‘Oh my God, the conversations around fabric were never-ending,’ says British-Indian fashion designer Supriya Lele, recalling a West Midlands childhood permeated by in-depth discussions between her mother and grandmother about the best cottons and silks for saris. ‘I think it’s the way I learnt about fabric and clothes.’
The daughter of doctors, Lele launched her eponymous brand upon graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2016 and was immediately selected to showcase her work at London Fashion Week as part of Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East. She’s won critical plaudits (most notably as joint winner of the 2020 LVMH Prize) and Insta-fame with a Nineties-inflected wardrobe of ruched sheer separates, oversized mannish tailoring and underwear-inspired slips. Hers is an aesthetic that’s minimal, modern and resolutely un-Bollywood, avoiding obvious Indian tropes — ‘the glitz and glamour and turmeric spice hands’, as Lele puts it — instead exploring the tensions of her Anglo-Indian heritage in a more nuanced way. ‘I don’t rework traditional fabrics into new shapes, I think it should be cleverer than that,’ she says simply.
Despite rarely wearing a sari herself (‘I used to admire them but I never really wanted to put them on. It would put me in a context that I didn’t really recognise’), Lele’s design language owes much to the hours spent helping her female relatives dress for formal events — an activity which, given most saris comprise eight metres of fabric, typically required three people. ‘It would be my grandmother, my mum, my aunt and me, and we’d all be draping the sari around someone… Even from a really early age I was very much exposed to making choices on fabrics. A sari is not a ready-made garment, you’re buying beautiful fabric to wrap around your body, and you’re having to look for things you wouldn’t necessarily look for if you’re going into Selfridges.’
This draping know-how is something Lele exercises daily in her studio, where she largely swerves sketching in favour of working three-dimensionally with material on a fit model. ‘I do things that are so about the body,’ she says, ‘the only way I think you can achieve things that are about the body is by putting them on a body.’ And certainly her clothes can be seen as a stretchy celebration of the human form — think sheer mini dresses with hip cut-outs, twisted keyhole halternecks, slinky pooling flares and ruched bralettes. Her AW21 collection, which majored in transparent lime green maxi dresses, one-shouldered bubblegum pink tops and bandeau dresses layered over flares, paid homage to the sass and sexiness of the early Noughties, Lele’s teen era, but through the minimal lens of her design heroes Margiela, Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. Like everything Supriya Lele does, it was lo-fi and gently sexy, but firmly sophisticated.
No surprise then that in the five short years since she launched her label, the 34-year-old designer’s already scored an impressive client roster of Insta-famous celebrities, among them Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and Bella Hadid, the last of whom personally messaged her on Instagram to tell her how much she loved her pieces. Impressive clout from a design team that numbers just three people, Lele included.
When we speak, Lele is preparing for her second-ever solo London Fashion Week show (she skipped the February 2020 shows to instead create a book tracing her family tree in Jabalpur with photographer Jamie Hawkesworth), something she feels nervous but excited about. ‘It’s been two years and that feels quite scary, but I’m looking forward to doing something physical again,’ she enthuses. ‘There’s something about clothes in motion that I think really helps convey a message, it’s moving and exciting, isn’t it?’ I remember every editor who’d been present on the frow at her first solo show back in September 2019 feeling both emotions, as did the models who’d walked for her, most of whom attempted to place orders backstage post-show.
Her spring/summer 22 collection centres on a theme of transformation, inspired by the major life changes she herself went through over lockdown, among them a break-up and a house move. ‘In the past 18 months there’s been so much happening in the world, and it’s affected a lot of people I know and impacted my life,’ she explains, noting the period of personal adjustment has been reflected in a transformation and growth in the Supriya Lele studio, which is rapidly maturing and expanding.
‘I just feel that everyone has been through so much, so many people who have split up with their partners,’ says the designer, noting all bar four of her coupled-up friends have split. ‘It’s just catching those feelings, and then trying to think: “Okay, who am I as a woman? What do I want to show? And how can I feel free? Or how can I feel romantic? Or how can I feel in love? How can I feel these things again after I’ve been through all this other stuff?”’
Her answer has been to let a little romance percolate through the signature minimalism, ruching and sheer fabrics via beading, embroidery and even a few feathers. ‘It feels more traditionally pretty and fun, and that’s a bit how I want to feel now… It’s difficult but I think it’s time to move forward — feel something good in a romantic way. To fall in love again.’
Alongside the romance and reserved femininity there will, as always, be an emphasis on comfort, a factor Lele, who regularly wears her own designs, believes is key to looking and feeling sexy. ‘You want to feel free,’ she explains. Whether that’s a pair of trousers that lets you eat dinner without undoing a top button, or a dress that takes you breezing through a long wedding day, ‘you want to feel like your clothes work with you, not against you,’ she continues. ‘Especially where they have more revealing elements, or are braver pieces. As a woman designing for women I think it’s important to take those things into consideration.’
Ultimately, Supriya Lele just wants her clothes to make people feel good. ‘That’s it, just really, really good,’ she smiles. ‘Confident and empowered and positive about themselves.’ You can’t say sexier than that.