Mohanjeet Grewal: The Visionary Who Introduced Indian Fashion to Paris

A tale from the fields of Punjab to the streets of Paris.

Courtesy: Pinterest

The first Indian to launch her own store in Paris in 1964, designer Mohanjeet Grewal—also known as the grande dame of Indian high fashion—is the reason why les chic Parisiennes know and have come to love our textiles. For her eponymous store, located on Rue de Bac on the left bank of the Seine, took the western world by storm, with the likes of Bridgette Bardot, Catherine Denevue, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, and Jane Fonda donning her creations. In fact, Mohanjeet even invented the ‘mini-sari’, and today, her boutique continues to give a voice to Indian designers and traditional techniques. 

This remarkable 94-year-old’s journey began from the cultural bylanes of Lahore, in undivided India, where she was born into a wealthy Sikh family. After partition, her family moved to Patiala in India, and she later went on to study at UC Berkeley, before venturing into journalism. However, Mohanjeet’s path took an unexpected turn, and she ultimately emerged as a legendary designer.

A young Mohanjeet Grewal.

Mohanjeet’s childhood was profoundly shaped by her father, the Director of Education in Patiala, who encouraged her to pursue her dreams. In an interview with DD News, she recounts a childhood memory of accompanying her father to their lands. During one such visit, her father asked her, “Minto, it has been ten minutes, and you still have not asked me a question…” Intrigued, she asked why the sky was so far above the land and then proclaimed, “I will go where the land meets the sky!”. To this, her father replied, “Go on, run then, Minto!”. Ever since, Minto has been chasing her dreams. 

Mohanjeet’s interests as a young girl were literature and writing; however, her artistic spirit yearned for something more. Driven by a desire to merge her homeland’s exquisite traditions with the west’s contemporary aesthetics, Mohanjeet set her sights on the world’s fashion capital: Paris. In the 1960s, the city was a melting pot of creativity, and it offered the perfect canvas to showcase her designs to a global audience. 

Mohanjeet Grewal invented the 'mini sari', a marriage between the
trending mini skirt and the traditional sari.
French actress Catherine Deneuve in a piece by Mohanjeet.

The idea for her chosen profession came on the streets of New York City. She reveals an anecdote in the same interview, where during one of her walks in NYC, a passerby mistook Mohanjeet for being Iranian. When she clarified that she was from India, the woman asked, “Where is that?”.

This eye-opening encounter proved to Mohanjeet that India, let alone Indian fashion, was relatively unknown in the western world, which motivated her to give it the spotlight it deserved. Undeterred by the challenges ahead, she embarked on her Parisian journey, armed with an unwavering determination to rewrite the rules of high fashion.

Former FLOTUS Jacqueline Kennedy with Mohanjeet Grewal.
Germano-French actor Romy Schneider in a style Mohanjeet.

Mohanjeet’s first boutique, ‘La Malle de l’Inde’ or The Indian Trunk, was located in a small courtyard in Paris. But in 1968, she decided to rename it ‘Mohanjeet’ and relocate it to a swankier part of town, the Rue de Bac. Soon after, the industrious lady began to gain rapid recognition, even beyond the boundaries of France, and her work was featured in publications like Vogue and Elle. In fact, she even invented the ‘mini’sari’—a marriage between the ’60s mini-skirt and the traditional sari, including embroidery and a draped pallu.

Mohanjeet’s groundbreaking contribution to Indian high fashion in Paris paved the way for future generations of designers to showcase their talent globally and elevated India’s fashion industry to new heights. 

Mohanjeet’s influence continues to reverberate throughout the fashion world even today, and her pioneering spirit and commitment to breaking barriers are a constant reminder of the transformative power of fashion. “I don’t call myself a stylist,” the trailblazer explains. “I am a potter with clay in my hands, moulding something out of it.”

Actor Jane Fonda in an outfit by Mohanjeet in Vogue France, 1970.
Mohanjeet Grewal. Image: Courtesy

All images: Courtesy Team Mohanjeet