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The world of fashion is unwelcoming of newcomers

Avantika Bhuyan  |  New Delhi 

A young lad in Patna gets bewitched with design. He does logos for offices in the city and earns up to Rs 1,200 on every assignment. If he can get this much as a Class VIII student, how much more can he make if he studies textile and design, he begins to wonder. In 2005, after convincing his parents, he enrolls in the National Institute of Fashion Technology, or NIFT, in New Delhi. When he graduates, there are stars in his eyes: a label of his own, queues of customers at his stores, large orders from abroad, interviews in fashion magazines - the good life. And then reality strikes.

"This is an unorganised and selfish industry. Nobody helps anyone else," says Sumit Saurabh, 26. For three years after graduation, Saurabh did not earn a single rupee. He would often sleep on the floor of his factory and have no money to buy food. The only machines he could afford were second hand, which broke down regularly. It has taken him and his friend, Manish Tripathi, several years to get a store for their label, Antar Desi, in Shahpur Jat, south Delhi's affordable fashion hub. But the struggle is far from over. The overheads, Saurabh says, are huge and the two partners are still struggling with the finances. To fund his dream venture, Saurabh started two coaching centres by the name of Desizn Circle for aspiring fashion students at the Hauz Khas village.

While Saurabh has gained a foothold in the industry, hundreds - actually, thousands - of young men and women are destined to struggle endlessly. "Which is the last big name in fashion you have heard? It is Sabyasachi," Saurbah says, seated in his office in the upscale Hauz Khas village. "Why is it that between 1999, which is when Sabyasachi graduated from NIFT Kolkata, and 2014, no big name has emerged?" He may not be entirely correct. Masaba Gupta is a recent entrant to the club of India's elite designers. But he does have a point: the chances of a young designer making it big are really, really slim.

Nowhere is this more plainly visible than Shahpur Jat. Shop after shop is full of little-known designer labels: Shaa, Jelly Stars, Cita9, Maya and the like. The designs aren't eye catching. The finish is tacky. The zari work and embellishments are frayed at places. The store walls are mostly bare, with an occasional clipping of the owner at a social do pasted in a corner. In several stores, there is no sign of the owner. It is left for the cleaners to serve the customers. "I need something exclusive for a wedding," a customer asks the man behind the counter in one store, only to be met with a blank stare. "Whatever we have is on display." The energy is missing. If these designers have a future, it is difficult to sense it here. Kanika Chawla, who aspires to participate in the various fashion weeks in the coming years, is struggling to meet her costs. "The monthly rents here are upwards of Rs 50,000, and in the coveted Jungi Lane people shell out Rs 1.5 lakh," she says.

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The senior designers blame it on the steep decline in the standard of the fashion institutes. Such schools and polytechnics have mushroomed across the country. The problems that afflict engineering and business schools can be seen here too: shoddy infrastructure, irrelevant curriculum and inadequate faculty (many graduates, unable to survive in the world of fashion, become teachers here within a year of passing out). There are in the country well over a hundred fashion institutes that churn out 4,000-4,500 designers every year. (Five years ago, the numbers were half.) Naturally, the produce is substandard. "The number of fashion schools that are coming up in the neighbourhood, it's a joke," says Rujuta Vidya who passed out of NIFT Mumbai in 2012 and works for Vogue. Some of the designers and export houses hire fresh graduates for as little as Rs 15,000 a month - not very different from what a driver gets in Delhi. Frustrated that her course at Patna hadn't equipped her to handle even the smallest problems of design, Shireen (name changed) quit the field and is now studying at the Indian Institute of Management Raipur.

If it has happened in business and politics, can fashion be far behind? Dynasties have begun to form here too. Neeta Lulla’s daughter, Nishka, Anju Modi’s chidren, son Ankur and daughter Priyanka (their label is called AMPM), and Reynu Tandon’s daughter Nikita have all jumped into the bandwago in the last few years. Ritu Kumar’s son, Amrish, joined her many years ago, though he is more involved on the business side.

Of course, they get acquainted with the work early in life. And some are genuinely talented. Nishka Lulla established her brand, NISSHK, at an age when most people haven’t even figured out what to do with their lives. She counts amongst her clients several A-list Bollywood actors like Katrina Kaif, Genelia D’Souza and Zarine Khan. But for most, the chief attraction is the readymade launch pad. It’s not just the money and the factories — it’s also the social network, without which no designer can get high net worth buyers. “It is a lateral entry for them into the circuit,” says a Delhi-based emerging designer, the distaste visible on his face.

