Like most middle-class parents in Manipur, he too wasn’t supported by his parents when he wanted to take fashion designing as his career. The reason being doctors, engineers or government jobs were the only highlighted careers. However, he worked his way to become a fashion designer and today he is the proud owner of Robert Naorem Studio, a sustainable fashion brand rich in tradition. Coming from a small but beautiful state in the North East of India, this one-man army is taking sustainable fashion to the world.
He didn’t achieve his dream overnight, it was a long journey of perseverance, hard work and never quitting. He got through NIFT, Mumbai but he had to let go of the opportunity as his family were not supportive. Lack of support and questioning him by his family about Fashion Designing’s scope and its future made him underconfident to fully commit to what he desired to become.
While graduating from Bangalore University, the extracurricular activities his college had provided brought back his passion. His career journey started with being a makeup artist initially working with small projects & production houses and later with Bollywood. He met many renowned faces, from actors to directors and choreographers in the industry and made connections with them.
After working for some years as a makeup artist, he decided to make his dream career come true and at the same time, wanted to do something for the people of Manipur. He came back to Manipur and learned about the Manipuri handloom industry. What he realised was that the market for handloom was very less and it was going out of the scene soon.
“I found that the handloom has been replaced by manufacturing garments from outside, there were imitations of our handloom, and I felt it needs to be protected.” -Robert Naorem
Robert adds that the people of Manipur are fast in following trends, be it wearing western clothes to following Korean trends. He also talked about how wearing traditional dress in day to day life wasn’t considered very stylish and that’s when he decided to bring some kind of change within the boundary. He wanted his garments to be traditional yet trendy and make people wear them, he also wanted to give more attention to the garments rather than the model on the runway.
He was clear with the idea that ‘Inaphi’ a Manipuri traditional shawl should be always the way it is worn and so he just played with the patterns and colour palette. For example, he brought patterns like Manipuri script, indigenous animal ‘Sangai’, Manipuri dances etc. woven on the shawl and that too purely handwoven. He incorporated English colour palettes like nude and light colours and make the shawls more appealing to the younger generations as well, otherwise, they were always more on the brighter colour tone.
“I wanted to make it very stylish with our own product available and today even a little girl wants to wear our Rani Phi (traditional shawl)."-Robert Naorem
He also highlighted that everything needs money and he has invested in Robert Naorem Studio whatever he’d earned in 15 years as a make-up artist. He has invested in production, branding, promoting, travelling for shows and stressed that he is charging for all the efforts and the expenses he has put into it.
When asked where does his fashion brand “ Robert Naorem Studio” stand in today’s fashion industry, he replied that he doesn’t want his brand to be known just as a generic fashion designer brand. He wants people to associate him and Robert Naorem Studio as a brand that promotes the handloom & textile industry.
“Even when I travel across, people associate with me as someone who supports sustainable fashion, local weavers and traditional weaving.”-Robert Naorem
Owning a sustainable brand, sustainability is very important for Robert as the world is already facing environmental changes, climate changes and calamities. He, therefore, feels environmentally friendly products are the need of the hour. As the fashion industry also plays a big role, he wants people to focus more on the handloom industry, preserve & focus on man labour or skilled labour, make reusable clothing, use organic, natural dyes etc. He added that even though new trends keep coming and changing but sustainability and fashion should go hand in hand.
In order to stop global warming, he wants to promote things like stopping leather production, cutting off trees, harmful things done in the name of fashion like using metallic dyes, chemical dyes which harm the environment, try and reduce environmental hazards as much as possible.
Apart from being a successful entrepreneur and a responsible citizen, he also had his fair of struggles in his journey. The major struggle was not getting support financially, emotionally from his family for taking up fashion designing as a career. The other struggle was when the Covid-19 pandemic hit although he handled it. He managed his business with the savings he had, he also got back-up in the form of a loan from the government which was dedicated to startup business and managed 2-3 months during the pandemic. It was a struggle for him to pay all the weavers because it was their livelihood & was dependent on the payment. However, things went well ultimately.
“I won’t claim myself as an expert but I think I am lucky in a way. I got the right opportunities at the right time. The supreme power provided me with opportunities, got international links when I wanted to take it forward to the international stage. I pre-plan, keep looking for opportunities and never stop.”-Robert Naorem
As for his future plan, he wants to give back his knowledge whatever he has learned before he retires. He feels the youngsters in Manipur don’t know professionalism and wants to make them understand professionalism. He wants to start an academic based institute so as to pave way for youths who face the lack of opportunities in this field, people who want to study outside the state but don’t have financial support, help & connect them to the right people, invite experts and provide them with a good faculty.
Quick Fun Questions
Q1. Describe yourself in one word.
Q2. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Robert: My weakness is my mother and my strength is my ability to create.
Q3. Any celebrity you want to dress up in your design.
Robert: Sushmita Sen and it has happened. ( A Little story behind - Robert at the beginning of his career told everyone that he will make Sushmita Sen wear his design and that too a Manipuri attire. He wrote a letter to Ms Sen pouring all his heart out asking her to fulfil his dream of dressing her in his design.)
Q4. Any fashion trend you hate and like the most.
Robert: I hate any fashion trend that is made only for runways and not wearable in real life. I like sustainable ones made with organic material and natural dyes
Q5. How would you describe your personal style?
Robert: Simple and classy
Q6. If you are given a superpower, what would you choose to have?
Robert: One superpower I would like to have is the ability to provide everyone or all the underprivileged people with basic amenities of life.
Q7. If not a designer or make-up artist, what would you take up as a career?
Robert: Teacher, it is the most respectable job, everything comes from a teacher. Sharing knowledge is important and I want to impart whatever I have learned.
Robert Naorem @robertnaoremstudio is a successful entrepreneur today owning his handloom fashion boutique and chains of salons. Keeping his game on in the fashion industry, he has also done masters in Clinical Psychology from Bangalore University and completed M.phil from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences.
It was a pleasure speaking to you Robert and we wish you more success in your future endeavours, keep hustling!