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Indian designers fight back

It’s easy to be ‘fashionable’ these days. You like a dress you see in a fashion magazine? In one day, you can wear it. With the arrival of dozens of foreign high street brands, Indian designers are feeling the heat. Their survival strategy? Turning to India for inspiration.

fashion and trends Updated: Jan 22, 2011 19:57 IST
Parul Khanna Tewari

It’s easy to be ‘fashionable’ these days. You like a dress you see in a fashion magazine? In one day, you can wear it. You lust after a pair of pumps you saw Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson wear? You can have them right now. All you have to do is pop into one of the international high street brand stores in a mall to pick up whatever you fancy.

It’s a good feeling, isn’t it? But Indian designers are worrying. Because in the last year and a half, a slew of international high street brands have opened shop in India. And the more often you walk into those stores, the less the chances that Indian designers have of catching your attention. “Earlier, I would buy my dresses, coats and skirts from the prêt collections of Indian designers. Now, I just go to the shops,” says IT professional Swati Sood. She’s not the only one. So what are our designers doing about it?

SariAlien invasion

To backtrack a little, international high street labels like Mango, Zara, Forever 21 and Vero Moda are all over the country and well and truly entrenched.

It’s clear that we love them. Ask Arjun Sharma, director of Select Citywalk Mall, Delhi, for proof. "Zara’s first day sales here were higher than anywhere in the world," he says. "And sales have been consistently high since." It’s clear that we want more. Sharma adds that footfalls in the mall have increased 50 per cent since the opening of high street brands such as Zara, Mango, Esprit and Aldo.

And it’s clear that we’re getting more. New brands like Topshop and H&M are coming in soon and existing brands like Mango, which already has 10 stores across the country, are opening more outlets. But why have we welcomed them so warmly? Well, for one, international brands are aspirational. These are labels we’ve read about for years, but they’ve only become accessible to us now. It’s exciting to know that what we’re wearing today is the same thing that’s being worn in London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

And for another, these labels offer instant gratification. We see something in a magazine and we can have it now. Because they bring in new styles fast – turning the latest catwalk trends into high street fashion in three weeks.

Then there’s prices. "A white shirt from a high street brand will be for Rs. 3,000 and the same sort of shirt from a designer will cost

Rs.7,000," says designer Atsu Sekhose. The difference in pricing is simple. Indian designers are individuals. The high street labels have designers backed by huge conglomerates. "We’re new to the business of prêt wear – prêt was introduced in our fashion weeks only recently," explains Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India. "So our designers have no backing and no bulk orders. That means they can’t match the labels price to price."

Plus, the high street brands produce clothing that is the result of extensive market research, so they offer real value for money. And finally, as fashion designer Nikhil Mehra of the designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil says: "No Indian designer can match the quality of, say, a Mango or a Zara."

The battle lines are drawn
So who is really feeling the heat? “Designers who make western wear and whose price range is between R6,000 and R15,000 are having a tough time,” says Nikhil Mehra.

Across the world, the story is the same. “In places like Japan, China and Hong Kong, high street brands have wiped out the local design industry,” says designer Rina Dhaka.

Fighting them seems impossible, because our fashion industry is still finding its feet. “We have not been successful in logistics, infrastructure and supply chain management,” says Sunil Sethi. “Nor have we been able to bring in bigger players.” Mistakes have been made all around, but our designers don’t have the luxury of time. “You have to quickly know – and let people know – what you do best,” says Nikhil Mehra. “When my partner Shantanu and I started in 2000, we made a number of mistakes and learnt along the way. Today, you cannot afford to do that. The competition is just too strong.”

But that doesn’t mean our fashion designers are just lying back and letting the high street brands roll over them. They do have some tricks up their tie-dyed sleeves, and they are using them to fight back. First, there’s one little problem that high street labels face, which is no problem at all for Indian designers. It’s simple. They’re not Indian.

It’s a fact that however much we love our Westernwear, we like it more if it has a touch of our own culture. “My 18-year-old daughter would buy clothes from Zara or any other high street brand whenever we went abroad,” says Sunil Sethi. “But this year she picked up a shirt from Aneet Arora and jodhpurs from Nida Mehmood – clothes that hinted Indian.”

We like our fabrics, our prints, our ornamentation and our rich colours. Couple these with western cuts, and you’ve got winners.
“In the last fashion week, a majority of the designers had Indian accents in their work,” remembers Sunil Sethi. “Wendell Rodricks showcased a collection of handloom clothes, Tarun Tahiliani used handloom in his Diffusion collection, Rajesh Pratap Singh did a 360 degree turnabout and is using vegetable dyes and doing the traditional block print.”

Going ‘Indian’ can seem repetitive, admits Nikhil Mehra, but it’s the only way to survive. “Besides,” he adds, “We have so much, so why shouldn’t we use it?” Other designers obviously believe the same. For instance, fashion designer Nachiket Barve makes it a point to have the Indian touch in his collections. “Why would people who have access to all the high street brands, including a few that make much better jackets, buy jackets from us if we don’t offer something unique?” Nachiket reasons. So he’s clear about his USP: though his clothes are western in appeal and cut, they are Indian in mindset.

Fashion designer Digvijay Singh contemporises silhouettes from medieval India. “I take an angarkha and replace the tassels with a zipper. Instantly, it becomes a jacket,” he says. “We should use our drapes, handloom fabrics and techniques such as ikat, phulkari and bandhini to innovate with our Westernwear.”