Many believe that it was this network that facilitated Masaba Gupta’s arrival into the elite circle of the business at a very young age. “She was already well known because she had famous parents (actor Neena Gupta and cricket legend Viv Richards),” says Fashion Design Council of India President Sunil Sethi. “But, after a while, her designs got her where she is.” Some insist it is only capability that matters. “If your designs hold true and your aesthetics are appreciated, you will make a mark,” says stylist and e-retailer Pernia Qureshi. Indeed, Donatella Versace has emerged as a worthy successor to her brother, Gianni, only because of her design sensibilities. Having worked closely with her brother, she was well-versed with the machinations of the industry. Her first couture show, for the Versace Atelier in Paris, in the summer of 1998, a year-and-a-half after Gianni’s death, was a resounding success.

But talk to any newcomer in India and he will tell you how the dynasts have made it an uneven playing field.

Sunil Sethi, the president of the Fashion Design Council of India, or FDCI, recounts the story of a young designer (he has a store in Greater Kailash in south Delhi) whom he had rejected several times for fashion weeks. "He has a confused story: there are lehengas, Rajasthani prints, bedcovers, bags, pret dresses, skirts and jewelled products. There is no staff, no store manager." In spite of the aesthetic chaos, he was given a stall and a show at the FDCI fashion week. But this year again, he failed to impress the jury. "He made a collection of screen prints, with inspiration drawn from zodiac signs, which any street-side tailor can make. He had no knowledge of cuts. When he was asked to explain the concept, he didn't make any sense," says Sethi. JJ Valaya, the master creator of trousseaus, feels youngsters lack fire in their bellies. "There is no substitute for hard work. Everything is not an Internet startup that will make millions instantly."

That may be true, but it is equally true that the ecosystem is turning hostile for newcomers. The space in which Indian designers operate has shrunk considerably over the years. At one time, they would make everything: western wear, formal wear and wedding wear. In the last few years, foreign labels have more or less ousted them from the first two categories; most Indian designers consequently focus on bridal wear now. Of course, the established names need to guard their turf zealously. This segment of buyers is not really price-sensitive - the label is all that matters as it guarantees quality of material and finish. The low price, the USP of any new designer, doesn't work at the high end of the market. At the bottom end, there are sari houses that will copy designs at prices that newcomers cannot match. The smaller designer gets it from both ends.

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Today, fashion is a big-money game. Those with shoestring budgets don't stand a chance. This works as a formidable entry barrier. The most critical component in the fashion chain is the karigar workforce: tailors and embroiders. Most of them come from the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Now, their children don't want to get into the industry. As a result, the pool of craftsmen is more or less stagnant. Thus, in the last years, their salaries have more than doubled. Moreover, since most of these men are migrants, they work long hours - up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week - and make a lot of money in overtime earnings. "The master craftsmen can charge up to Rs 70,000 plus overtime, which means they earn more than most of us newcomers do," says Saurabh. It's no longer easy for a fresher to put together a team of 20 craftsmen - the barest minimum required to get started. Also, the industry works on incentives. Salesmen won't sell and tailors won't cut and sew unless they are given incentives. That's why the established designers, with their deep pockets, have easier access to this critical resource. It took Anish Rawra, who graduated from NIFT Hyderabad in 2008 and retails under his own label called Anish Rawra, four years to put together a team.

In other ways too, the environment is unwelcoming. Thanks to the depreciation in the rupee, not many can afford to import high-end silk used in bridal wear. Rents have skyrocketed. Multi-brand fashion stores have increased their mark from 50-60 per cent four years ago to 100 per cent now because they need to spend more on marketing and wage inflation has hit them too. Lesser designers have no option but to accept wafer-thin, or even negative, margins to display their work. Till ten years ago, many newspaper supplements gave honest coverage to designers free of cost. Ever since the concept of paying for such coverage started, it's only the bigger names who can manage to get publicity. (Studies have shown that a newspaper report has 17 times more impact than an advertisement of the same size.)

The odds, clearly, are loaded against the newcomers. There is some help available for fashion startups - the Vogue India Fashion Fund and the Woolmark Prize - but the supply of seed capital is way short of the demand. Designer Pia Pauro, a preliminary member of FDCI, points out that while the inflow of wannabe designers is unstoppable, "there are only two or three fashion platforms in the country". Also, the last few seasons have seen the emergence of fashion dynasties: the children of senior designers have entered the industry. This further spoils the chances of a rank outsider (see Designer Dynasts). Most designers agree fashion is not for the fainthearted and the impatient. "People," says Valaya, "are smitten by the glamour of beautiful people wearing expensive clothes which, they believe, sell easily. It isn't so."

Some are still hopeful. Saurabh, the man behind Antar Desi, feels his time under the arc lights has come. "We are doing the costumes for Dirty Politics starring Mallika Sherawat," he says. "I am still patient and perseverant. After four years, you will hear my name as well." Sherawat better come out of her prolonged lean patch with this movie.

First Published: Fri, January 31 2014. 21:50 IST