West Side Stories

Tawhidur Rashid converses with Navonil Das from the famous Indian brand Dev R Nil that recently organized a salon exhibition in Dhaka to know more about the brand’s philosophy.  

Welcome to Bangladesh! Is this your first time visiting here?
Yes! I have been planning to come here for the last fifteen years but somehow it never happened until now. Every time I got an offer for a show or an exhibition, it got canceled. Finally, it has happened and now we will be back very often.

Model: Raaz
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

How do you perceive Dhaka as a city from a fashion designers’ perspective?
I have experienced very contrasting segments. Yesterday, my friends took me to Zurhem’s place. It’s a beautiful boutique, clothes, and art of international standard are laid out there. On the other end, there are handicrafts, which are equally beautiful. I have only a busy few days here, but I am planning to explore more in the coming days.

When you were planning for the show, did you have any particular theme in mind?
The men’s wear that was displayed is already popular with people of Dhaka who travel there. On the other hand, the sari line was created according to our preference, at the same time keeping the Dhaka client base in mind. We have a very large Bangladeshi client base but we have always produced designs based on our taste, we have never catered based on what is selling. We will sell what we want to. You see what we create, if you like it, come and buy.

Model: Sharlina
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

Is that your brand mantra?
When we started selling 15 years ago, it was an enormous market for only Indian wear. Most of it was only about copying the work of Sabyasachi. The replica market was running wild in Calcutta. That’s when we decided on western wear as a niche, just a limited edition of shirts and skirts. In the first year, we hardly sold anything and somehow survived. Even though the first year was disastrous, we stuck to it. I remember the collection that we made was sold out the next year. We realized that it takes a while for people to understand what we are doing and so we went on building our brand. Slowly, we went beyond our niche to all the Indian clothes which we make now.

How has the taste of the consumer changed in the past 15 years?
The market has matured massively. More people are traveling, a larger number of people are exposed to international fashion trends and that has reflected on their demands. Customers put greater emphasis on quality, you cannot just put up shabbily embroidered low-quality clothes, it’s about detailed craftsmanship – every piece of cloth has finesse and couture.
How has the rise of social media changed the way you market your brand?
Our brand was built on quality and authenticity. Over the years, that has been our forte since the start. Now, social media helps us to tell people about our brand and let them know what we are doing.

Model: Raaz
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

Do you believe that the brands which are built on a social media hype are standing on an unstable base?
I hope that they have the right product to back their hype on social media. In my opinion, one might gain popularity from beautiful social media posts but if that is not backed up by actual products, it will eventually amount to nothing. Our brand is built upon repeat customers, we have entire families as our clients. There are families I have designed clothes for, from engagement to baby showers. We are very fortunate to have such a wide customer base.
Was the growth of such a wide customer base intentional?
It was not conscious, the growth was actually prompted by demand. We used to design women’s wear that will appeal to ages twenty to thirty. Then, the mothers who came with them started asking us to make sarees for them, that’s how our range spread.
Are men becoming more and more fashion-conscious?
I would rather say they are now more open to different options available. A few decades back men didn’t have too many options compared to women. Now that they have an alternative, they will venture out and give it a try which eventually leads to buying more derivative outfits.

Model: Sharlina
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

What is making them (men) open to new fashion ideas?
I would love to thank the LGBTQ culture for contributing so much to this. They are doing a lot of experiments with fashion, some of which are permeating into Bollywood. There is an immense influence of Bollywood on Indian fashion. Ranveer Singh is the first Indian actor to try over-the-top fashion. Influenced by him, the younger generation is also trying out new things. But the original sub-culture comes from the LGBTQ community which then blends into our fashion. A lot of things have changed post 377 rulings in India, so there is interconnectivity in all of these.

Have you done any market research before coming to Dhaka?
We made the decision to come based on our interaction with Bangladeshi clients in India. We had a lot of high-profile customers which gave us the impression that clients here would love our work. Also, we were confident of our mantra of designing clothes, gorgeous yet comfortable outfits.

Model: Raaz
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

Tell us about your upcoming collection?
There will be a new range which is part of the “Wild, Water and Land” theme. Every line of the brand has a story and reason behind its existence. One of our most successful designs from last year was based on the rise of right-wing populism. We are also bringing water and forests and the importance of conserving our forests into our design but we have tried to avoid doing anything tribal because we didn’t want to capitalize on their hardships.
We had an entire wedding line inspired by Mughal Jafri, Muslim architecture in India. Those designs are based on arches which were found in the architecture of that era. The Makbara line was inspired by the tombstones of the Mughal Era.

Do you think as a designer you are always influenced by what’s happening around you?
Fashion designers are commentators of social, political and economic dimensions of their surroundings. My commentary is translated through my designs. I believe we have a responsibility towards the society to speak out, while we also comment on history. For example, one of our designs illustrated the outcry of a generation losing their memories due to the rapid change of cities.
We had a line called “The Value of Missing Flowers” which was based upon the plight of Kashmiri people and children who were brought up in the middle of the war. The line had no clothes, we just wanted to depict their agony. We placed stone coffins beside models whose limbs were plastered, the clothes were folded and kept on the coffin beside flowers as a memory to the fallen. It was a beautiful portrayal which was part of a fashion week presentation.

Model: Sharlina
Wardrobe: Dev R Nil
Photographer: Abir Hossain Noman
Makeup and Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Fashion Coordination: Zahid Emon

Among the various messages (social, political, environmental, economic), which one influences you the most as a person?
Our collections are reflective of what state of mind we are in, if an event affects us in a way, you will see a reflection of that in our designs. We are reflecting what is happing around us.
If you dig through civilizations or ages, the only thing that survives the test of time is pottery and clothing materials. The craftsmanship in those potteries is an indication of the state of development of that civilization. Fashion and textiles are also an indicator of a specific era.
A Parisian photographer put one camera in a corner and took pictures for over 50 years at the same time of the day. It showed that over fifty years architecture remained more or less the same but there was a significant change in what people were wearing. More interestingly, by looking at the pictures one can point out what era a specific person belonged to. That is the significance of fashion. Maybe years down the line somebody will point to our clothes and identify the era.

In Bangladesh, a lot of craftsmen are losing their jobs due to automation. What is the situation like in India?
Automation is taking over everywhere in the world but we as designers have a responsibility to help base level artists and open up their minds. When we started with Batik, the careers of Batik craftsmen took off. The weavers we worked with also work with numerous clients from abroad.

What is your opinion about the fashion scene in Dhaka?
I have to say, there are two sights. Women in cars and women without them. One is privileged and well-traveled, the other is simpler who prefer to wear the scarfs. These extremes are also present in India and I hope it continues. Even women who wear the face veil, they have their fashion statement and do it beautifully, it’s very endearing for us. The rest of the world is getting very homogeneous but in our part of the world, there are unique deviations in different locations that make us very diverse. The longer we can hold on to these diversities, the culture and careers of our artisans will live on!