She came, she saw, and she conquered. The vivacious young lady with strong roots in Bapatla, Andhra, is among very few fashion figures in the country who set a benchmark of sorts in Tollywood. She is well known for her unique sense of styling while working all those fabulous actors on screen. Transcending global fashion into Telugu celluloid comes naturally to this accomplished designer who had seen it all in the arena of the biggies. Professedly popular on social media and film circles, she flaunts an enviable fan following, head to head with few national and international designers and stylists.
As Tollywood continues to see a remarkable shift in the way stars take mojo to their dressing, Neeraja Kona talks to Deepa Balasubramanian about her scintillating journey with Telugu Film Industry and her great camaraderie with actors.
Tell us about your exciting journey. How did it all start?
After completing my studies abroad, I had to unexpectedly come back to India in 2012. This was the time when I was slowly getting exposed to the musings of Tollywood. My brother Venkat Kona, who is an acclaimed writer in films, happened to suggest that I should give a shot at pursuing a fashion career in Telugu films. At that time he was working on Baadshah directed by Srinu Vaitla. He introduced me into filmdom. I met the team. The first star I interacted with was Junior NTR. We struck a great rapport. I was amazed with his real life persona. Given that I had no clue about what was happening in Tollywood, it took me a while to get myself updated.
You seemed to have roamed the world while studying and working. How was the experience?
(Smiles) I studied merchandise marketing and branding at the University of Texas, Dallas. Later, I moved into Fashion marketing at FIDM, one of the most reputed schools for fashion. I went a notch to study further at London College of Fashion on an exchange program for 4 years. I could have chosen Italy, the ultimate fashion destination but zeroed on London because of language barriers. After completing a proper internship in London, an exciting journey with work followed. I found myself being exposed to some of the high end EU fashion brands. London College of Fashion is one of the biggies in the world. This gave me an opportunity to study and work with the crème of people. I was directly associated with international brands like Michael Kors and Ted Baker.
From Ted Baker to Tollywood. How was the transition? Was it tough?
I would say, a major shift in mind sets. Being a woman is tough enough anywhere. But Venkat Annaiah assured me that it will all work out great. After moving here, I tried my hand at landing corporate jobs. I remember going for interviews with companies like Deloitte. The choices were loud and clear in front of me. After long contemplating, I chose to design for Baadshah. I thankfully had a great vibe with NTR and Kajal Aggarwal. You get this instant and magical recognition when you design for stars. Though I was there, I did not really know what I was getting into. I was also simultaneously working with Nithiin for Gunde Jaari Gallanthayindey. GJG is special because there was more freedom to apply my kind of styling.
“I share a great friendship with Nithiin and we get along like a house on fire. He and Samantha are like two besties to me, the first great friendships inside the industry. Both films turned out to be great hits. GJG was a blockbuster and Nithiin’s look was appreciated. He was kind enough to acknowledge and talk about my work with people outside”
How was it to be a part of something as magnanimous as Attarinitiki Daredi?
AD is one of the best films to have been a part of. Interestingly, both Attarintiki Daredi and Ramayya Vastavayya took off as back to back projects with a gap of just five days. It was like being involved with two big productions at one go. The best thing was that both Taarak (Junior NTR) and Samantha were around. This gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with those who were close.
What was it like to work with someone as powerful as Pawan Kalyan?
Pawan Kalyan is a real gentleman. He treated us all so well while filming. He is insanely humane outside the power star image given by people. He displays a very modest disposition as compared to his larger than life cachet. He interacted with the rest of us on the sets with amicable attitude.
You share a seemingly great friendship with Samantha
Samantha is very close to my heart. We have become like two girls bonding over fashion, style and everyday stuff while working. These friendships have helped me a lot while styling the actors better.
“Samantha is easily the Deepika Padukone of the South. She knows her stuff very well, be it acting or fashion. Working with her is both fun and effortless. Sam is always updated about the latest in style. She never stops trying new things”
Audience loves the way you style every actor. How do you manage to pull this off with uniqueness?
Before styling a personality, I study them first. Thankfully, I get along with everyone I work with. Knowing them closely helps me enhance their look on screen. The actors also participate while planning what I style. They are excited to know how they would be presented next and what looks best on them.
You are currently the toast of the town. How does it feel to be admired as the most happening fashion designer in Tollywood?
It feels great to know that people love my work. This makes me keep going. I’m constantly striving to deliver the best for Tollywood in terms of latest styles and looks. My research is always based on what is trending worldwide, not just Bollywood.
What is the best costume you have designed so far in Tollywood and why?
I can’t decide for one. Each star has his/her own thing. I have loved putting together various looks for all the actors I have worked with. For example, Nithiin’s spiked hair do in GJG was urbane and trendy. People loved his makeover. Similarly, varying looks of Samantha and Kajal in the films I worked have garnered massive response.
What are your current projects?
I’m currently on three exciting big projects – Harish Shankar’s Subramanyam for sale, Gopichand Malineni’s Pandaga Chesko, where I have styled exclusively for Rakul Preet Singh and Sonal Chauhan, and Akkineni Nagarjuna’s Sokkagey Chinni Naayana directed by debutante Kalyan Krishna. SCN is turning out to be one of my favourite films. I’m styling the entire movie. I’m also working for a Naga Chaitanya starrer directed by Sudheer Varma.
What’s your take on the evolving fashion in Tollywood?
Things are definitely changing for better. Lot of effort is now being made to make the stars look at par with Bollywood standards. Budgets are currently increasing for costumes which is a really good thing. Even technicians work hard on upping the styling of costumes in my team. High Heel Confidential, an exclusive blog which is popular worldwide now looks at South India while reviewing fashion. We even had some mixed and amazing reviews to that effect.
“Charan is very fitness conscious and follows style even in simple wear. You may see him walking in plain tees and shorts, but with style”
Is fashion rampant outside the industry? Do people really spend through their noses outside of shooting sets?
(Laughs) Yes. Leading ladies are fashion conscious. They don’t mind a splurge when it comes to labels. They will also not stop if something exciting shows up in street shopping. They live and breathe fashion. Same with men. They are seen wearing the latest cool stuff wherever they go.
“Kajal is very particular about things and knows her stuff. Her mantra is ‘My way or highway’. One has to work diligently to get things right for her. She is a great and ebullient personality with an impeccable ‘hard to miss’ body language”
Apart from films, are there any other plans to launch new ventures?
I currently do event styling for actresses. I plan and execute their complete look for audio launches and award functions. I want to create a new niche here.
Define fashion the ‘Neeraja Kona’ way!
“I would say whatever we wear passionately after putting things together with love, that becomes fashion in itself. We are normal women. We can’t go magazine way when it comes to everyday style. We don’t have time to look perfectly fashionable every single day. I love cottons and my black metal jhumkas. You will not believe it if I say that I have been treasuring my favourite set of jhumkas for the last two years. Black is my favourite colour”
Your message to the budding stylists
There is a room for lot more stylists in Tollywood. I wish people looked up to the industry more as a friendly environment. I started from scratch. Hard work pays off here. Nobody needs to be kind if you are not doing good work. Local talent should come in and do a good job.