A passion for fashion – In Conversation with Pria Kataaria Puri

    It is a boon to discover your passion at an early age; it is even more extraordinary to thrive in it from the very start. A recipient of the Bharat Yuva Ratna and Bharat Vikas, among a plethora of other awards and accolades, Pria Kataaria Puri is an internationally acclaimed Indian fashion designer who works between India and Kuwait, residing in the latter with her husband, Sumit Puri, and their two children.

    Puri has worn many a creative hat in a career spanning over 25 years and continues to balance the rigors of work flawlessly between multiple cities. “For me, work is pleasure. So I do it with a lot of passion and love.” Her latest outing, ‘La Lumiere’, was seen at the Kuwait International Fashion Week last month where she swayed the audience with an exquisite line replete with glamor and sheen, billowing frames and rich tones.

    At a time when India, although in possession of rich design traditions and great artisan wealth, lacked a booming fashion industry or the modern designer concept, Puri developed an eye for fashion at a young age on account of her family and upbringing. “My mother is Kashmiri and every year we’d spend two months in the summer there. My father who was also very fond of fashion would buy my mother French chiffon saris from Paris and she would get them hand-embroidered in Srinagar,” Puri shares, recalling the moments spent sitting with her mother, deciding what color of flowers would complement a sari the best.

    She grew up between Delhi and San Francisco, and became acquainted with luxury, exclusivity and bespoke concepts on shopping trips with her father in the US. At the age of 12, Puri had set her mind on a career in fashion. Her father, initially unsure of her commitment enrolled her in a Polytechnic in Delhi first, and having witnessed her resolve, sent her to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in California.

    Puri believes that her initial success is as much a consequence of luck as her innate talent and toil. Presenting at the San Franciso Fashion Week as part of the FIDM graduates’ with her Maharaja Collection, she caught the eye of American elite such as Ivana Trump, Bianca Jagger and Barbara Bush who were won over by her plush velvet coats and baleros with intricate embroidery, bustiers with hot pink silk skirts and gold tissue churidar pants.

    Puri became an overnight sensation at nineteen and went back to India to set up a production facility to meet the ever increasing demand for her clothes both in India and abroad. She put on a trunk show of Indo-Western creations, a brand new concept at the time, and was met with huge success. Multi-designer stores like Ensemble and Signature featured her collections. It was not long before she started her own store and made plans to launch a company in the US. At this intersection, Puri got married, had kids, and took a break to focus wholly on the family.

    After her hiatus, Puri got back to work with renewed vigor, making her presence felt in many a fashion week. She was one of the founding members of the Lakme India Fashion week and presented at its maiden showing. After her husband moved to Kuwait, Puri gained popularity here and was featured in many stores before starting her own, all the while traveling around the world to showcase her work and run her operations in multiple cities. She then realised that the store concept did not suit her, she flourished in trunk shows and exclusive offerings.

    Puri is a hallmark in luxury Resort-wear, her work is marked by modern silhouettes and oriental aesthetics with vibrant hues that seek to highlight the female form in easy opulence. Her designs have been worn by Madonna, Paris Hilton, Princess Françoise Sturdza from Geneva, Vanessa Paradis, Queen Rania of Jordan, Cherie Blair, SAR La Princess Marie Gabrielle de Savoie, Maharani of Kashmir as well as Kuwaiti, Emirati and Saudi royals and many more. She has also designed costumes for actors Priyanka Chopra and Mahie Gill for the Bollywood movie Zanjeer.

    Her collections have been showcased on the international stage, from Rome Fashion Week to New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week, Lakme Fashion Week, Wills Fashion Week and Dubai Fashion Week, among many others.

    “For me, work is pleasure. So I do it with a lot of passion and love.” A true innovator, she is credited with many firsts in the Indian fashion and luxury industry from hosting a television talk show on fashion to introducing the phenomenon of the celebrity show stopper on the runway, and resurrecting the kaftan as a fashion staple, to name a few.

