“I will go where the sky meets the earth, I used to tell my father, who was a Director of Education at Patiala in Punjab. And he would say, ‘Go on, run then Minto’ and I have been running, chasing my heart, my dreams ever since, and there is so much more I want to do,” says Mohanjeet Grewal—who turned 92 recently—in her honeyed, quavering voice, narrating her magical journey from Lahore to Paris, the fashion capital of the world.
Today, Indian fashion is known for its cultural heritage, rich colours, natural textiles, intricate designs and elegance, and is often spotted on global runways. But what is not widely known is that Grewal—or Mohanjeet as she is known in fashion circles—has had a big part to play in introducing the grandeur of Indian fashion and fabrics to the world.
“Mohanjeet has been critical in letting the world know about Indian craftsmanship and creativity. Her work and personality are building stones for India’s textile power and crafts at large,” says Vaishali Shadangule, who owns a Mumbai-based eponymous couture brand and has also showcased Indian weaves at the Paris Haute Couture Week.
It was in April of 1964 that Grewal became the first Indian designer to set up a store on Rue de Bac, a fabled street on the left bank of Paris. Called “La Malle de l’Inde”, or The Indian Trunk, she literally brought in trunk-loads of Indian textiles into France with 3,000 francs loaned by a friend; she borrowed another 7,000 francs from another friend to set up the shop. This store took the world’s fashion capital by storm “at once” says Grewal, who can well be called the grande dame of Indian high fashion.
We are meeting at her tastefully done-up home at Nizamuddin in Delhi, and her living room seems to reflect her personality. There are books, magazines, art, and huge posters of Andy Warhol and Raphael. On the walls are Grewal’s photographs from her younger days as also photos she has clicked, including those of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who she interviewed many times while working as a scribe. She clearly has a thing for Buddha statues, as 37 of them in varied sizes adorn her living room, along with other bric-a-brac.
What is absent is a television set. Ask her about it and she says: “I never had one, either in Paris or here in India. I like to read the newspaper every day and I do listen to the radio but have never watched TV.”
Ask Grewal about what led her to fashion and being an Indian designer in Paris, and she is quite candid. “I never knew fashion would be my calling since I had never undertaken a formal course in design, nor did I work with sketches. In fact, I was a journalist with no connection at all with fashion,” she says in her charming way. There was a trigger, though, but more on that later.
Hers has truly been a chequered journey. Grewal, born in Lahore, moved with her family to Patiala a night before Independence. At a time when very few women pursued higher education in India, she went about her studies with zeal, setting her sights to study at a university abroad.
Finally, she got lucky. In 1952, she travelled to the US after winning a scholarship to pursue a Master’s in Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. She followed this up with a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. “I owe the urge for gaining higher knowledge to my father. He was so passionate about education, and this was the greatest gift he gave me,” she says. While still a student, Mohanjeet worked as a guide with the UN; after finishing her studies, she worked as a journalist with the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune newspaper, and later The New York Times, before leaving for Vienna to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency. She then moved to Paris to work for Unesco.
She recalls an incident while working for the UN agency. One day, she was in the US, dressed in a saree, which she regularly used to wear to the office. Someone looked at her attire and asked, ‘Are you from Israel?’ It was then that she realised that no one outside of Unesco knew about India and what it has to offer. That was the trigger. “All I wanted was to showcase and sell India’s craftsmanship to the world. I came back to rediscover India, and I was so excited by the vibrant colours of Rajasthan, the brightness and spark all around, which was in complete contrast to the blacks and the greys of the West. Even if one were to come with a mission to find something ugly in India, they would not be able to find it,” says an animated Mohanjeet.
The first few things she designed for the fashionable French were red coolie shirts and pocketed vests in menswear. Later, she went on to sell white chikankari kurtas from Lucknow and khadi kurtas in different colours. Then she created the bold mini-sari with the hemline above the knee in 1967 and later gold-rimmed dhotis styled as wraparounds, which put her creations on the pages of top French fashion magazines. What put her in the top league was the freewheeling bohemian chic style, which she introduced to Paris in the Sixties. It made her so popular that at one point in time, she was running seven stores in the fashion capital, with even the French designers imitating her style.
Her influence began infiltrating the wardrobes of prominent clients including actresses Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot, and even Princess Caroline of Monaco and the famous designer, Yves Saint Laurent. Not just her clothes, her clients loved being served cardamom and clove tea when they visited the store.
“Yonks back, I remember when I had done a show in Paris, I was walking near Saint Honoré Street (a legendary Parisian address and a temple to haute couture) and I saw this beautiful shop of Mohanjeet who clearly ruled the Paris fashion scene in the 1970s,” says well-known fashion designer Rina Dhaka, adding that the nonagenarian is “known for many innovative ideas, and clearly did it before everyone else”.
Grewal spread her wings further and expanded her offerings to Spain, Monaco and the US. She sold her designs to retail chains such as Ann Taylor and Bloomingdales, and went on to have a presence on the prominent Fifth Avenue in New York. She even had her fuchsia pink ghagra displayed on the opening pages of the US edition of Vogue magazine. However, all of this was not without ups and downs. Grewal herself admits to having made many mistakes as business, she says, is her Achilles heel; but her survival instincts have kept her going.
Her sense of fashion, Grewal says, resembles her life: unrestrained and free. “I never followed any rules of fashion. I made sarees that I wore with collared shirts. Even when I was young, I would have different socks on each foot, visible under cuffed salwars; [I] wore abstract geometric prints and even Sikh karas instead of glass bangles,” she says.
Grewal believes that what she creates is ultra-luxurious and is in no way inferior to French creations. She worked with rare, authentic and exclusive fabrics, and showcased a variety that could hardly be found in one small store in Paris and so she never had any discounts or sales.
Even at 92, Grewal’s eyes sparkle when someone asks her what she wishes to do next—such is her passion for life and work. She still regularly climbs stairs, avoiding the elevator. To this day, she works long hours, many times into the early hours of the morning and, when in Paris, is at her store every single day.
Now she is planning a homecoming of sorts. After half a century of successfully showcasing her work on the global landscape, Grewal plans to open a store at her Delhi home. While she’s excited about it, there are also other things in the Indian capital to keep her busy. For example, there’s a trust she set up in Delhi some time ago that helps educate young Muslim girls. “I help her find such needy girls and the trust pays for their education. While it is small now, Mohanjeet has big plans and miles to go before she sleeps,” says her friend and neighbour in Delhi, Tamanna Varma, a freelance investment consultant who helps run her trust.
The aura of her home is such that time seems to stand still as we listen to her speak with passion about her life, her story and her undying spirit to do more. This is despite the fact that we are sitting in the sweltering Delhi heat during a power outage. But our two hours are up and it’s time to leave. As we part ways with a beaming Grewal, one cannot but reflect on the fact that how, despite living in Paris for over 50 years and all that she has achieved in the city of lights, love and fashion, she is truly an Indian soul, who retains her Indian passport to this day. It seems quite ironic then that Mohanjeet Grewal, despite being a true ambassador of Indian fashion globally, is still relatively unheard of in the fashion corridors of India. Her Delhi store could remedy that.