Mohan is a member of the Board of Notting Hill Housing. He always looks beautiful and has a real flare with colour, with an instinctive understanding of the cool, deep palette that really suits his colouring. I told him about my blog, and he was as enthusiastic as ever, and made time to answer my questions in detail. I hope you enjoy reading his insights, and looking at his photographs.
What was your family’s approach to dressing when you were growing up?
My mum and dad were (and still are) pretty attentive to how they dressed. I am one of two boys, and inevitably my brother and I have probably been influenced by my dad. He came to the UK in the early 1960’s to study, then went back to our native Sri Lanka, got married and had me, and we returned in the late 1960’s to the UK (and lived in Notting Hill). My dad has something of an individualistic streak in him which I think has reflected in his dress sense over the years. I’ve seen the pictures of him in the 1950’s in Jaffna, Sri Lanka where he looked like a combination of Elvis, Sinatra and Brando and rode a motor scooter which was very rebellious in conservative Tamil circles in Sri Lanka! For his work in central London (in a medical research institution) he dressed in conventional suits but I remember the flamboyance in the ties, and in his leisure time especially at various Sri Lankan Tamil parties or with neighbours or his work colleagues there would be 60’s / 70’s cravats, bright coloured jackets and tasteful cufflinks. My mum initially wore saris for everyday wear including work (she was a secondary school teacher), but mainly for practical reasons she switched to trousers and blouses – and always matching and unfussy. For Sri Lankan Tamil dinner parties and community events (weddings and dinner dances) she wore her saris and lovely matching sari blouses. Unlike many Asian families, we never had an obsession with gold jewellery. I don’t know why – but I certainly don’t regret it!
You always look very smart. How important are your clothes?
Clothes are important to me. I certainly wouldn’t regard myself as an early adopter (in clothes or technology) but might be one when it comes to my love of soul, jazz, gospel, latin and world music. However, I am taken by styles that draw on (like my music tastes) the sense of struggle that are behind some communities’ story. Within reason though. My interest in rare groove and funk doesn’t mean I can pull off an early 70’s black Afro style (especially as I have a shaved head)! But perhaps I can do Isaac Hayes with a peaked hat. My interest in my South East Asian heritage (especially because of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle) doesn’t mean I’ll wear vertis / sarongs – partly because I don’t know how they even defy gravity and stay up!. But I will wear an Indian Nehru suit at the occasional corporate event or wedding (although these days even with Asian weddings men only wear an Indian traditional outfit if they are close member of the wedding party or the groom!)
Do you have a distinct look for work and do you wear a very different style at weekends?
I guess the common theme is around colours matching. I am not one to say that I am obsessed with things matching (in home décor as well as clothes), but my mother-in-law often says ‘Mohan & His Matching’ as if I was some walking ‘60’s Brit pop band – Gerry & The Pacemakers!, Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, Mohan & The Matching! For casual wear, it’s simple stuff. Straight cut jeans, jumpers mainly in single colours, T-shirts mainly plain or with a slogan / image I feel aligned to, and converse-type shoes. I do listen to what my teenage daughters say on these things – especially around ensuring that casual clothing is classic in nature and therefore age-appropriate.
Do you ever bring in any Indian fabrics or styles?
Actually I don’t. There’s a certain irony that in our multi-cultural Britain and in our global world I am more likely to wear an Indian outfit to a corporate event masquerading as if it were my national dress. Who am I kidding? I’m just as enamoured by the notion of wearing someone else’s national dress. For example, in business I am doing a fair amount of work in West Africa, and in my trips to Nigeria, I’m taken by the business wear of the men when they are not wearing conventional Western suits. Suit-like cut, thinner but still firm material, and a bit like Indian outfits but with trimming which is distinctively Nigerian. A close work colleague of mine lives in fear I’m going to emulate them in our business meetings in one of our trips to Lagos – and I just might.
You often wear interesting colours. Tell me about it.
In business wear, there’s nothing like a crisp white shirt to show off a suit and tie. And when I want a change, it’s great to have do shades of a certain colour – say, light blue shirt, cream shirt, or pink shirt. In colour wheel speak, I think it is hard for guys to comply with the rules that normally apply regarding opposites or adjacent colours. I must admit it I do tailor business wear dress to suit the occasion. So conservative-minded client generates a dark blue suit and dark blue or dark red tie. And a more creative client might lead to a polo neck jumper and jacket or no tie but a shirt that is designed for no tie.
Where do you buy your clothes? Do you have any recommendations?
That would be telling! Suffice to say, I don’t spend much money and brand names are bordering on meaningless to me. When a female work colleague who I complimented because of her suit said it was from Nicole Farhi, I thought that was a mutual business contact of ours! All I’d say is go for the style and the colour that reflects what you want, and it doesn’t matter whether it comes from the local market, from the high street shop or from the high-end brand. In this global world, they are often made in the same factories.
You are a head hunter. Do you ever give candidates advice on how to dress to impress?
No I don’t. Most get it right and whatever they wear, it’s part of their personal brand that they offer to any prospective employer. Most of my work is of a global nature and at a senior level so prescribing across country borders is dangerous, men prescribing to women is even more perilous, and there are some general standards of business engagement and dress that have become global in nature. You can’t go wrong (female or male) if you wear a suit in sober colours. Having said that, you can certainly go right if you don’t!
I must say, I’ve never thought about dress sense as much as I have done in the last 30 minutes! There is always the risk that I am applying some rationale to what I do – and it’s all after the event. Post event rationalisation I think is the phrase. It’s not the most important thing, but I remain enlivened by the possibilities of dress sense to reflect personality, belief and image.