Regarded as the ambassador of Indian fashion, Mohanjeet Grewal has left an indelible mark on the fashion capital of the world -- Paris -- with her store Mohanjeet, which introduced France to the beauty of Indian prints back in 1962.
It’s a cold winter morning in Paris, and the cobbled lanes and historic buildings make for the perfect photo in a postcard. Buyers throng the stores for last-minute festive shopping, and boulangeries and cafes teem with tourists and locals alike.
And like most other streets at this time of the year, Rue 21 St Sulpice is no stranger to the madness of the holidays. Saint-Sulpice is among the poshest districts in the French capital, and thousands throng to visit the local 400-year-old church, the pubs, cafes, and stores.
But even in the flurry of passersby, there’s one shop that catches your eye — Mohanjeet. Said to be the oldest shop on the street, it exudes a nostalgic charm, with the prints behind the glass bearing remnants of simpler times. The fashion capital of the world has never been at a loss for new styles and chic designs, but this 51-year-old atelier has an allure that few others in the area do.
At its helm is 92-year-old Mohanjeet Grewal, who says that at Mohanjeet, every collection has a story.
Grewal has been deemed the ‘ambassador of Indian fashion’, a title she holds most dear. Having set foot in the fashion world in 1962, her work, she says, is an ode to India and a testimony of the culture she reveres.
“Each of my collections, each accessory, speaks of a region in India — a cross-fertilisation of tradition and modernity,” she notes in conversation with The Better India.
Embroidered with love, rooted in culture
While she did not have any previous exposure or formal training in fashion, Mohanjeet relied on her natural flare for picking and combining designs.
“For instance, take the mini saree I designed in 1967,” she says. “I always wore sarees but I had just begun wearing minis. So I designed the hemline of the sari, above the knee. It just happened! Likewise, I designed gold-rimmed dhotis as wraparounds to make it a globally relevant silhouette.”
Likewise, she was always open to new avenues in the field of fashion, and was one of the first to introduce khadi and vibrant, contrasting prints from Rajasthan to Europe.
She reveals the roots of her inspiration — Indian miniatures.
“If you look closely at the pattern, you see seven to eight different prints. I mix prints and combine materials — Indian silks, cottons and embroidered fabrics, hammered or brushed metal,” she notes, adding that it was her association with Indian craftsmen that guided her creations.
This association has been one of mutual understanding.
“I have a huge respect for the fabric’s work. I want to be Indian and always put the label ‘Made in India’. I have sold expensive clothes to show that what is made in India can be very tailored, hand-embroidered, and not junky. The Mohanjeet clothes are for life, and almost exclusive pieces,” she says.
When asked from where this love for Indian prints stems, she says the journey has been shaped by both bold choices as well as her experiences.
From Punjab to Paris: A story that took Indian prints to the globe
Grewal’s childhood was marked by memories of the Partition, she recalls. The family had to migrate from Lahore to Patiala, where Grewal grew up until she moved to the US in the 50s to pursue her further studies.
Following a Doctorate at Berkeley in 1955, Grewal started her career as a journalist, and her name was a common sight in prestigious dailies such as the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. “It was really very exciting,” she recalls.
After this stint abroad, when she returned to India in 1960, she realised she did not remember the country as she left it. “I did not know India, except Gandhi!,” she quips.
Without much of a plan, but knowing she wanted to do great things, she packed her bags once again and moved to Paris, where — as she would soon learn — the rest of her life would begin to take shape.
Her life in the French capital began with an interesting story.
Wanting to do something about the money exchange crisis in India, Grewal says she approached the then Indian finance minister Morarji Desai with an idea.
“I asked him, ‘You lament the lack of foreign exchange, impose import duties and restrict outgoing currency… but why don’t you encourage an increase in exports? India has so much to offer, so much to sell.’”
“The minister’s reply took me by surprise. He asked me to prepare a project and come back with the results,” she notes.
And so, with the minister’s trust and an investor on board, she began exporting “trunk-loads of Indian textiles” into France in May 1964. The same year, she opened her first boutique La malle de l’Inde with 3,000 francs, which she’d loaned from a friend.
“My vision was to display and sell Indian craftsmanship in cities like Paris. I singlehandedly curated a selection of items that I thought would fit in with the needs and expectations of the French,” she says.
Several times a year, Grewal would make trips to India in search of the finest fabrics, handwoven by craftsmen. Consequently, she opened another boutique in 1968 at rue St Germain des Prés, and then in 1971, the flagship store Mohanjeet — the only one that remains — on Rue 21 St Sulpice.
‘Like a potter with clay’
As the 92-year-old welcomes clients (now friends) — the likes of Romain Gary, Jean Seberg, Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent and Jane Fonda — she reminisces how times have changed.
“Years ago, fashion was led by big names like Balenciaga and Dior. The whole market was waiting for those top collections to come out in order to say what was in or not. The mass market was waiting for those collections in order to copy, and take off those clothes from famous names. But today, this is not the case,” she notes.
“Nowadays, it is a daily show. We have thousands of names and there are designers everywhere. Everything is very fast-forward. There is no limit to creativity. Things keep coming back and going away, it changes all the time.”
“People are willing nowadays to close their eyes on quality, on a real story, know-how in order to have more and more clothes. Nowadays everyone seems to be wearing the same clothes,” she remarks.
But, her brand hasn’t changed.
Mohanjeet still relies on word of mouth and has not resorted to e-commerce yet. The reason for this, she says, is to be able to show and sell the clothes to “some real aficionados who could really enjoy the work and beauty behind all those creations”.
At the brand, every design is produced in only three sizes S, M and L and Mohanjeet emphasises that once sold out, the same design may be available later, but never the same fabric.
When the fashion legend is not busy at her atelier, she says she loves exploring Paris and enjoying what it has to offer. “[I visit] museums, expositions, cinemas, [and enjoy] dancing, opera, listening to music,” she says, adding that she never defines herself as a stylist, even today.
“I [instead] define myself as a potter who has clay in her hands and does something out of it.”
Edited by Divya Sethu