India is renowned globally for its rich fashion and textile heritage, characterised by vibrant colours and elegant designs. With the aid of technology, we can now present our unique offerings to the world and acquaint them with our cultural heritage.
But that was not always the case. There were times not that distant past when creating awareness was not that simple. But like they say, where there is a will, there is a way. Even at that time, people who wanted to do it, including women, found ways to do it.
Mohanjeet Grewal is one such woman who decided to enter the fashion world and has played a critical part in making Indian fashion known to the world. She chose to take Indian fashion all the way to Paris, the world’s fashion capital. It was in April 1964 that Mohanjeet became the first Indian designer to set up a store on Rue de Bac, a fabled street on the left bank of Paris. She dcided to call the store “La Malle de l’Inde” or The Indian Trunk. To make the name ring true, she brought trunk-loads of Indian textiles into France with 3000 francs loaned by a friend and another 7000 that she borrowed from another friend. The store took Paris by storm, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Born in Lahore, Grewal moved with her family to Patiala a night before independence. Those were times when very few women pursued higher studies, but Grewal was not one of them. She went about her studies with zeal and dedication and aspired to study at a university abroad.
As luck would have it, in 1952, she travelled to the US to pursue a Master’s in Political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. She followed this with a PhD at the University of Berkley. As is the case, most of the time, her parents and, essentially, her father ignited this urge for knowledge in the young Mohanjeet. A progressive man, he encouraged her to move beyond the stereotypes and follow her dreams.
Before taking the plunge into fashion, Grewal dabbled with quite a few things, like working as a guide with the UN while she was still a student. After completing her education, 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. While working there, a chance encounter nudged her into the world of fashion.
One day, while she was at work dressed in a saree, which was her usual work attire, someone looked at her and asked if she was from Israel. She then realised that nobody outside of UNESCO knew about India and what it has to offer. That was the trigger that set her on the path to showcase and sell India’s craftsmanship to the world. She came back to India to rediscover the country. She was excited by the vibrant colours of Rajasthan, the brightness and spark all around, which was in complete contrast to the blacks and greys of the West.
She began with red coolie shirts and pocket vests in menswear and later introduced khadi kurtas and chikankari kurtas in various colours. Mohanjeet mostly relied on her natural talent for choosing and mixing designs.
One of her unique creations was the mini saree she designed in 1967. As she recalls, she had always worn sarees, but at that point, she started wearing minis, which led her to design the hemline of the saree above the knee. Then, she also designed gold-rimmed dhotis as wraparounds to make it a globally relevant silhouette. Her designs soon made it to the covers of French magazines. What she brought to the fashion world in Paris was unlike anything ever seen. Her boho chic style quickly found an audience, and her popularity continued to grow with each passing year. Her creativity and personality regularly drew names like Romain Gary, Jean Seberg, Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Jane Fonda, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Bridget Bardot to her store.
Her style made her so famous that at one time, she was running seven stores in the fashion capital, with even French designers imitating her style. Her clients loved her style and the cardamom and clove tea they got to drink when they visited her store.
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Grewal expanded her offerings to Spain, Monaco, and the US and sold her designs to retail chains such as Ann Taylor and Bloomingdales. She even had a presence on the prominent Fifth Avenue in New York, and her fuchsia pink ghagra was displayed on the opening pages of the US edition of Vogue magazine. However, her journey was not without ups and downs. Grewal admits to making many mistakes, especially in business, which she considers her Achilles heel. Despite this, her survival instincts have kept her going.
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 a tiny store in Paris, so she never had any discounts or sales.
Even at 92, Mohanjeet 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, often into the early hours of the morning, and is at her store every day when in Paris.