Fashion dons a Business suit
The next time you meet Rohit Bal at a party, find out the secret of his energy. When he's out partying hard, he has few equals, but once he puts his creative hat on, his mind races in many directions.
The next time you meet Rohit Bal at a party, find out the secret of his energy. When he's out partying hard, he has few equals, but once he puts his creative hat on, his mind races in many directions. From getting his second collection for Metro Shoes out to finalising the look of his signature range of Rs 50,000-plus Nebula watches for Titan, from creating a unisex perfume with Goa's Gold Fragrances to hammering out a plan to deliver Levi's jeans made-to-order for individual customers in 14 days, there's never a dull moment in Bal's life. And it's not because he's out partying every night.
The men and women who've been rubbished for being glorified darzis are today talking business. Chemistry graduate-turned-designer Narendra Kumar Ahmed has tied up with Banswara, India's largest manufacturer of lycra polyester viscose (the fabric that goes into women's clothes sold under the Liz Claiborne, Espray and Zara labels), to achieve his target of ten stores retailing his mass-market brand Chai (starting price: Rs 350) by this year-end.
"The whole fashion business has moved from being a designer's vision to economics," says Ahmed. "Fashion isn't fashion until you see it on the streets." Joseph Sam, CEO, Balance (Bal's ready-to-wear designer label, which experienced a 125 per cent growth last year), explains the thinking behind this shift. "My market no longer is limited to the country's 500 richest families. My market is the world's largest middle-class with the largest dispensable income," says Sam, who describes Bal's partying as "a mode of networking and client interaction."
There's a logic driving designers to swallow their pride and talk corporate. With over 300 malls expected to take off in the country in the next three years, there's going to be an explosion in the demand for reasonably priced fashionable clothes. To feed this market (as well as foreign supermarket giants and stores like Wal-Mart and JC Penney, which have upped India budgets significantly in view of the world becoming quota-free from 2005), designers have to step up their production, but it isn't likely without a hefty infusion of capital. Are designers up to it? Gautam Singhania of Raymond doesn't think so. "They must get out of the Page 3 business and get into serious business," he says. But there are positive straws in the wind.
l Raghavendra Rathore, after launching his own brand of chocolates with Mount Shivalik Industries (the makers of Thunderbolt beer), has joined forces with one of the biggest export houses, Delhi's Orient Craft, to flag off his Step Two label. He has also been signed on by Shoppers Stop to visualise the retail chain's first in-house designer label on a 50:50 partnership basis – Rathore will concentrate only on designing and Shoppers Stop will do the rest.
l Singhania's protégé, Priyadarshini Rao, is making 1,500 pieces a month for the 11 Be: stores today. Six seasons ago, she could only roll out 50 pieces a month.
l Kolkata's Anamika Khanna and RCKC, the London avatar of the 92-year-old Chandni Chowk sari shop, Ram Chander Krishen Chander, have unveiled their Boho London line at an exclusive store in Notting Hill. The production has been outsourced to two Delhi factories that make clothes for Armani, Valentino and GAP. Amit Rastogi of RCKC calls it "a crossover line" targeted not for the NRI community as much as the mainstream London market. Boho London takes into account the mainstreaming of second — or third-generation Indians, whose tastes are as global as they can get.Pradeep Hirani of Kimaya, the upscale fashion store with five outlets in Mumbai, Dubai and London, says only three designers — Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Rajesh Pratap Singh — have the infrastructure to move forward. "Creativity is the forte of designers. They must let corporate houses run their business," he says.
Adds Sanjay Kapoor, a Citibank executive who quit his secure job in 1993 to rescue Satya Paul Nanda's business (which had slipped after he became an Osho follower): "There's a lot of talent that needs to be corporatised." The biggest maker of ties and scarves in the country, Satya Paul is the exclusive licencee for Louis Philippe, Allen Solly, Van Heusen and Peter England, and also manages six branded stores for printed saris. Kapoor insists he hasn't even scratched the surface.
It makes business sense for designers to muscle into the middle-class market if they don't wish to be crowded out by new fashion graduates every year. The more they produce, the quicker their costs will come down and the shorter their turnaround time is likely to get, making it difficult for copycats to keep up. It'll also get easier for them to source fabrics from mills, which don't look at you unless you're talking 3-5,000 metres.
"To market Krishna Mehta to the world, I must have the money and the organisational muscle of a corporate house," says the Mumbai designer who has a flourishing export business with France. "The world is looking at us, but they're not very certain whether we can deliver."
The point is reiterated by Sunil Chawla, whose upper-crust stores – Shatoosh in Marbella, Costa Del Sol (the Spanish Riviera) and A Store Named India in Miami and Palm Beach – retail designers like Shane and Phalguni Peacock, Anamika Khanna, Rina Dhaka and Malini Ramani. "We started making our own clothes only because we were running out of designer labels," he says, pointing to his statuesque wife Zorien, a former model for John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Issey Miyake. "If designers get focused on production, we'll sell as much as they produce. We never seem to get enough."
Domestic retail chains like Shoppers Stop and Pantaloons have also sensed that with the proliferation of malls, they'll drown in the clutter of choices unless they re-position a part of their business. That is why the two have created exclusive spaces for designer labels –in Mumbai, at Shoppers Stop's Malad outlet, the 3,000-square-feet space is called Buzz and at the Pantaloons at Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel, it's called Springboard.
Both chains are planning to expand their designer side. Shoppers Stop boss B.S. Nagesh had declared at the Lakme India Fashion Week 2002 that 1 per cent of his revenues came from designer garments. Today, his chain is all set to launch an in-house label, which is to be outsourced to two designers who'll be paid a royalty for their work.
For the fashion community, the party has just begun.