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Designer Rahul Mishra On How Zendaya’s Sari Honoured India

Earlier this week in Mumbai, the splashy opening of the new Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre – which will aim to preserve and promote Indian arts in the city – drew a star-studded crowd. In attendance were celebrities such as Priyanka Chopra, Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid and Zendaya. The latter star’s red-carpet look is what captivated the internet: Zendaya wore a custom Rahul Mishra look that served as a modern interpretation of a sari silhouette, complete with a golden beaded top and sweeping embroidered skirt.

The design continued motifs from the Indian designer’s recent spring 2023 Cosmos couture collection. “The hem of her skirt and the trail articulates a kind of jungle with tigers, squirrels and flamingos in their natural habitat as they look up at the midnight sky,” Mishra tells Vogue. “It’s the way our world looks up at the cosmos at night to experience its beauty.”

Turns out Mishra immediately had the jaw-dropping design in mind for Zendaya once he was approached by Law Roach, the star’s creative director, about a month ago. (Zendaya also wore one of his couture looks back in 2020 at a Bulgari event.) “This was the first sketch that I made for her amongst others and it was the first outfit she tried on during the fitting,” says Mishra, who was the first Indian designer ever to show during Couture Week in Paris.

It’s almost appropriate to say that she’s a muse for me, as she would be for designers and artists across the world. We felt that it’s an honour to dress her.” The end result took more than 3,000 hours of work to complete – not a totally surprising feat, given the garment was entirely hand-embroidered by various artisans. “In making it, we’ve employed a number of people for all that long,” says Mishra. “This has been a nod to our core philosophy of slow fashion and the intent to empower our crafts communities.”

While the evening’s many statement looks on the red-carpet paid homage to India’s signature design elements – playing up the ornate craftwork and draping that is often found within the South Asian country – few did it as well as Zendaya. For one, it’s an environment that could have easily resulted in cultural appropriation, when someone draws inspiration from a culture without actually involving said culture. It’s no secret that many designers in fashion draw from Indian culture without credit.

Zendaya, however, took a more intentional approach by choosing to spotlight one of India’s brightest fashion talents in the process. “I believe that Zendaya paid homage to India as a country, not only Indian fashion,” says Mishra. “We’re home to a vivid culture and a diverse heritage of craftsmanship. By putting their trust in us, Law as a creative director and Zendaya as the star allowed us complete freedom to interpret the moment and create something special.”

It was that trust – and also a willingness to embrace traditional Indian dress in a respectful and all-in way – that Mishra says made the process of dressing Zendaya a joy. “We created a sari gown that’s familiar to the way women dress here and also embodies her personal style,” says Mishra. He adds that seeing Zendaya sport the design will also encourage more Indian youth to adopt their own cultural wear too. “She embraced it with utmost respect and warmth and, I believe, did complete justice to the Indian culture,” says Mishra. “I can see the Indian youth be both smitten by her and feel seen by her as she joined her hands at the camera wearing that outfit.”

Dressing Zendaya is certainly one of Mishra’s proudest accomplishments to date, putting his work on the international map. (Freida Pinto and Priyanka Chopra have also worn his designs.) The designer says an added bonus of the special night was being able to walk the red-carpet with the star. “My wife, Divya, and I arrived at the red-carpet a little late that evening and it was a fantastic coincidence that she was at the carpet already at the moment,” says Mishra. “As I walked in, I remember seeing her from behind looking absolutely surreal and then Law asked me to get a picture clicked with them. It is a memory that I shall keep with myself forever.”


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