sheer joy on her face as she twirled in our store while collecting her lehenga was undeniably the most fulfilling moment of my career!
7). Are there any specific traditional techniques or materials that you are particularly passionate about preserving or reviving in your work?
I am deeply committed to preserving our rich legacy of craftsmanship, ensuring it remains alive and doesn’t die out. It is a huge source of employment and also an integral part of our unique heritage that has passed down through generations. Sadly, I have seen a lot of the embroidery techniques being abandoned in the three-plus decades of my interaction with craftsmen. The pressures of adhering to both price lines and time constraints have significantly affected this art form. There is a need for the designer community to come together with governmental agencies so that what was hereto a hereditary craft can be formalized into vocational training modules so that this knowledge is sustained for future generations.
8). Sustainability is an important consideration in the fashion industry today. Do you think brides today look at this factor while selecting a dress for their big day? Also, how do you incorporate eco-friendly practices into your handcrafted designs?
Sustainability is certainly a major consideration especially as we’re striving to reduce our carbon footprint. Giving primacy to handcrafted weaves, embroideries and accessories is one way that we work towards it. We also guide our clients on how to repurpose their own garments, along with legacy clothes, shawls and sarees passed down from their parents or grandparents.
9). Are you working on a new collection? If yes, then please tell us briefly about the idea behind it and its theme.
We are definitely working towards a new range of bridals and occasion wear for the Spring -Summer of 2024. While our brand normally gravitates towards red as the primary color for our bridal collection, we’re considering introducing vibrant pastels as well.
10). Who is the ultimate couturier in your eyes, and why?
I am in awe of Tarun Tahiliani. He’s never compromised on the fineness of his workmanship or the subtle color palette that’s become his trademark. Despite embracing every emerging trend, he has stayed true to his signature style.
11). One fashion icon from Hollywood and Bollywood that you’d like to style, and design a couture piece for?
I would love to style Deepika Padukone. Her persona resonates with our ethos of infusing modernity into traditional garments. She looks effortlessly alluring in every style of garment, and her innate poise elevates even the most basic attire.
12). Tell us what bridal trends you predict for the next year?
I foresee a resurgence of classic silhouettes and a vibrant color palette along with an enhanced usage of traditional weaves. However, red remains a favorite among most brides and is our go-to color for bridalwear!
13). We’re living in a world of ‘Gen Z’ – how relevant do you think your designs are to this generation? Do you keep this factor in mind while designing or do you think at the end of the day all brides are the same?
Strangely, most brides and grooms from ‘Gen Z ‘are very rooted in tradition. As a label we recognize that but strive to bring a touch of modernity with the cuts of blouses. Also, most youngsters want to be a part of the wedding celebrations and to enable that, we ensure our garments, though ornate in look, are kept light in weight.
14). Have you had any encounter with a ‘bridezilla’ – if yes, then how did you tackle that particular client?
What sets us apart as a brand is our willingness to customize and co-create with our clients. A Nitika Gujral bride is a happy bride and we leave no stone unturned to ensure that! A few months back, due to some misunderstanding between a client and our store team, her bridal outfit wasn’t made in the color of her choice. The client was in tears and the store called me to come and intervene. Rather than wasting time in figuring out who was at fault, I immediately assured the client that we would remake the outfit in her preferred color. When she came to collect her outfit, the bride-to-be asked to meet me and hugged me tightly. At our store we believe in living the dictum that the customer is always right!
15). Tell us what a day at work looks like with Nitika Gujral? Also, how different is Nitika the designer from Nitika who is a wife and a mother?
My husband, Amit and I have worked together from the beginning. Both of us design and have very distinct sensibilities in what we create. To be able to work together, giving each other the creative space to be different and not to carry work differences home was a constant challenge and now, with all the children following their own careers, it's this shared bond at work that truly nurtures our relationship.
16). What did you wear on your wedding day? What advice would the designer Nitika give to the younger Nitika who got married?
As I've mentioned earlier, I couldn’t afford to wear a lehenga and was married in a salwar kameez. That was a sore point and I have always sought to compensate for that with the joy I feel whenever I see a bride dressed in my designs. Deep within me, a part of that young Nitika resonates with the joy of every bride that wears our label!
17). Tell us what qualities do you imagine in a Nitika Gujral bride? Does your clientele fit the brief or at times the brides are totally different from the brand’s philosophy?
We want our brides to feel light and unencumbered, both in spirit and in their attire. Nothing uplifts our morale like the sight of a bride twirling around the store when she comes in for trials or final delivery. The entire team at the store has been given the brief to ensure that our brides go back happy. There is a lot of stress for brides and their families as the wedding date approaches and as a brand, we make sure, there is no stress from our end at least!
18). Do you think online shopping or e-commerce has made a big impact in the world of high fashion? How helpful do you think this shift has been especially for a category like bridal-wear?
Online Shopping is what helped most of us survive the downturn during the Covid pandemic and I think post that, there is no turning back the clock on e-commerce. As a brand, we realized the immense trust families were placing in us, ordering bridals from as far as New Zealand and San Francisco. Our team would help brides have their measurements done on video calls and the glowing accolades that we have consistently received from such clients shows that our diligence has paid off. The world is now our oyster and we are servicing young couples from countries like Tanzania and Zambia, thanks to social media and e-commerce.