The fashion/costume designer, who is celebrating 40 years in the industry, talks about the early years of her career in couture, her design philosophy, and her forthcoming projects

It was in the mid-1980s that a young Neeta Lulla forayed into the world of fashion. Born into a Sindhi family, she spent her early years in Mumbai — steeped in the sights and sounds of Hindi films — and Hyderabad. Armed with a passion for garments, she embarked on a career in couture at a time when it was considered unviable for women. Inspired by French designer Paul Poiret, whose avant-garde approach struck a chord with her, Neeta carved a niche for herself in bridal creations. Her first big break came when she designed for jewellery designer Varuna D. Jani. Today, having designed costumes f or over 300 films, she is one of Bollywood’s most celebrated designers.

Her costumes in films like Devdas (2002), Jodhaa Akbar (2009) and Balgandharva (2012) have fetched her multiple National Awards. Neeta’s repertoire of clients reads like a who’s who of Bollywood royalty. She has designed outfits (including Maharashtrian Paithani saree) for actresses like Sridevi and Aishwarya Rai. To her, a creation is not just clothing, but a symbol of luxury — and individuality. This philosophy has given her creative fulfilment, and brought a loyal clientele. In this interview to The Federal, the designer, who is celebrating 40 years in the industry, reflects on her journey, the changing landscape of fashion, and what the future holds for the trailblazing couturier. Excerpts:

How has the costume industry evolved over the years?

In my early years, I found myself at the intersection of bridal couture and film costume design. I did everything, from organising merchandise, creating patterns, doing styling and makeup, to sometimes even managing the finances and maintaining my workspace. Fashion was on the brink of becoming a recognised profession, a shift marked by the gradual increase in fashion magazines from a solitary biannual publication to several periodicals. Designers began to gain visibility, and the public’s interest in fashion and personal style started to grow.

However, during this era, there was a discernible divide between mainstream fashion and the more flamboyant styles seen in films: the latter was often dismissed as too garish. Despite initial resistance, clients frequently sought out film-inspired designs, such as Juhi Chawla’s off-shoulder blouses from Darr (1993). The 1990s heralded a turning point as both film and mainstream magazines began to acknowledge clothes stars wore in movies as a major fashion influence. My designs for the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) received considerable attention, underscoring the growing importance of cinema in shaping fashion trends.

As the digital age blurred the lines between film and mainstream fashion, it became easier for consumers to access both Indian and international brands as well as designs inspired by movies. From this moment, it became clear that fashion in films was not just a passing trend but something that governed consumer choices; films made people fashion-conscious. Soon, fashion came to be recognised not only for its aesthetic value, but also for its role in cultural and social expression.

Can you talk about your association with Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya and Kangana Ranaut, and how they challenge your creative mind?

Working with Bollywood actresses pushes my creative boundaries. Since I understand the technical aspects of costume design, it leads to great conversations and helps build trust; it assures them that I align with the director’s vision, which is key to the authentic portrayal of the characters they play. Making costumes goes beyond aesthetics; it’s about enabling actresses to essay roles comfortably and convincingly. It shows that I understand the importance of getting into character and lets them know I can help them do just that. When the designer and the actors work together, we tackle any creative hurdles that come our way, making sure the costumes really bring the characters to life.

Aishwarya in an outfit designed by Neeta Lulla in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas

Which are some of your favourite films from both Hollywood and Bollywood that you think had exceptional costume design?

Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind and the 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation set high standards with visually captivating ensembles. Black Panther is celebrated for its innovative, culturally rich costumes that brought Wakanda to life vividly. In Bollywood, Jodhaa Akbar and Padmaavat exemplify Indian craftsmanship and meticulous historical costume research.

Creating looks for period dramas and non-fictional characters has become an important part of your job. How does a costume designer adapt to that?

This entails thorough script reading for historical context, researching era-specific design elements and fabrics to accurately define characters. It’s important to grasp the director’s approach of telling the story through costumes and to make sure actors feel good in their roles. When I started out, I learned to match the director’s vision, take into account the art director’s colour choices, follow the lighting plans from the director of photography, and meet the choreographer’s requirements. Being able to adapt and work well with the production team has helped me succeed. This flexibility not only makes me a great team player but also lets me bring my own creative ideas to the movie, adding something meaningful to the film’s overall vision.

Having been associated with so many Bollywood projects, how do you manage budget constraints while ensuring quality and creativity?

I plan everything carefully before starting, beginning with detailed drawings and choosing colours thoughtfully to keep costs down. I pick fabrics that look fancy on camera but are not overly expensive, finding a middle ground between looking real and looking good. Period films need costumes that are accurate, which can drive up the costs, but cutting corners is not an option. We adjust the budget to make sure the movie looks great and stays true to historical events. It’s always tricky balancing creativity, quality, and budget, but I love the challenge, making sure every outfit is made with a lot of attention to detail.

Let’s talk about how the fashion industry is surviving on its association with corporations. Is corporate backing holding the business together?

The fashion industry depends a lot on big companies to keep growing and doing well, especially in today’s highly competitive market. Corporate backing can indeed hold the fashion business together by providing financial stability, innovation in products, market access, and hiring of professional expertise. Many fashion brands need money from big companies to run everything, like making clothes and advertising, and to expand to new markets. With support from big companies, fashion brands can use the newest technology, from sustainable materials to e-commerce platforms. This teamwork helps them come up with new ideas, stay up-to-date with trends, and sell stuff online, giving them what they need to succeed.

In the digital age, how do designers keep a check on plagiarism?

To avoid copying others, it’s important to keep coming up with new ideas that are based on your own inspirations and beliefs. This philosophy acts as a guiding star for each design, ensuring that while influences vary, the essence remains distinctly mine. But nowadays, there’s so much stuff online that it’s hard to know if someone’s replicating your work. That’s why sticking to your design beliefs is so important — a shield against digital overload and a wellspring for innovation. I look at imitation in a pragmatic way, recognising it as a way for people to show respect to the original work. While copying is wrong, understanding imitation as a form of respect can help ease frustrations. Aim to be original, but also understand imitation in context, and keep working on your design beliefs to grow creatively in today’s digital world.

What is keeping you busy now?

As I step into my 41st year in the fashion industry, I’ve decided to embrace and enjoy this journey even more deeply. This year, I’m focusing on learning new things while still drawing inspiration from my previous work. I’m channelling this inspiration into designing new collections that reflect the themes and aspects I deeply resonate with, especially for my upcoming couture collection. This collection will incorporate a variety of techniques that I genuinely enjoy working with. In addition to this, I’m currently involved in designing costumes for five films and a musical.

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