As you climb up the staircase from one floor to the other in the factory-cum-workplace of the famous designers, Shantanu Mehra and Nikhil Mehra in Noida, you see an artisan meticulously embroidering a jacket, a designer working out patterns on a Mac, and some naked, and some semi-draped mannequins — making for a perfect designer’s cave. Born and brought up in Delhi, the Mehra siblings are one of India’s leading fashion designers today. Though their brand label reads — Shantanu-Nikhil — in person, they are like chalk and cheese. While elder brother Shantanu is formal and organised, Nikhil is carefree and bohemian. The duo, who launched the brand in 2000, has managed to open seven exclusive stores across five cities. While growing up, they had no inkling that they would be business partners. In fact, due to their extremities, Shantanu even thought of Nikhil as his anti-thesis. Nikhil recounts the contrast between the two. “We used to get our uniform ironed at night. He used to take out the cleaner uniform and put it on his side of the bed. The dirtier uniform would be next to mine,” he laughs. So, Nikhil looked for ways to look good even without the best dress. “Instead of wearing a dirty shirt, I used to put color on it to make it interesting even when I was in class seven,” recounts Nikhil. The brothers have come a long way since then by dressing up the who’s who of Bollywood from Amitabh Bachchan to Sonam Kapoor, and in doing so have carved a niche for themselves as fashion designers with a difference.
How different were you while growing up?
Nikhil: Shantanu was studious and I was not. We used to fight a lot. While Shantanu used to score around 90%, I would be on the verge of failing. Our ideologies were very different at that point of time.
Shantanu: While we were different, there was something that bound us together. Our parents never treated us differently. There was no jealousy among us. If I was the studious one, he was into art. He was the rebel in our family as he chose to do a course in fashion designing. After finishing the school, we went our separate ways. He joined the Pearl School of Fashion in the early ’90s, which was very new at that time. I went to Hansraj College to do my Honors in Economics. Unlike his school days where he was nowhere near the top, he was a great student at Pearl. I went on to pursue my MBA from University of Ohio in the US. Nikhil also came to the US to do a course in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles in 1995.
Nikhil: When we went to America, we got close to each other since there wasn’t anybody else for company. We got an order from St John Knits, the company where I was working in late ’90s. The order was for a crest on a jacket that I had designed. We got about $10,000 dollars. That was our seed investment when we started in 1999. We didn’t want to take money from our parents, because they had already sold their property for our education. Shantanu wanted to focus on menswear because he saw a big gap in that market.
How would you describe the other?
Shantanu: He is an artist who has complete belief in what he does. His only intent is to keep the brand relevant and show India in a different light.
Nikhil: He is a man of principles. He is truthful to himself and isn’t judgmental.
What’s it like working with each other?
Shantanu: He is absolutely fun to work with and has this strong creative energy. There is clarity about what he wants.
How often do you spend time together?
Nikhil: We live in the same house and work together, so we are around each other all the time.
Shantanu: We like sports and we spend good amount of time pursuing it. It makes us competitive, and humble at the same time. We play tennis. Golf was Nikhil’s favourite sport, but he doesn’t play it often. We play for an hour almost every day.
Nikhil: Sports helps us to relate with sportsmen better and gives us great insights when we design sportswear and contemporary wear. The traits and deconstructions that you see in our brands have some sportswear nuances like geometrical features, the linearity and masculinity. We designed the Mumbai Indians jersey recently. We have also collaborated with Adidas and cricketer Yuvraj Singh.
What’s the one thing he talks about for hours on end?
Nikhil: He talks a lot about tennis these days.
Shantanu: He constantly talks about how to be better as a creator so that the brand doesn’t get diluted at any point in time.
Where do you concur with each other and where are you poles apart?
Shantanu: We are from a close-knit family, and we are both driven towards building our brand. To be honest, we are poles apart as far personalities go. Nikhil is an extrovert and more of a beach person. I am a lot more of an introvert, a city and architecture kind of a person.
How does one separate the personal from the professional?
Both: Although we live in the same house, we stay independently with our families. We never bring work to the house. We have our own freedom.
What are the personal beliefs that you differ on?
Shantanu: We don’t discuss politics since Nikhil doesn’t read newspapers!
How do you deal with inter-personal differences? Do you agree to disagree or do you come to a common ground always?
Shantanu: The problem is when you keep things inside. Our parents have taught us the importance of communicating with each other. So right from the outset, we cry together, and laugh together.
Nikhil: Yeh paanch saal mein ek baar rota hai. (laughs)
What is the one skill that you have learnt from the other?
Nikhil: Being true to oneself and humble is what I have learnt from him.
Shantanu: His singular focus to ensure that the brand remains relevant.
Who has better intuition?
Shantanu: Nikhil is a little bit more intuitive.
Can he keep a secret?
Shantanu: I can keep secrets. When it comes to the brand, the idea is to not to have any secrets. It is always about being vocal about what the intent is.
Nikhil: Mere pet mein kuch nahi rehta!
What’s the one thing you’d want to change about him?
Nikhil: We have now evolved to understand that you cannot change others but yourselves. There is nothing to change in Shantanu because he adapts himself whenever I want to do something.
Shantanu: We have come to a stage where we have to just compete with ourselves. Today when we go to our show, we make notes to figure out how to do better in the next show. We sit in the audience and review our collections. So, we are in that space, and that’s a happy space to be in.
Nikhil: Three years back it was hard to imagine that we would have seven stores. At that time, Shantanu was very uncertain how we would open and manage seven stores. The question is not how but whether you want to have. The brand is evolving because we are evolving as people.
Shantanu: On a lighter note, I am trying to tweak his tennis techniques a little bit. He is resistant to change, but I hope he understands that better technique means he can beat me more often (laughs).
What would be the one thing that you want to steal from him and why?
Shantanu: Nick’s dressing sense. Whatever he wears looks good on him.
What’s the most memorable milestone that you achieved together?
Nikhil: In 2004, Siddhartha Basu invited us to design clothes for Amitabh Bachchan for the show Kaun Banega Crorepati. Just a year before that, we were lucky to work on the launch of Samsung’s new phone D-350. We had cricketers Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan walk the ramp. It was the first time that Indian cricketers walked on a fashion ramp. We were introduced to the world of mainstream Bollywood, which is the dream of every designer, thanks to the show. When Basu invited us, we took it as an opportunity to portray Mr Bachchan differently. We wanted to give him a look that was a departure from his teacher-like persona. We introduced him in a leather jacket in the first episode, and got him out of his customary tie and jacket. People loved his new look.
Shantanu: It was then that we understood that young people love the contemporary look and we should be betting on the young Indian urban market. It took us about seven years to build our presence in the market. We opened our store at Bandra in Mumbai in 2007 because Bollywood was an important market for us. We got a big boost when Shilpa Shetty gave us an opportunity to create a gown for her when she walked down the red carpet at the IIFA in 2008. We had never worked on gowns until then. We were only into high-street western wear and vintage Indian wear, but dressing Shilpa made us realise that gown and silhouettes came naturally to us. From then on, red carpet events became a staple for us.
Do you have nicknames?
Both: (pointing to each other) Nick and Shaun.