Independent fashion designers from across the country share how they have adopted new roles or pivoted to overcome the challenges of Covid-19
A few days ago, The New York Times shattered the rosy lens through which we’d seen designer Manish Arora. The first Indian designer to make it big in Paris, they said, “has been felled by business deals gone bad, unpaid wages lawsuits and vendor disputes that started at least three years ago, long before the coronavirus dealt the final blow”. It just capped off a year that has seen more than its share of bad news, both for the legacies and the indies.
The fashion industry can be unforgiving. The closer you are to the epicentre — and in India that is Mumbai and Delhi, with its carousel of glitz, glamour, parties and keeping up appearances — the harder it is for you to change with the times. But it is a course correction that is long overdue. “Indian fashion has to get used to, and allow, professionals to manage business for them. Most live in a bubble and live their self-propogated PR life without realising it is a cooked image and not reality,” says Ramesh Menon, fashion consultant and founder of Save the Loom, a non-profit working towards reviving and restructuring our handloom industry. “The brass tacks: get the entire system organised and not be a ‘one point approval’ and management agent for your brand. Expand as per requirement and have reserves to run organisations in case of bad sales, a collection not doing well, or to face adversities.”
The pandemic, however, has been a learning curve for many, especially indie designers. With smaller teams, open minds and a willingness to adapt, they are riding out the storm by recalibrating their businesses. New collaborations are helping increase sales, a sense of community — where many are extending a helping hand (or e-store) to other designers — is strengthening the fraternity, and exploring new verticals like interior design is gaining them new clients. We speak with a few who’ve stayed strong, on how they changed their course.
Brand: Rouka, Kochi
Lockdown was a traumatic time, with zero sales and all the expenses. We adapted though. In April, May and June, we just made masks. We restructured and let go of a few people. During Onam, when people were shopping but didn’t want to go out, we were Swiggying our clothes! Painting projects — from canvases and walls to saris (I am obsessed with the vaazha, or banana tree) — led to a popular black-and-white banana leaf sari that sold well during the festive season. Even the appliqué work that I started doing on saris during lockdown, to get through the worry and stress, are selling well now.
But what the last few months gave me was the time to sit down and judge what we’ve been doing so far. In the last seven years, I’d started so many things: clothes for kids, menswear, the Origins range. It was overwhelming to keep having continued ranges for all the categories. This ‘mind mapping’ helped me make a big shift — away from fashion and towards textile. Now Rouka is one story. Saris.
I am a textile designer first and that’s a language that comes easily to me. Even if you look at it as a business, or in terms of relevance during a time like this, I think textiles trump fashion. We are in a world where we are not talking trends any more, but rather about timelessness, local craft, and sustainability. And these concepts are more relevant for me as a textile designer than as a fashion designer.
A sense of community has always been part of our DNA. We started working with Chendamangalam weavers and five looms in May 2019. It took us six months to bring out 20 saris. Since then, the growth has been faster; we are now at 12 looms. Going forward, we will work with more clusters. We also lent a helping hand to a cluster from Peruvamba in Palakkad, who had approached us to sell their stock. Our Kodi Edit in July, with 30-40 styles of their Kerala saris, sold out.
For now, since everything is still so unpredictable, I am planning ahead a month at a time. We are preparing for Christmas. We want to grow at a slow pace.
The brand is offloading their fashion catalogue with incredible sales. Think ₹2,357 tops going for ₹650.
Vivek Karunakaran, 40
Brand: Vivek Karunakaran, Chennai
This pandemic has made me realistic and practical. My team has gone from 40 to 10, and I’ve moved out of my design studio in Kottivakkam, my address for almost all of my 14 years as a designer. We were about to officially launch our new 1,500 sq ft store in Nungambakkam at the end of March. It was a tough and emotional call, but I had to let that go too. I planned it in such a manner that there was no downtime. After a conversation with the General Manager of Hyatt Regency, Mount Road, I knew it was time to be disruptive: I took a 500 sq ft room on the ninth floor and set about curating my new retail space. A bit like the in-person trunk shows that take place at international fashion weeks, it gives my clients the experience of a quaint boutique… together with the hotel’s infrastructure and security.
This is the time to be frugal, so no store manager or assistants. I only meet customers by appointment, and I manage every bit of the appointment myself. It doesn’t bother me that I have to take measurements, make a quick cup of tea for my clients or that I have to pack their outfits. Why is it OK for someone else to do it and not me? Lockdown, that way, has been a beautiful eye-opener and a humbling experience. And every order, big or small, helps our artisans. It’s two months now and do I miss my old store? Not really. I love this cosy space we have curated.
To create a holistic experience and to help other designers, I am curating interesting brands in wellness and jewellery in this space. I will also be consulting for brands; offering my vast experience in the industry and helping them avoid the same mistakes I made.
This is my plan for brand Vivek Karunakaran: to consolidate, survive, sustain and finally thrive.