Unique in their own way
That’s the only thing that works, says Sunil Sethi. “The only time Indian designers have been able to make a mark is when they showcase India in their clothes,” he says. “I remember, about 10 years ago, a few buyers asked me why they should buy suits from an Indian designer and not an international brand. Even then, they were looking for Indian sensibilities in Westernwear.” Any Indian designer who has a name abroad has that name because of her or his fusion technique. Abraham and Thakore do great western wear with handloom fabrics and ikat. Rajesh Pratap has been able to take on top international designer Issey Miyake, known for edgy styles with pin-tucks, because Rajesh does amazing pin-tucks on outfits made from handloom fabrics.

But, says Nikhil Mehra, there is one big reason why Indian designers will never go out of style. They can give you proper bespoke tailoring. “We make clothes according to your specifications, your size and going by what suits you,” says Atsu. “Plus, when you wear a shirt by a designer, it will be different from the, say, Zara shirt that you see 10 people wear. Our every piece is different.”

That’s a big draw for people who dislike looking the same as everyone else. “All designers must have a unique identity,” says Rina Dhaka. “That’s the only way they’ll survive. I started by selling sexy Indian clothes. Nobody associated me with anything else. So the key is to go with what you know best.”

What the designer does best then becomes her or his stamp – and that’s what attracts people like us to them. “A customer will come to us to buy a part of our soul,” says Nikhil Mehra, somewhat dramatically. You can’t say that about a label.

Boom time on high street
When you walk into malls these days, you could be excused for thinking you’re in some foreign country. Because the first thing you see is a host of international high street brands. Benetton has been here for years of course, and Mango, Esprit, Next, Aldo, Promod, Forever New, Nine West, Charles & Keith, Marks & Spencer, Latin Quarters, Nautica, French Connection and Bossini have been here for quite a while. But in 2009, East arrived, and in 2010, we got ONLY, Zara, Forever 21, Vero Moda, Nautica, Jack n Jones and Miss Sixty. Need a bigger wardrobe now?

Atsu Sekhose
To survive, believes Atsu, you must marry India with the west. Shirt with traditional Lucknowi chikan work

Digvijay Singh
Digvijay experiments with Indian silhouettes in his Westernwear. An angarkha fitted with a zipper to look like a jacket

Wendell Rodricks
Best known for his Westernwear, Wendell recently introduced cotton handloom saris into his collection. Dress made of handloom fabric

Nachiket Barve
Matches Indian sensibilities with western appeal and cuts. Nachiket recently introduced saris into his collections for the first time ever

Wedding wear is still where the action is
Way back in the ’90s, when the fashion industry took its first stumbling steps, designers like Tarun Tahiliani and Rohit Bal made their mark not only with everyday and party wear, they also made wedding clothes a big part of the fashion pie.

That lost favour after a few years, however. Designing wedding clothes slowly began to be seen as limiting creativity, and frankly, being a sell-out. So, since the early 2000s, young fashion designers all came in chanting the same mantra: “I do radical clothes for edgy people. I do not do blingy wedding wear.”

But faced with serious competition from the international high street brands, young designers have been forced to take back their words. “Designers like Gaurav Gupta, Varun Sardana and Varun Behl, all known for their edgy Westernwear are doing wedding wear,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India.

It’s simple. This is where the money is, so if you want to survive, this is what you have to do. As Nikhil Mehra of the designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil says: “Even if you were to work only during the wedding season, you would make the same kind of money as you would if you worked the whole year round.”

It’s difficult for young designers to reconcile themselves to this, which explains why fashion designer Atsu Sekhose, known for his innovative western wear, doesn’t showcase his Indian and wedding ranges in his store, but customises it for his clients. “We cannot survive only with Westernwear now,” he says.

The sari revival
Asaree for cocktails, one that is pre-stitched, another that is short (chotu sari), and another that you can wear like a lehenga. All these styles are available now, pointing to the fact that a sari revival is underway, and that designers are not just experimenting with sari fabrics, but also styles.

Even designers like Digvijay Singh, who usually stick to Westernwear, are starting to make saris. One reason for its popularity among designers is because Indian women love saris and it makes perfect business sense. Fashion designer Nachiket Barve agrees, explaining that for every dress that is priced at Rs.10,000, there is a sari that retails for Rs.15,000. Moreover, designers say that their saris sell more than any other outfits in their collections.

Also, the west has come to accept the silhouette of the sari. International designers like John Galliano have been known to design gowns inspired by the sari’s silhouette. Westernwear designer Atsu says that this sets Indian fashion designers apart from the west. “The demand for saris is increasing, even from abroad, where pre-stitched and cocktail saris have become a rage,” he explains, adding, “It’s about telling the world that we have something unique that everyone loves.”

Singh now plans to launch organic saris (using organic colours). “No one has done it yet, so I hope to carve out a market,” he says.

Saare Jahan se achcha
1 Indian textures and fabrics are unbeatable
2 Our embroidery is matchless. Chances are the ornamentation on your high street top was done in India
3 No one understand colours the way we do
4 Likewise, no one understands our clothing tastes the way we do
5 There’s a certain sense of fusion style that our designers have that cannot be replicated anywhere else. A high street label caters to millions of people around the world. An Indian designer caters to Indians
6 Designer wear scores over branded wear for the simple reason that it offers something unique
7 We are great at drapes and flowing silhouettes. Saris, anyone?

From HT Brunch, Januray 23
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