After a successful stint at the Mumbai and the South Indian Fashion Industry, the doe-eyed Robert Naorem was keen on bringing Manipur Fashion to the world stage. The designer, make-up artists and entrepreneur, who is also a psychologist, brought the traditional Meitei attire on the runway has a huge role in bringing Manipuri Handloom to the limelight. Keen on making Fashion a way of life, Robert left his comfortable and fanciful lifestyle to start anew in the Manipur Fashion Industry a few years back. For the first time in Manipur, Robert organised a Fashion Extravaganza which reimagined and re-invented the traditional loom work on the Runway.
A quick chat, some interesting insights into the working of the Manipur Fashion industry and lots of laughter made us realise how down-to-earth and humble this fabulous designer is!
Excerpts from the Interview…
ManipuriWeddings: First of all Congratulations on your recent exploits. We are so excited about Manipuri weaves taking on the International stage. So tell us how did London happen?
Robert: It’s been always a dream you know. I am especially proud of our Manipuri weaves, there is something unique about it. In my years of adventure in the Beauty and Fashion, I have not seen a rich culture like ours anywhere. And unfortunately, most of mainstream India treat us like we don’t have a culture, something different which we have at some point or the other have always experience. It is this ignorance and narrow-mindedness which inspired me to explore our culture and bring it to a stage where everyone can look up to. We have always been known for our dance and we will be celebrated it for that but there is more to it than that.
MW: So working with handloom weavers was always part of the plan?
Robert: See, being in the Fashion Industry, I have always worked closely with the weavers and have a very close connection with them. They have been in this industry for such a long time and haven’t been given the chance to explore the full potentials. And I wish to explore that with them. And making the traditional look a fashion trend can to a certain extent make that happen. Although it is not easy, there is nothing to lose in giving a shot, I believe!
Like I always say, we have been wearing what the others (from outside the state) have made for us. We buy expensive stuffs, branded dresses and silk scarf imported from Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata why not give our own Handloom Product a chance!
MW: That’s a noble thought there. I believe after your show, we will see a bigger market for our products.
Robert: It has always been a huge dream for me to showcase the beauty of Manipur especially the weaves which is very unique. I aimed for international level recognition and let people know what we wear. It certainly made me and my people proud of our cultural heritage. And once it is out in the display we generate more customers demanding for products and in turn it increases the market productivity for the weavers.
MW: We also loved the Sangai Festival Show last year. It was extremely well choreographed and how did the idea of the looms as props come about?
Robert: Basically, the idea was to incorporate the different stages, different aspects of Loom work. Most of us are clueless about what goes behind that intricately woven, carefully finished inaphi. We hardly know how it was made what kinds of looms and how it is woven and why is it so costly. I wanted to send a message to the people that these tiny looms and hours and hours of sweat and tears is what we are paying for. I had coordinated the entire thing in coordination with my loom weavers. It has always been a priority for me that whenever I conduct a fashion show I always make sure that the theme is to connect to the handloom heritage of our state. I try to teach people how the garments are being woven and what instruments are used.
MW: How do you strike a balance creative expression and commercial viability?
Robert: That’s one thing I have been struggling with. As a designer, you have to see what people want and like. Like there is this trend of shimmers and too much lace on the blouse which I do not endorse as the shimmers takes away the beauty of the inaphi. But I have learnt to adapt. I take some cues from my clients and try to incorporate and work with my own designs with some others.
MW: What is your favourite part of the job?
Robert: I like everything except when I get lost in my own world once I start working! I always involve myself too much into it. But when am lost in my world, it’s a stress free. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of what design I should add and what color combination I should put for the next one.
If I travel I always look for inspiration. And thats the best thing about it. I am so addicted to my work that I don’t have time for anything else or anything negative.
MW: If you were to spell out two major problems faced by our Fashion Industry, what are those?
Robert: To be very honest, there is a huge gap in our perception of what fashion is and what it can really do to ourselves or image and our daily life. Most people treat it as entertainment or passion. Of course both are to a certain extent valid but there is more to it then just walking the ramp and showcasing dresses on nicely presented models.
So when people talk about a fashion model they take it into a different level. Even the model themselves can’t seem to differentiate between what’s commercial and what is professional. And the down side to it is that it is very difficult to survive in such a market.
