I meet Rhea at her tastefully done-up bungalow in Juhu on a sultry afternoon. The fiercely private and media-shy stylissma is warm, chatty and unassuming. Clad in a pair of comfy Zara pants she is a far cry from the high-voltage, glamazon and often soul-searing looks she devises for sis Sonam. Rhea is as much clued into every fine detail of her daily work schedule as she is tuned into the Milan spring collections.
The style, com-addict discusses the Prada spring line with a child-like enthusiasm. “The mural-inspired collection was outstanding. Miuccia is not afraid to show you literally what her inspiration is. She is daring and brave about it. If that seeps into Indian designers, we can do a lot because there is so much inspiration in this country. I am obsessed with her and want to buy the whole collection,” she says breaking into laughter.
If today Sonam has put India on the global high fashion firmament then it’s all thanks to Rhea’s gimlet-eyed focus and acute involvement with every look of hers. Taking risks, using off-beat labels and promoting young and upcoming designers, this creative partnership between Rhea and Sonam has resulted in an array of stunning looks.
The sisters work in perfect sync. It’s like two sisters entering a dress-up box and flirting with surreal fashion fantasies. The fashionista likes to mix haute couture and high street and has been collecting vintage clothes since she was 17. She just turned 26. “There is nothing like haute couture and it’s my goal in life at some level to collect it. We have a whole collection but it’s over the top.”
Surrounded by beauty
Rhea grew up in a house which was a lot about expressing oneself. When your dad is one of the most revered deities in Bollywood, your mom is a fashion designer and you’ve grown up in a house where style and aesthetic are of exemplary importance, it’s natural for you to get inspired.
“We were surrounded by beautiful things. Our mom gave us a lot of knowledge about finer things — everything to do with antiques, jewellery, a beautiful shawl or zari so we grew up with that subconsciously.”
Undiluted love for fashion
Rhea’s love of fashion comes from her love of make-belief. “I was never really inspired that much by the fashion magazines as much by films, TV, the idea of persona and style. My love of fashion comes from the idea that it’s wearable expression so it could be like a kiss or raising the middle finger. I love that.
An outfit can tell you if someone’s depressed or someone’s happy. That’s what I really love about fashion and I just feel that it’s so liberating. That’s where my inspiration comes from but my real love of putting stuff together came from my living by myself in New York,” she says.
The NYC days
Rhea studied dramatic literature and later theatre at NYU.
She found herself in this amazing new space where she was making all new friends and was exposed to this whole new life and a whole new way of thinking and behaving. “You feel so free that you can make a fool of yourself and you can do whatever you want.
You can be as outrageous as you want or as subdued as you want. Anyway in Mumbai I don’t really go out that much socially and I don’t like to socialise too much here because of this idea of being Anil Kapoor’s daughter. I feel stifled and I can’t make mistakes. When you are young and when you are in your 20s that’s something which you should be doing.
You are supposed to be doing a lot of stupid stuff. Plus I was never comfortable in that scenario. When I was in New York, I came out of shell and I had a great time. I explored different parts of myself – do I want to be intellectual or do I want to be glamorous or do I want to be dramatic and in those four years I was everything. It was a lot of fun,” she recalls with a twinkle in her eyes.
Sonam: my muse
Does she express her emotions through fashion? “Now-a-days they only reflect that fact that I only want to wear flats and loose clothes (laughs). I think I express myself a lot through my styling Sonam because she is like my muse in a lot of ways.” If Sonam Kapoor is a fashion empire then Rhea is the architect of this success saga.
From her Cannes looks to the everyday events Sonam attends – Rhea along with her girl gang comprising designer Anamika Khanna, stylist Tanya Ghavri and designer Shehla Khan etches out each look to the last possible detail.
“Sometimes it’s easier for me to envision something and Sonam has the opportunities to express that vision,” says the stylist.
“Anamika is more of a dreamer, Sonam is all about expression. Tanya and I are like two girls playing dress up.
Sonam and I started the stylist phenomenon and now everyone has got a hairdresser and a stylist. Since we were young, Sonam was always the most dressed person in the room – whether it was Diwali or a party she loved dressing up. So even when we started doing it, it was fun,” she says.
Creating the Nath sensation
“The look (a strong modern warrior princess/goddess) we did with Anamika Khanna couture was there in my head for a year-and-a-half. I loved the idea of doing a coat with the sari.
