Soon after Malayalam actress Nazriya Nazim married fellow actor Fahadh Faasil in August 2014, she was to make a public appearance with her husband.
Contrary to expectations of appearing in a sari, Nazriya decided to break away from tradition. Nazriya approached Kochi-based designer Poornima Indrajith to style her for the occasion. "People were expecting her to go traditional and many suggested that I dress her in a sari. They told me people would later come to my store to ask for 'Nazriya sari'," says Poornima.
Nazriya was ready to experiment and appeared in a crop top and skirt. Their experiment paid off. People flocked to Poornima’s store Pranaah demanding crop tops and skirts.
Thirty-five-year-old Poornima is among the new breed of young fashion designers from south India. Like the Manish Malhotras and Neeta Lullas of Bollywood, these designers are making a niche for themselves with their own labels. Their clients include some of the biggest names of south Indian cinema. They are dressing up actors, politicians, page three celebrities, sports stars and many others.
(From left to right) Amala Paul, Jacqueline Fernandez, Nazriya Nazim, Priyamani wearing Poornima Indrajith outfits
Poornima says that her husband, actor Indrajith with whom she has two daughters, knew that she'd eventually end up as a designer.
"If you are able to attract the masses with your designs and styles then it is good, but for that you need cinema," she says.
But the budget for costumes in the Malayalam film industry is miniscule compared to that of Bollywood. "We should work on the look and feel of the character which will enhance the look of cinema. The styling in 'Bangalore Days' was liked by the masses. 'Premam' has one of the actresses wearing checked shirts. If they had added a skirt to her ensemble, it might have become a trend," she says.
For someone who has been associated with the film and television industry for over two decades as an actor and anchor, acceptance came more easily. Her sense of style, the colours and cuts she wore, were appreciated since she began her career.
"It has been a little easy for me to get accepted. But on the other hand, it also gets tougher in a different way. People expect more from you. I have been questioned and crucified. But mostly they get the best out of me," she says.
Poornima’s clients include Amala Paul, Priyamani, Nazriya Nazim and Jacqueline Fernandez among others.
Pranaah is a blend of simplicity and contemporary fashion. "I keep in mind that I am in Kerala and that I can’t get too edgy," says Poornima. She mostly works with georgette and cotton and uses heavier fabrics for bridal wear. Her cuts and embroidery are her trademark style.
But with just one store and a small unit, Poornima is well aware of her limitations. "People want to keep it very exclusive. They do not want a repetition of designs or fabric. I try to experiment as much as I can with what I have," she adds.
Breaking into the domain of the big players in the fashion industry such as Kalyan Silks and Jayalakshmi Silks whose clothes are priced between Rs 300 and Rs 3 lakh, is an uphill task.
"People are used to that sort of a culture and it has been running for decades. How do you bring a change in habits and attitude?" says Poornima.
Shilpa Reddy (centre); Image source: Shilpa Studio/Facebook
It has been five years since Hyderabad-based Shilpa Reddy turned a fashion designer.
A former model, who has featured in the Kingfisher Calendar, and winner of the 2014 Gladrags Mrs India contest, Shilpa calls her stint in modeling as an internship which helped her launch as a designer.
"While I was modeling, I used to closely notice how the industry worked- from designers to retailers and the models," she says.
The 35-year-old designer believes in dressing smart and according to the occasion.
Though she initially used to work with regular fabrics like georgette and chiffon, of late she has moved to India-made, hand woven organic fabrics.
Shruti Haasan wearing a Shilpa Reddy outfit on the sets of Comedy Nights With Kapil; Image source: Shilpa Reddy/Facebook
"It was a conscious decision on my part. A lot of traditional art is dying around us and I felt it was my responsibility as a designer to bring it out," she says.
From Khadi to Chanderi to Malkha and Pochampally, Shilpa has been trying to highlight traditional fabrics in a modern perspective through her creations. Her New York and Paris collections earlier this year also saw the designer showcasing her creations in these fabrics.
Shilpa Reddy's New York collection; Image source: Shilpa Studio/Facebook
Having been associated with the fashion industry for quite some time now, Shilpa feels that fashion and film are two very different form of arts.
Actors like Amala Paul, Shruti Haasan, Sunny Leone, Taapsee Pannu, tennis star Sania Mirza and even TRS leader Kavitha have flaunted Shilpa's designs.
"It is sad that there is too much dependence on the film industry to promote our work. A designer is applauded or recognised only if their creations are worn by celebs," says Shilpa, also pointing out the hype around the showstopper culture at fashion shows.
In this whirlwind, often young and talented designers do not get the encouragement or credit they deserve.
Shipla, who has a flagship store in Hyderabad from where she gives out her clothes to stores in Nagpur and Bombay, feels that in the last two years celebs in the south have become more fashion conscious.
Sunny Leone, Nimrat Kaur and Sania Mirza wearing Shilpa Reddy; Image source: Shilpa Studio/Facebook
But in terms of films, especially in the Telugu industry, the producers and directors still have the upper say in how their actors look on screen. "Cuts that make the shoulder look broader or updo hairstyles," she says, "are usually a no because some feel they make women who are required to look sensuous, look older."
The trends are however changing and the fashion conscious lot in the southern part of the country is not just open to experimenting with fashion but is also willing to spend on designer wear.
"Take a look at the number of stand-alone stores of top designers like Sabyasachi and Shantanu and Nikhil in Hyderabad," says Shilpa, who is also a mother of a five-year-old.
Darshana Yesudas; Image source: Darshana Vijay Yesudas/Facebook
Another young designer from a celebrity family who is making a name for herself in the fashion circuit is thirty-year-old Darshana Yesudas.
Raised in Dubai and married to singer and actor Vijay Yesudas, Chennai-based Darshana started out by helping style friends for personal and professional engagements.
Darshana tied the knot at 21 and when her daughter was four-years-old, she moved to Dubai along with her to pursue a course in fashion designing. When she returned to India, a designer store Studio Saks offered to showcase her creations for a year – and her label Darshana Vijay Yesudas or DVY was born.
In 2012 she opened her own store in Chennai, focusing on ethnic and affordable clothing starting from Rs 2,000.
Currently on a brief break as she is expecting her second child, Darshana plans to expand to Cochin and Dubai.
"My customers mostly include 35 plus women who want to feel stylish and comfortable without showing too much skin. So I experiment with different cuts, embroidery work and fabrics ranging from pure chiffon to matka silk," says Darshana, who also makes bridal wear.
She personally purchases the fabrics – Dubai for chiffon and Delhi and Chennai for the rest.
One of the prominent faces on her client list is director Aishwarya Dhanush. "Aishwarya forced me into taking up designing professionally. I had started out styling her for magazines like Vogue," she says. Her other clients include Khushboo, Radhika Sharathkumar and Kavya Madhavan.
Convincing her style-conscious customers that a particular design or cut would suit them is a big challenge. Around two years ago, when wide pants with kurtas started trending, it took her a lot to persuade customers that wide palazzos could go with kurtas.
"I sometimes wear the dress myself or stitch them a sample just to convince them," says Darshana.
A self-confessed "finicky person", Darshana personally attends to her customers. "All my designs are my own and I want to do everything on my own, and so I don’t even have an assistant," she laughs.
Darshana has been approached to style in films, but she is reluctant: "It requires a lot of travelling which is not an option for me right now," she says.
Her association with the industry is one of mutual benefit. "If you are associated with them, they will back you up. And you too help by styling them or giving them tips," she says.
She echoes Poornima's views when she says that the fashion scene down south can still not be compared to that of the north. Characters in films usually don’t glam up unless the story demands it. "People here like to see their stars as regular people," she says.