Second is people mentality towards fashion, it is very different so being a designer you really cant survive. The wearability and usability of your creation becomes the marker of your survival. And if someone wants to venture into western wears like gowns and evening wears, we hardly have any buyers. We have a long way to go. The endorsement culture, the ideas of branding, promoting a brand or even setting a trend are some of the thing we will really need to work on. They just see fashion as just walking the ramp with all beautiful girls and handsome boys and wearing designer garments which is really disappointing. The most disappointing thing is that the Fashion shoots here are about arranging for a shoot with nice dresses in a nice location and then put the pictures on Social Media, thats where it ends.
One thing we need to be very clear about is that Fashion is a way of life. It has to do with what we wear, who we wear, how we wear. It can be about a mobile phone that we use, a laptop, shoes, everything and that the ramp and fashion show is more of a conceptual and aesthetic thing. It not only showcases a design and a style but it is also about ideas, moods, feel and most importantly the designer’s point of view. And that when you wear that particular designer or design you are endorsing these ideas.
MW: Fashion has evolved into a glamorous industry, and today, many youngsters want to be a part of it. What is your opinion about these repetitions and imitations that is very common in our fashion industry? What do you think is the solution?
Robert: It’s plain simple, the fashion Industry is still very small in Manipur. And hardly anyone has a clue about copyrights and patenting your designs. For example, when I first brought out the designs of the Meitei Mayek on Inaphi, people started copying it because they don’t have the concepts of copyrights and patents. They think of creating the same designs after seeing the pictures from the media was just fine. Also the weavers are mostly uneducated/unaware of such policies so it’s difficult to fight this battle alone. And then there are those who know that it is a stolen design but still want to buy them.
A collective fashion counsel or committee is the need of the hour. So if we make a small fashion or design committee and discuss about patented right and make it compulsory to include all big or small designers in Manipur and take decisions together thus giving the opportunity to claim or patent any particular design it would be a great help to the creative rights of the designers and the loom workers as well.
MW: That’s very well elaborated. Now, moving on to something very different. Can you update us on your forays into Potloi and wedding designs?
Robert: The Potloi trend is continuously changing and what I have tried to do is retain the beauty and it’s true meaning. If we really go deep into it the true essence of Potloi lies in it’s design: the kumin ningthou turel potloi phibaan khoi mayek mayek naiba gi mapan da lonba all these are essential in the Potloi making process. I take inspirations from these traditional designs and apply starch to make it more stiff. While the end product is always glamorous and elaborate! Every detail of the work has its own meaning.
Even though I try to use the modern material in making potloi I make sure that the true meaning of potloi is seen in my work and don’t try to modify it completely. As for the phi, I always suggest my clients that we should always wear our traditional phi mayek with lamthang khuthak (phijang) instead of lace which I do keep in accordance with the preference of my clients. Third thing, there is a false notion that heavier the costume heavier should be the make up. Would like to change this wrong notion of make up trend like red lipstick mania, matching dress and lipstick color which is completely outdated when it comes to fashion. Bringing out the beauty of simplicity is something I keep reiterating to my clients and my juniors. My idea of make up is about bringing out the already existing beauty of an individual.
MW: We are getting to see a different side of Robert Naorem today, please tell us about yourself. Is there anything that the world doesn’t know about Robert Naorem?
Robert: Hahaha… (laughs) I think most of the things about me are already covered by a lot of people and lot of interviews. I have been involved in so many things some of which I know of and some other which I am not aware of too…
I have been a working as a MUA since 1998 and then later shifted to Bangalore. I learned makeup at Manipur Dramatic Union, got an opportunity to be a guest faculty in NIFT and worked with several biggies in the industry. BUT, thats because I worked hard for that and life presented me many opportunities which I took on as a challenge. But for some of us these are just a dream and we as role models need to show some concern towards issues like Emotional and Physical Welfare of the children and old people. Educationally, I am trained in psychology. My next would be to help the psychologically and emotionally stressed people who have been affected by the conditions that we are living in. Very few people know that I am a clinical psychologists so probably I want to do that soon. And one more thing is I closely work with orphan children, old-age people which has been completely out of the media gaze but which now needs to be made aware of since we need a lot more helping hands in this area.
However, my only intent is to promote Manipur. Be it handloom, fashion or anything else which can create a good image of us all over the world.
MW: Thank you so much Robert, it’s been wonderful and inspiring talking to you.
Robert: Good Day you too!
You can check out Robert Naorem Bridal Collection in our Gallery.
This interview was conducted for ManipuriWeddings by Lucky Diana Lourembam. Please find out more about her in our About Us section.
Pictures Credit: We would like to thank Epic Films for their generosity and everything else.