I saw this picture of Gayatri Devi. She was wearing a sari and a coat over her shoulders but it was like winter coat.
That image was stuck in my brain and it was so beautiful.
Now where the hell am I going to go with a sari, a coat and a train? And I was like my god we should it for Cannes.
Sonam and I are like one. We are so close. I’ll tell her about it and it’s like I’ve worn it. Sometimes it’s opposite. Sonam likes things like high tops and sneakers. She is not a sporty girl but everyone has this side that they want to express. I am very tomboyish,” says she.
“Everyone has hits and misses so does Sonam and so do I.
For me the nath is such an expression of sexuality and Indian version of being sexy. Also it’s so close to the mouth and that’s why I wanted to be large. I wanted to bring the attention to her mouth and nothing else.
That was the only jewellery she wore and the rest was of course her body. For me it wasn’t like – we are trying to be so Indian. It was my way of bringing sexuality into that look. I want to wear a nath for my wedding also even though I have Anil Kapoor’s thin lips. I’ll pull it off that day,” she says with a smile.
Promoting young designers
“My larger than life like greed when it comes to fashion comes through Sonam. The Dolce & Gabbana dress was one of my fave looks. There is a story about nath. One night I dreamt about the nath and woke up and called Anamika and told her, “Let’s do a nath.” I had seen this incredible royal portrait from the 30s online when I was doing my research. It was stuck in my brain and wouldn’t leave.
People are not used to seeing Bollywood actresses being represented in a strong way. My thing is, “if you don’t like it then don’t wear it,” (laughs). I just feel that there is a constant pressure for women to look a certain way and because of that they’ll never be able to express themselves.
I am inspired by people like Daphne Guinness, Katherine Hepburn who really take a chance and are ridiculed but they influence fashion. It’s most iconic for you to influence fashion designers than the other way.
When I style shoots for Sonam I very rarely use international fashion designers. I feel that there is so much talent here but there is not much investment in terms of finance so people don’t have the material or means to take it internationally forward. But if we make it known then slowly it’ll start pouring in. Whether it’s Nikhil Thampi, Huemn, Shehla Khan, Dhruv Kapur or Kanika Saluja… if you give them a chance it’ll surprise us.”
Vision for Sonam
One’s wont to ask her – was it a calculated strategy to morph Sonam into a style icon? “If we were so calculative we would have fallen on our faces because fashion is a very organic thing. Good fashion comes from emotion, it comes from joy and it comes from not giving a shit.
If you look at the most inspiring people in the world of fashion, they don’t just give a crap. We just want to have fun and whatever we do in fashion will be about that. I think if you try and make yourself iconic, you’re going to make yourself ridiculous.
Sonam and I never tried to do that. We look at fashion like other people look at art and music. It’s just about what’s incredible, what we have and what’s old and how we mix it… it’s just about enjoying being a girl or a woman.
Fashion allows you to explore different parts of yourself - whether I am feeling androgynous today or slutty today. As a girl you should be able to be what you want and fashion gives you that power. Why not? I am so inspired by a lot of young and upcoming designers. I know it’s a sensitive subject but now a lot of them are open about their sexuality.
They are doing some incredible work and those are the people I want to encourage the most. We also have some senior designers who are not so open about it. This medium of fashion makes you feel it’s okay… whatever encourages you to be more of yourself is a fantastic thing. For women and gay men it’s such an amazing thing because you are wearing it and walking out of the world and you are putting it on other people and they are wearing it and they are interpreting it themselves.
When you talk about Maison Martin Margiela, you talk about that bejeweled mask and the statement he made with that.
How can you not love it? If you do something different people notice it. ‘Let’s do red lips during the day because Sonam did it’. A girl would realise that she looks great with red lips and it’ll catch on like a wonderful disease. Now everyone wants their looks put together for the evening out.
This is me but who are you? We don’t want clones of Sonam running around which is kind of happening at some level. I hope there are more people are like Vidya Balan and have guts to be themselves. I don’t see much of that and that’s why I find Vidya so inspiring. No matter what she is like... this is who I am... Kirron Kher is another person who is inspiring.
I want to steal all of her saris. If people think Sonam is a fashionista, Kirron Kher is out-of-the-control amazing. I love everything about her. Rekha too doesn’t give a shit. She’s like I don’t give a damn – whether this is Stardust award or Oscars – I will wear my Kanjeevaram. I find these women inspiring and not some mannequin who wears an outfit given by her stylist. That’s boring who cares about it.”
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