Fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh does a bit of backward integration to weave his own fabrics.
Fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh is famous as much for his exquisite and incredibly detailed clothes, sold under the label Pratap, as he is for being shy. While other marquee names in the fashion fraternity have allowed their personal persona to overshadow their work, Singh is rarely seen on Page 3 and is mostly wary of speaking to the media.
The wariness has nothing to do with a lack of trust, it comes more from his innate belief in letting his clothes do all the talking. And while we sit down for lunch, Singh is self-effacing to the point of saying more than once, over the course of our conversation, “I am not good enough right now.”
This he mentions in the context of him now weaving almost 80 per cent of the fabrics that are used for his own collections, season after season. Indian designers have, for long, been hampered by not getting exclusive fabrics for their collection, scouring instead the streets of Chandni Chowk and Lajpat Nagar in Delhi for material. As the industry has grown, some of the more evolved designers have even gone down to Varanasi to get better fabrics.
Singh, the perfectionist, on the other hand, quietly set up looms and now weaves wool, cashmere, silk and even some quantity of cotton on his own.
In the case of wool, Singh procures raw wool and is even involved in making wool yarn the old-fashioned way. Singh says that this backward integration happened — like with everything else that he does in the business — “because no one else would do it for us. Both exclusivity and quality were an issue when we were sourcing from vendors. There is a big gap between production houses and the design talent of this country”. Not one to brood over such setbacks, Singh, in his characteristic manner, just rolled up his sleeves and decided to do it his way.
Of the many things that he is weaving,
I am impressed that he has taken on the challenge of doing cashmere himself. If Singh is acutely aware of the problems that the design community has faced in India, he also continues to believe that everything can be done in the country. No wonder then that he feels that it is possible to get the best possible cashmere yarn — the sort which has prompted many other luxury labels to procure all the way from Inner Mongolia and sell it to the rest of the world.
Even for leather — for his line of shoes — Singh will not look outside India. “There are immense possibilities here, but we designers don’t evoke trust with manufacturers,” he says.
This lack of trust isn’t, according to Singh, limited to just vendors. The fashion business, in serious need of cash infusion for it to grow to a respectable size, has been lacking on many accounts. Singh, unlike several designers who seem to be permanent residents of cloud-cuckoo land, is more pragmatic when he says there is an urgent need for money to flow in. He adds a caveat to that, and says, “The source of money has to be clean and serious. We don’t want to work with anyone for whom we are just entertainment value.”
Singh’s strength, and the reason for his continued excellence, is the intensive R&D that goes on in his factory. In another one of his iconoclastic statements, he says,
“Fashion by itself can be so boring. Design is fascinating. We do a lot of R&D not just in fashion but also for products.” Being everything, from chief designer to R&D head to the face of the label, to even being involved in trying to make sense of the ongoing fights in the fashion fraternity, Singh realises that this is the time to professionalise the business. He says, “I started this business with nothing, but it can’t continue to grow with just our management skills.”
This awareness hasn’t, however, dented his enthusiasm for design and its endless possibilities. The keen desire to excel shows in Singh’s garments and, when Didier Grumbach, who heads the body that organises the Paris Fashion Week, came visiting, Singh was selected as one of the three designers to be invited to show there. Singh had already been selling in Paris for six years prior to that invitation but, for him, showing in Paris is the ultimate gold standard in this business.
“You are competing with the very best,” is Singh’s reason for taking the plunge despite the high costs involved in showing in Paris. The critical acclaim that Singh’s collection got in Paris has got him very prestigious invitations, but for now Singh is still chewing over whether to accept them. Cost is a factor. The advantage of showing in Paris, according to Singh, is that big buyers come there and not to other, smaller fashion weeks now dotted across the globe. He does, however, mention that a one-time participation in the Rio Fashion Week got him incredible business. “Since we were taking a summer collection,” he says, “it fitted in one suitcase, and the response was tremendous.”
But fashion alone doesn’t dominate Singh’s life. He says, “If I was just doing fashion, I would have quit a long time ago.” He adds, “Maybe it’s an age thing, but you do question what you’ve done with your life.” For Singh, fashion is a minuscule part of a larger, more dynamic, and meaningful, world of design. He says, “I want to do products that are the very best. I want to achieve quality that one can say is great.”
With weaving, too, he wants to achieve that level of excellence, admitting that he hasn’t spoken about it before. Why not? Because he feels that he still needs one more year “for something nice to come out. There are still so many technical things that I need to learn about weaving”.
That’s Singh for you, modest to the point of being self-effacing. There is no blowing his own trumpet. There is no smugness in him, nor is he comfortable sitting on his laurels — the accolades that have come thick and fast ever since Singh entered the business more than 15 years ago. Singh is a man restless with wanting to move, grow and always excel. He’s aware that time’s winged chariot waits for no one. No wonder Singh is looking to climb and explore newer challenges. After all, he’s not making frocks season after season.