Theia Tekchandaney on designing for films and styling

Let’s get one thing cleared first, Theia Tekchandaney dislikes being called a stylist, even though, there are days when she wears that cap, especially for long-time friend, actor and environmentalist, Dia Mirza. Tekchandaney believes that costume designing is her true calling, and finds excitement in the process, whether she’s working with a team of women in Mission Mangal or a fashion force (Sonam Kapoor) in Padman. In a candid conversation with Kundan Ahuja, the costume designer/stylist (that’s what her Instagram profile says) spills the beans on her process, the films she’s worked on and how, along with Dia Mirza, she tilts towards conscious choices…

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Your very first project?

My first project was a movie called Aks with Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra in 2001. I worked with my then partner Pooja Sarin on the movie. I was fresh out of design school and had never set foot on a film set until then. So it was very daunting but exciting at the same time. 

As a stylist what inspires you?

I hate being referred to as a stylist. I feel I am a costume designer at heart. I love creating characters. Almost like a writer writes out a character, I feel a good costume designer brings that character to life and gives it visual traction. 

What about styling attracts you the most?

Honestly, styling isn’t something I enjoy. I do enjoy discovering new designers exchanging ideas and collaborating with them, but film is my one true love. 

How challenging is costume design?

I don’t find it challenging as much as I find it exciting. I love creating imaginary worlds. Getting the audience to buy into or believe in your story involves many aspects and good costume design has such a huge role to play in that.

How difficult was costume design for Aarya, considering the character and even Sushmita Sen?

Aarya was a tough project from the word go. We had a huge time constraint and of course, no amount of money ever feels like a good budget on any project. But more than that we were only able to do our first and only round of fittings with Sushmita [Sen] about 5 days before we went on floor. So we had to be ready with her entire show wardrobe for every single scene, with options! Luckily she was super patient and tried almost 60 looks for us over two days. She even patiently stood in costume while I cut, snipped and pinned things on her body. 

When you design the costume for a character, how do you make sure to bring together the sensibilities of three people together – yourself, the actor and the character?

So it’s not only three people whose sensibilities have to be taken into account. The director as well as the cinematographer have a huge role to play as well.  Luckily most of the directors and actors I have worked with have had complete faith in me and have usually followed my lead. Each actor of course brings their own personality and in some cases personal preferences to the character as well.

Sushmita was very happy with the look on the show, but she is super fussy about her footwear and is used to wearing only certain high-end brands. Luckily for us, that wasn’t in conflict with her character and she kindly opened up her shoe closet for us to raid. 

Akshay sir (for Mission Mangal) is the same, he loves the comfort of Onitsuka and the Bottega slider and will try and use them wherever possible. 

Lolo (Karisma Kapoor) is the best. On Mentalhood she brought so much experience to the table that it was a learning experience for my team and I. She’s always evaluating and second-guessing till the last minute so we would only take a final call on her costumes on the final day of the shoot. 

What’s the process of designing for a character?

It all begins with the script. I usually ask the writers or director for a character sketch, or at least put one together for myself with my team. A huge part is of course the actor who is playing the role. Their image, their body type, and their perception of the character. My team and I put together mood boards for the characters and then based on the script, costume ideas for each scene with notes. This helps us to add small elements in a costume that an actor can choose to use or not in each scene. Like for example for Mission Mangal we made sure we planned out each actor’s accessories meticulously. All of them had distinct handbags, lunch boxes and even umbrellas which they ended up using in the fight scene in the metro.

Describe a day in the life of a costume designer…

Well as a costume designer my days are very full. Initially, when I started working on my own after my partner Pooja moved to Goa, I did only one project at a time. Now I have about two or three projects in various stages at any given time. I have an amazing team that handles all the work and leaves me with enough time to flesh out our ideas. That said, no one day is the same as the next. We could be doing sourcing for one project, look tests for another, and shooting for a third – all simultaneously.

When you style Dia Mirza, how different is sourcing, considering her choices always have to be conscious choices?

Dia and I have been friends for over 15 years now. When we started working together she had just started getting involved with the environmental movement. For me, it’s been a learning experience because I have discovered so many eco-conscious designers because of her. And you are right in saying our choices aren’t always sustainable but they are always conscious choices. Consciously choosing to support craft and Indian design as much as possible. Another thing is that Dia isn’t too concerned with, is being on trend, but she likes to keep it classic and timeless, which is very much my vibe too.

Theia Tekchandaney on designing for films and styling
Dia Mirza in Garo, Anita Dongre & Lola by Suman B

Also, how do you source for her while working on international projects (like the UN Sustainable Goals outing where she wore Punit Balana)?

So when Dia goes to the UN Summit, we try and work with Indian textiles and silhouettes as much as possible. I always make sure there is at least one saree in her ensembles for the summit. Other than that, of course, we have to keep the weather in mind, as its cold in NYC in September. Luckily we have many designers in the slow fashion space that are now doing winterwear that’s sustainable practical and beautiful like Pero, Yavi and Eka among others.

You’ve also worked with Sonam Kapoor Ahuja on The Zoya Factor, Padman and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. She’s a fashion icon, so how do you make her believe in your craft?

Sonam is a super smart girl, and one of the nicest actors to collaborate with. Her film choices and character choices are such that she knows that the only way the audience will forget she’s Sonam Kapoor and buy into her playing Pari in Padman or Sweety in ELKDTAL is if she seamlessly merges into her character and looks the part. Also, we’ve worked together a lot now, so there is a certain amount of trust that’s just built automatically over time.

When you work on a film like Mission Mangal, how do you make sure that one character stands out from the other? You had 4 women to style in it. 

Honestly, Mission Mangal was like a cyclone that entered our lives and left. We didn’t even have the time to pause, think and evaluate what we had done till we saw the film at the preview. We had about 15 days to prep and be ready for the shoot from the time we had the final cast. I flew with my team to Chennai to do fittings with Tapsee [Pannu], from there to Hyderabad to do fittings with Nithya [Menon], and back to Mumbai to do fittings with Akshay [Kumar] sir – all within 36 hours. Also Jagan [Shakti], our director wanted to see the women in sarees as much as possible, so to develop a style vocabulary that was distinct for each of the girls wasn’t easy. We tried to use distinct fabric and colour choices to make each character look distinct. 

What was that moment that changed your life?

It’s not easy to pick any one moment that changed my life. As I get older I have learned that every single moment and every single choice we make has far-reaching consequences, and you have to learn to go with go flow.

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