Fashion designer Neeta Lulla on Sridevi as mentor and styling Bollywood and Tollywood celebrities

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Fashion designer Neeta Lulla on Sridevi as mentor and styling Bollywood and Tollywood celebrities

Widely recognised for her work in designing traditional Indian costumes in Bollywood films, Neeta Lulla, 58, started her fashion career in the late 1980s and soon ventured into costume designing for Indian films. Her designs often blend traditional Indian craftsmanship with contemporary aesthetics.

She has had a long-standing association with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and styling Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, as a co-costume designer on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), the epic historical film Devdas (2002), which garnered immense praise and earned her a National Film Award for Best Costume Design, and Jodhaa Akbar (2008). Lulla has ventured outside Bollywood, to design costumes for regional language films, designing costumes for the likes of Sridevi, and for international projects.

One of India’s most prominent and respected fashion and costume designers, Lulla speaks to Moneycontrol in an exclusive chat about her recent project, the Telugu film BRO, and styling politician-actor Pawan Kalyan as the lead, learning shade cards from Sridevi, and advice for those seeking to enter the fashion-designing world. Edited excerpts:

How was the experience of designing the outfits for actor-politician Pawan Kalyan in Samuthirakani-directed BRO

Collaborating with Pawan sir was a wonderful experience. His demeanour was characterised by simplicity, a composed calmness, and a remarkable sense of humility. As an innovative actor, he effortlessly exudes a stylish and surreal attitude that elevates his simple style statement. His unwavering trust in the work is incredibly humbling and motivating.

Pawan Kalyan likes to keep his clothing simple while you are someone who designs grandeur. Was styling him tough?

It might require more creativity and communication to ensure the person feels comfortable and confident in their attire. Styling was not difficult as I constantly shared my design sensibilities and had a clear understanding of sir’s preferences. I aligned my creative vision with his style while maintaining his comfort and style statement. In essence, styling is a dynamic and multifaceted process and can be an interesting and satisfying journey when you can strike the right balance between different design sensibilities.

Is BRO a special film for you? 

Collaborating with (actors) Sai Dharam Tej and Ketika Sharma was extraordinary, they placed complete trust in my work. Pawan sir’s team treated me like family, for which I am deeply grateful. And I had the privilege to work with (actor) Samuthirakhani sir again after Thalaivii (2021).

When it comes to styling male actors, what is the most challenging part? 

When styling male actors, one of the most challenging aspects can be striking the right balance between creating a unique and memorable look while still aligning with the actor’s personal preferences and the character they’re portraying. It requires understanding their body type, personality, and overall tone of the project. Additionally, sourcing and selecting diverse clothing options that fit well and enhance the actor’s appearance can also present challenges. Overall, the key is to create a cohesive and visually appealing style that complements the actor’s role and resonates with the audience.

You styled Samantha for Shaakuntalam. What went into the making of those 30 kg-weighing saris and lehngas?

The lehnga did not weigh 30 kg, it was a heavy Zardozi lehnga embroidered in vintage zari threads that took almost 600 hours to embroider and then stitch. It was delightful working with Samantha. Dressing her up and seeing the beautiful transformation into Shankuntala has been so satisfying for me as a creative technician.

What is your thought process the minute you onboard a film? 

The process starts with reading the script over and over a couple of times, visualisation of how I look at it and understanding the director’s vision so that there are two different creative perspectives. After that, illustration and character sketches start simultaneously, a lot of research goes into the fabrics, colours, jewellery, design and costume details. From sketches to fabrication, surface ornamentation, sourcing jewellery and embellishments. A look test is scheduled and we dress the actors in the garments of their characters. For me, this process takes six-eight months depending on the magnanimity of the film and quantity of costumes, which is never less than 2,000.

And how big is your team? 

Depends on the film, it varies. Six floor assistants and 15 garment production teams is the minimum.

Can you share a little about the initial stage of your career?

My interest in fashion started by poring over magazines in the early 80s, from which I learnt various techniques of scarf draping or fashion styling. I had decided to start a little workshop of my own to be a designer as a hobby. With my pocket money of Rs 500, by selling sandwiches at a school, I picked up my first machine and hired a machinist. Studies didn’t interest me. To opt out of it at age 16, I decided to get married. But having married into a family of professionals, I needed to pursue a career of my own, and the fashion industry came to my rescue.

Bridal couture, films and motherhood happened simultaneously and as a professional, I played several parts, that of a merchandiser, pattern cutter, stylist, makeup artist, accountant, and, sometimes, the runner and cleaner of my own office.

What is the best compliment you received to date and from whom?

When a bride meets me after years and says how she loves her outfit and she still wears it and it looks good and feels comfortable. When my actors and directors appreciate my work and do not question my judgement on looks, the trust they have is humbling.

You recently shared in an interview that later actress Sridevi used to use fruits and flowers to explain colours. Can you please share a little more about your bonding with her? 

Sridevi was my mentor and I’ve learnt a lot from her. We had a great working relationship that started with (Chiranjeevi-starrer Telugu film) Jagdish Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990). At that time, there were no colour shade cards so the go-to for colours was fabric cuttings or something at close reach. So, even if it was a fruit or a flower, leaves or anything that translates the colour she was looking at it would work as a shade card.

Fashion keeps evolving. There are stylists and boutiques on almost every street everywhere now. Can you share some tips for those looking to embark on a fashion designing career? 

Establish a distinctive style that sets you apart from others. Whether it’s a signature aesthetic, a focus on certain types of clothing, or a particular niche, having a unique selling point helps you attract a dedicated clientele. Stay updated with the latest fashion trends, industry news, and styling techniques. Continuous learning helps you offer a fresh approach to work. Building a successful brand takes time, dedication, and perseverance. By combining your passion for fashion with a strategic approach to business, you can create a lasting impression in the world of styling and boutiques.

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