In his winning speech at the Woolmark Prize Menswear finals in Florence last January, Suket Dhir professed that he had never won any kind of prize in his life. “Not once since kindergarten,” he said. “And what a prize to be the first!”

The International Woolmark Prize, incepted in 1953, celebrates the qualities of Merino wool. It is one of fashion’s most prestigious contests, whose previous recipients include legends such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.

Dhir bagged the prize for 2015-’16, with a breakthrough collection of ikat woven with Merino wool on handloom. His ikat was visually atypical, in ombre shades of blue and brown – there were subtle imprints of his Indian roots on exquisitely detailed silhouettes like bomber jackets, big pants, waistcoats and blazers.

For these gorgeous creations, Dhir took home a $70,000 cash prize, a chance to stock at the world’s best fashion retailers, and a superlative from Vogue, which called him a “global fashion superstar in the making”.

A born wanderer

Throughout his life Dhir had been a bit of a non-performer, a source of great anxiety for his parents. As a child, he was “short, puny… unable to defend myself, good at neither sport nor studies. Not a good way to be at boarding school”. Born in a regular Panjabi business family, he had not set high goals, aiming simply for the middle of the road: “To graduate in commerce, finish an MBA, and take your father’s business forward.”

Upon graduating from school, where he didn’t do too well, Dhir changed his major thrice (commerce, computer application, multimedia programming) in three years but went through with none. This was the final straw for his father, who stopped paying for Dhir’s expenses. A 20-year-old with no cash, Dhir found himself selling AT&T Wireless. Then one day, he upped and took a year off, travelling “to Goa, Pondicherry, Dharamsala, making friends as I went along”. “I was learning what life was about,” he said, “or so I thought.”

This was late 2001. His contemporaries were either gainfully employed or studying. A friend intervened and called him out on his drifting. Further prodding made him realise that while he may never have been academically inclined, he was creatively gifted. “I used to do all the things that don’t count for much in school – photography, painting, sculpting.” The two concluded that Dhir should enroll at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. And he did.

Three years on, Dhir graduated with a diploma in fashion design, and found a job at Arvind Limited in Bengaluru, working on a sub-brand for Wrangler.

He came back to Delhi intending to apply to Central Saint Martins, a famous design school in London, to hone his skills. But instead he got caught up drifting again. “I had no job, no clue what I wanted to do with my future,” he recounted.

It was during this period that he met Svetlana, a Russian-Indian risk analyst, who married him – flaws and all. Something changed after that.

Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP
Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP

Dhir started planning a collection – in his head. “I used to go to these tailors and get my shirts stitched. So I started working on some samples, making shirts, trousers and jackets, and collecting them. But I had no idea what I was going to do with them.” A friend suggested he meet Anita Lal, founder of the Indian lifestyle giant Good Earth. “He thought the clothes were in line with their aesthetic – international, with an Indian soul.” By September 2010, Suketdhir the label was registered and launched at Good Earth.

Cut to 2014. Dhir found himself in panic mode once again. Suketdhir was a successful, respected label, but growth was wanting. “Things weren’t happening. I do a certain product, which has a market in India, but there are limitations when you aren’t doing weddingwear. The stores we were selling out of were selling well. We needed to look international, for which we required investment. I was at a point where things weren’t moving forward, and I was deciding whether to continue or look for something else to do.”

This time, fate intervened, and Dhir was invited to participate in the International Woolmark Prize. Dhir fit their small window – “a label which isn’t older than six years or younger than four, designers who have managed to make it but need a little push to the next level.” With a little encouragement from his mentor, Asha Baxi (founding dean at NIFT), he sent in an entry.

Meanwhile, after a random call from the fabric and fashion retailer Raymond, Dhir was signed on to work on their debut linen line. “I had to design, stitch, shoot and deliver 75 ensembles in 22 days,” he recalled. Besides the publicity that comes with associating with a household name like Raymond Group, this collaboration brought home necessary funds. Funds which, when he got through to the Woolmark regionals, allowed him to invest in his bid. “I’d worked with wool before, but this time, I wanted to weave my own wool.”

The Woolmark brief outlined three criteria: inspiration, interpretation, and innovation. Dhir knew what he wanted – “to make a collection with an Indian soul, but not necessarily Indian looking, to present India to the world in a global format. A boundless, timeless, gender-fluid aesthetic, which I’ve always associated with my label”. Ikat had been a Suketdhir mainstay and he wanted to fuse it with Cool Wool in handloom. To embellish this, he chose Kasuti embroidery, a single-thread reversible technique from Dharwad in Karnataka. Raymond helped source the right yarn. “Merino is a brittle, delicate yarn, and breaks easily, so a certain kind of consistency was required to weave it on the handloom.”

But once he got to Telangana to weave his ikat wool, he realised he had set himself an impossible task. “The weavers refused. They work only with cotton and silk. They had never even touched, let alone worked with, wool.”

What made the undertaking more challenging was the fact that wool is difficult to dye manually, while ikat is all about dyeing, and Dhir intended to use 10 colours. But over the course of a month, he succeeded. “The results were magical,” he exulted. “This doesn’t even feel like handloom. Any handloom fabric, even cotton, feels coarser.”

The preparations for Woolmark were a culmination of his life experiences. “At the time, my life revolved around my 18-month-old son Zoraveur. It reminded me of my own childhood, the time I spent with my grandfather. On hot summer afternoons, he’d take my cousins and me to these mango orchards near our house [in Punjab]. A very well-dressed man, he’d carry an umbrella, and wear beautiful crisp, perfectly ironed white pajamas and loose pants with tailored jackets. That’s what inspired me to do an even more exaggerated version, as palazzos.”

His collection reflects all those memories – look closely and you find parrots and mangoes in delicately embroidered Kasuti. Or turn a flap and there is shaded lining printed with little umbrellas. Or pick a half-sleeved blazer that mimics the dark angry sky during a monsoon shower. From Suzy Menkes, International Editor, Vogue, and designer Haider Ackermann to Stuart McCullough, Managing Director, The Woolmark Company – the judges of the Woolmark Prize voted for the poetic, emotional quality of Dhir’s collection.

It is through these details, what he calls nazakat, that Dhir defines his work. “There’s a certain amount of feminine elegance to my work, in playful little elements.” On the drawing board, Suket Dhir, the man, is the starting point for Suketdhir the label: “I only design what I wear myself.” So you will find “quintessential westernwear” – shirts with his signature side seam, palazzo pants, bomber jackets, waistcoats, and kurtas too.

For Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India, the time Dhir took to get here is vital to his process. “He believes in taking his time,” she said. “I think the gestation period for him is perhaps more important than the delivery. In the case of his Woolmark collection, he followed his heart, he bucked the trend and did what he believed in, disregarding the rules of commerce or common sense. Detail, simplicity and aesthetic that are uniquely nostalgic were put on display in a quietly impassionate manner.”

Has the win changed him? “Everybody says milk this opportunity, next year there’ll be another winner. But I’ve been advised to stick to my energies. To stay true to myself… I like to do one big collection a year, which is divided into seasonal drops. So my design process happens in a singular manner and I’d like to stick to that. Globally, the biggest designers have been under immense stress, so global brands are moving towards more unified collections, even doing single shows for men and women. I find myself ahead of the curve, because we’ve been working like this for the last six years anyway.” The answer is a mindful, resounding no.