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Xerxes Bhathena Star Designer


Xerxes Bhathena has been creating dream outfits for the leading stars of Indian cinema, bringing glamour to start wear with his diamond and silk razzmatazz gowns.

For Xerxes Bhathena, the high priest of fashion in the Indian film world, success fid not exactly come on a silver platter. It was a slow hard climb up the ladder starting at the very bottom as a sales man at Burlingtons Fashion House way back in 1970 on a paltry Rs. 400/- per month. Working with Andre Kapur, the brain behind Burlingtons and Bhathena’s guru, helped him to imbibe the latest in fashion. And soon the simple little Parsi boy from a middle class family was designer-in-charge of Burlingtons’ Pret-a-Porter export collection. And when he had enough of the export business he moved on as buyer for the yet to materialize Burlingtons Mailing Catalogue. “The e planning and research for this catalogue which appeared only two years ago was started a decade ago, that’s how far back things were planned in Burlingtons,” he recalls.

When Bhathena looked for newer pastures in the designing world it was film land that attracted him the most. But breaking into the very close knit film community requires ingenuity of the highest order. “In 1980 with just 17 garments and with the help of fellow designer, Hemant Trivedi, and model Audrey Casmiro, I offered to stage fashion shows in star homes.” The first home was Shabana Azmi’s but Bhathena’s glamorous outfits were not exactly right for her image. “But she introduced me to Praveen Babi and the rest is history,” recollects Bhathena nostalgically. Bhathena was Babi’s personal costume designer and can be credited with bringing glamour to star wear. Very often described as the Indian ‘Bob Macky’ who creates high impact garments for Hollywood stunners like Cher, Bhathena’s entry into the glamour world was preceded by just two designers – the very much in demand Mani Rababi and the perfectionist Bhanu Athaya. But the former was saturated while the latter had turned inaccessible and the current stars on the screen like Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Smita Patil etc., demanded trendy, fashionable wear. “I am basically a glamour wear designer. Day wear just doesn’t inspire me. So my clothes will obviously appeal to filmstars.

Bhathena’s designs for Babi in the film ‘Namak Halal’ were a rage and soon every leading lady in town wanted him as her designer. Bhathena has worked with every top heroine in the business. Right from Parveen Babi, Smita Patil, Zeenat Aman, Dipti Naval, Dimple Kapadia, Sridevi, Jaya Pradha to Madhuri, Anu Agarwal, Sonu Walia etc., and created dazzling outfits for over 50 films. As a designer, Bhathena is clear about his creations. “In the film world you design for a character and at other times a fashion designer creates for a person. There is a distinct difference between the two. In the former, he is governed by the character the actress is playing, while in the latter case, it is the personality of the actress that he tried to emphasize.” The best figure he ahs so far dressed has been Sarika’s, and two stars he would love to dress up are Rekha and Padmini Kolhapure.

Bhathena’a memorable films have been Sagar for Ramesh Sippy where he dressed Dimple Kapadia as the beauteous Mona in those romantic frilly, white dresses, Mr. India for Shekhar Kapur where Sridevi got all the applause for her attire as well as her acting and Sultanat for Mukul Anand.

With nearly 21 workers and 50 embroiderers Bhathena can dream up a dress within hours as he did for Jaya Pradha for Sharabi. “It was a fully sequined creation that was ready just 14 hours.” Bhathena travels for three months in the year seeking out new fabrics and spends two months visiting Bangalore and Varanasi creating special silks and brocades.

“I don’t design revealing clothes. My women are draped in yards of flowing fabric that creates an aura of mystery around them.” A Bhathena creation cannot be totally categorized into a particular segment. “It is fusion of the East and West. A cross between a lounge dress and salwar kameez.” Since 1986 Bhathena has moved into the export market creating once-of-a kind garment s for his outlets in London, Vancouver, San Francisco and Singapore where prestigious stores displays his outfits exclusively.

He is more choosy about the films he designs for now and, instead of jetting around the country delivering garments in 24 hours, he prefers to concentrate on his exclusive collections which he designs four times a year. “I now take only outstanding scenes and leave the rest of the film for the others. Today fashion has progressed so fast that a start with any dress sense can put a wardrobe together from boutiques if she wants.”

Bhathena is at his creative best when he is designing western wear. “No business suits though, please,” he admits, honestly. “I am a diamond and silk razzmatazz buff. I make sexy garments but not to expose because Indian actresses don’t have sexy figures like Cher has. And the only Indian actress who did have one, was Sarika and she didn’t even know it.”

Bhathena’s collections normally comprise 200 garments each. In San Francisco, ‘Shaukeen’ is Bhathena’s exclusive outlet. In London, it is ‘Variety Silk House’. In Toronto he sells very up-market creations that have beaded embroidery. In Vancouver it is Pret items yet they are one-of-a-kind. For the Middle East there are loads of silks and brocades. Bhathena admits his clientele comprises the NRI abroad and not the regular westerner. Bhathena’s creations have been shown at shows in the Middle East, USA and UK. “My creations are perennial and are not restricted to any season. One can’t talk of a spring or winter collection in India, which is a land of eternal summer,” he laughs. Obviously, Bhathena’s fame as a star designer has drawn aspiring fashion creators to move into the tinsel world and as he acknowledge “There is room for new talent all the time. With Indians making over 500 films every year even at the peak of my career I could only handle 50 films every year even at the peak of my career I could only handle 50 films a year. But if starry-eyed designers think that tinsel town is where they will make their millions, Bhathena adds discouragingly, “If one charges Rs. 20,000/- for a dress the cost is often Rs. 15,000/- and one would be lucky if the balance is ever paid.”

Having such a formidable fashion background Bhathena is often asked why he hasn’t moved into the fast moving ad-world where his glamorous creations would be a rage. “I did create the costume for the ‘Puf’ ad-film but advertising does not appeal to me. I can’t take the dictates of an art director. No doubt ladies, wear is Bhathena’s forte but some of the actors have also worn his creations. Kamalhasan, Karan Kapoor, Deepak Parashar were the chosen few. “But I don’t enjoy creating men’s wear.”

Bhathena’s emphasis on his embroidery is normally inspired by the fabric he works with. His designs are more fabric-oriented. “I see the fabric and then plan the style.” His use of zardozi, machine embroidery in gold, silver and copper is very often on vibrant shades. But he loves the stark simplicity and drama of black and white. Bhathena’s sizing of a readymade garment is very accurate enabling an average figure to slip into it without any alterations. Another area of fashion designing that Bhathena is known for is bridal trousseaux. Planning the complete look along with accessories, make/hairstyling etc. is what Bhathena enjoys doing. Creating flamboyant avant garde creations is the world of Xerxes Bhathena and it is something he is not ever going to give up as he stubbornly adds, “I’ll never give up designing for the stars and beautiful women. I love it too much!”