    She is fondly called the Kaftan Queen, being responsible for the ubiquity of the Kaftan in women’s closets today. “A good ten years ago, I revived the kaftan and made it a very fashionable style statement in India. It all started with my collection called Gayatri Devi. Year after year, I would revive the kaftan and would often meet with criticism for it. I did not stop in spite of the naysayers and today the kaftan is a world phenomenon.” Puri embraces the kaftan as a staple as it aligns with her vision of free-sized clothing. “I myself have gone from a UK size 6 to UK size 16. Women are always two or three sizes up and down, so why do we have to go to the store and find everything fitted?” Her kaftans are loved by many, the free-sized flow and drape of the fabric encompassing different arrangements of a blouse or dress in mini, knee or floor length, has now become her signature look.

    Her prêt line in digital prints for varied silhouettes and cuts is also marked by vivid colors. “Colors make such a huge difference in your life. When you wear happy colors you feel happy no matter how sad or upset you are. I started designing colors to make people happy. When a woman goes out after a tough day, wearing an evening outfit that is a bright emerald green kaftan with jeweled embroidery, she will feel like a queen.”

    Versatility is another important feature for Puri, “The kind of silhouettes that I work on are tunics, which are easy to wear and belted. I like the one outfit that you can wear ten different ways.”

    Puri shares her opinions on pertinent topics of the fashion industry today, starting with the discourse on ethical sourcing and the high environmental cost for fast fashion. “My clothes are expensive and they are timeless. When women buy my clothes, they can pass them down to their daughters and granddaughters. We only use the finest satins and silks, all my fabrics come from France and Italy.”

    “I believe in sustainable fashion because when I spend money, I expect quality. Fashion should be classic and evergreen,” she continued. Commenting on the emergence of online shopping portals and their effect on the market, Puri contends that when it comes to luxury, the medium is a flop. “The problem with selling luxury online is that buyers will take risks on purchases of a small amount, but if they are spending a lot of money, they want to touch and feel the clothes.”

    She revealed that is not uncommon for online luxury fashion stores in India to move their inventory through pop-ups when their stock lies unsold through online sales.  Social media, in contrast, is an entirely different arena. “What is working really well is Instagram sales. 70 percent of our sales is driven by it.”She describes the shopping experience in Kuwait as a hidden treasure. “The kind of things that I have bought here, I have not seen them anywhere in the world. The quality of products that brands and designers send to Kuwait is mind-blowing. People have spending power here and it is all cash down, so we attract the best stock.”

    Almost a decade ago, she was responsible for taking Kuwaiti buyers to India to purchase clothes from Indian designers, “I’m not a person who thinks only of myself. I have a vision of making Indian fashion global. This includes all the talented Indian designers. Keeping that in mind, I really promoted India in Kuwait in a big way.”  As in most creative pursuits, plagiarism remains a serious impediment in the fashion industry. Puri shared that her venture into digital prints came after she suffered acute plagiarism in the 90s.  “I design all my prints personally, they are hallmarked, and only the printing machine operator and I have access to the file. So my prints are very sought after.”

    For the young designer, she counsels that the fashion business has evolved tenfold from what it used to be, and new designers today can only make a name for themselves through their creativity and uniqueness, “You have to come up with something which is your own or you will not be recognised and people will never remember you.”  A majority of designers, she warns, end up being basic. “Don’t look at fashion magazines but think with your own head, make the kind of clothes that you want to wear and which are not available in the market.” She also advised young designers to forego outdated marketing strategies and embrace social media.

    She points out that there is no substitute for hard work. “Now that I have been 25 years in this business, I know that when I put in 18 hours a day, I was met with roaring success, and when I put in ten hours of work, I got an equivalent measure in return, and when I didn’t work, my business disappeared in two years. I have been through all the stages, I didn’t work for three years when I went through depression after my father’s death. I have learned that the amount of hard work you put in is the amount you’ll get back.”