At 92, Mohanjeet Grewal is passionate her work. She still uses the stairs frequently instead of the elevator. She still puts in tremendous hours, frequently staying up late, and when visiting Paris, she works every day at her shop.
Grewal began her work as a journalist after earning her doctorate at Berkeley in 1955. She worked in renowned newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She remembers, “It was really extremely exciting.”
Grewal became the first Indian fashion designer to open a shop on Paris in April of 1964. She transported trunk-loads of Indian textiles into France with 3,000 francs in loans from friends. She then borrowed 7,000 francs from another friend to open the shop. She was known as “La Malle de l’Inde,” or The Indian Trunk.
According to Grewal, “this store “at once” conquered the centre of the global fashion industry”.
Grewal is very open about what made her want to work in fashion and as an Indian designer in Paris.
“I had never taken a formal design school and had never worked with sketches, so I had no idea that fashion would be my calling. In actuality, I was a journalist with no relation to fashion at all, she explains in her endearing manner. However, there was a trigger—but more on that later.”
Grewal, who was born in Lahore, relocated to Patiala with her family the night before Independence. She started her studies with vigour and set her sights on attending a university overseas at a period when very few women in India pursued higher education.
After completing her education, Mohanjeet worked as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune newspaper and later The New York Times before departing for Vienna to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency. While still a student, Mohanjeet served as a guide for the UN. After that, she relocated to Paris to work for Unesco.
The one incident in her life affected her so much that she had made up her mind to change her profession.She once travelled to the US while wearing a saree, which she frequently wore to work. Are you from Israel, someone inquired after glancing at her outfit. She then realised that nobody outside of Unesco was aware of India and its advantages. “All I wanted was to show the world India’s workmanship and sell it,” was the catalyst. When I returned to India to rediscover it, I was incredibly enthused by the vivid colours of Rajasthan, the brightness and spark everywhere, which stood in stark contrast to the blacks and greys of the West.
Red coolie shirts and pockets vests in menswear were among her early creations for the stylish French. Later, she started selling khadi kurtas in various colours and white Lucknowi chikankari kurtas. In 1967, she introduced the daring mini-sari with a hemline above the knee and wraparound gold-rimmed dhotis, which propelled her designs onto the covers of prestigious French magazines. She rose to prominence thanks to the carefree boho chic look she introduced to Paris in the 1960s. She became so well-known as a result of this that she once owned seven stores in the centre of the fashion industry, and even French designers began to copy her aesthetic.
Many Hollywood celebrities like Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, as well as Princess Caroline of Monaco and renowned fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent became her clients. Her customers enjoyed receiving cardamom and clove tea when they came into the shop, in addition to her clothing.
Mohanjeet “clearly ruled the Paris fashion scene in the 1970s,” recalls renowned fashion designer Rina Dhaka. The nonagenarian is “known for many innovative ideas, and clearly did it before everyone else,” she continues. “Yonks back, I remember when I had done a show in Paris, I was walking near Saint Honoré Street (a legendary Parisian address and a temple to haute couture).
Grewal increased her reach and brought her services to the US, Monaco, and Spain. She gained recognition on New York’s exclusive Fifth Avenue by selling her creations to retail giants like Ann Taylor and Bloomingdales. Even the cover of the US version of Vogue magazine featured her vibrant pink ghagra.
Grewal thinks her products are supremely luxurious and in no way inferior to those made in France. She never offered discounts or sales because she only used rare, genuine, and exclusive fabrics to display a variety that could hardly be found in one tiny store in Paris.