On the personal front, these last eight months have introduced me to new passions like gardening. And Tik-Tok videos. The response has been good and with all the encouragement I have been getting, I ask myself, should I explore the possibility of acting? After all, you have just one life.
Brand: 11.11/eleven eleven, New Delhi
We’ve had many highs and lows these last few months. One of the biggest challenges was retail. We offer comfort clothing, but people are shopping for weddings now. So our sales came down to almost 20% of what it used to be. If you can’t retail, how can you produce? And we are answerable to almost 400 artisans. What got us through was how our overseas market grew. Matches Fashion and Mr Porter, the two online giants in the menswear industry, had ordered from us before lockdown and we were able to ship to them once it was lifted. We are also collaborating with Stòffa, the made-to-measure US menswear brand. They are using our reclaimed fabrics — quilted kantha and chindi patchwork — to create a new line which will be out later this month.
The lockdown also gave us the time to streamline new initiatives. The first is a Yarn Bank. We work with clusters of hand spinners — artisans who are often neglected. Abroad, there are yarn shops for hand knitters, but Indian handspun indigenous yarn is not available there. So my business partner, Mia Morikawa, is creating a bank in collaboration with Blue: The Tatter Textile Library in New York.
We will offer a virtual inventory and also have a tight curation of 10 options (to start with) at select stores. We will begin with different plys of kala cotton from Kutch, and later add other indigenous materials, including pashmina from Ladakh, desi wool from Rajasthan and Gujarat, and ahimsa silk from Meghalaya. Another project: building a producers’ group. Our designers and makers, all 400 of them, will co-own the entity and share the profits. This will provide them with more avenues of income and ensure no one gets lost.
Our strategies are also becoming clearer. Earlier we might have been going in the wrong direction because retail was pushing us that way. Now we will be expanding our home line of quilts and carpets, growing our reclaimed accessories range, and pivoting towards more gender neutral silhouettes.
Sounak Sen Barat, 42
Brand: The House of Three, Bengaluru
The lockdown did wonders for a lot of us. Growing up, I was exposed to everything, from music and dance to theatre and art. I studied Bharatanatyam and completed grade 7 violin at Trinity College. The lockdown helped me connect with all of this. I spent more time practising my singing, and gave up bad habits like smoking and drinking that had messed up my voice. I also began writing short stories — Corona-time tales about how contrasting energies find synergy — which can one day become 10-15 minute short films.
On the business side, however, there was panic. We were in dire straits at the beginning. One particularly low month, we’d made just ₹10,000. We were even contemplating the possibility of having to shut down. But then I decided there was no point in worrying, so I just let go. In a week’s time, I got the opportunity to make a drastic change — to launch interiors as a new vertical.
I’d been thinking about it, but had never had the time to focus on it. So when my friend Nikhil Kamath asked me to do up his new residence, it gave me the chance to create something new. While I drew inspiration from various aesthetic schools, from Art Deco to Post Modern, it is all connected with one common thread, which is India. It also gave us an opportunity to give relief to local businesses. Everything we used in the space was sourced locally.
This sense of community is very important, especially now. There are so many people in the country with such beautiful visions and products, so why not appreciate their good work? If you are narcissistic, you will never learn. Pre-Covid, we hosted various designers like Cell Design and péro at our store. Post-Covid, we reached out to those who may just be starting out building their e-stores to come share ours. We have Ashdeen Lilaowala on board and are in talks with Torani.
It’s too early to make plans for any retail expansion. Online will be the focus. And when the vaccine is out, we will be ready too.
Naushad Ali, 34
Brand: Naushad Ali, Puducherry
Fashion can be demanding and non-stop; lockdown was a forced pause. The first thing I did when it was announced was get myself a colour printer, so I could print out my ideas and put them on the walls. Just like everybody else, we took a commercial hit. We couldn’t sell or reach out to customers. But we’ve now made our team tighter and hired new people so as to become stronger in design. We’ve also stopped in-house production and instead we partner with NGOs and production offices — it is much more efficient this way, and leaves me with more time to focus on design and roll out in-depth collections.
I recently collaborated with one of my favourite stores in Chennai, Sundari Silks, on an exclusive line of shirts for men, featuring my designs in their fabrics. We worked with the artisans they work with, creating a curated range of fabrics that is handloom, naturally dyed and hand woven. We have been in business for five years, and have been retailing online for over a year and half. Now that more people are shopping online, we have to go beyond the regular collections we were rolling out on a six-month schedule. We’ve realised we need to show newer products more regularly, so we now have both the mainstream collection and capsule online exclusives. Our international plans are on hold right now because no one has a clear idea of what the future of sourcing will be globally.
I work 24×7, but post-pandemic, I’ve realised it is also important to sit down, have a glass of wine, do something for yourself. These have become the priorities.
Anuj Sharma, 47
Brand: Button Masala, Ahmedabad
We have retail at Button Masala, but we were never about just selling clothes. Our system is to teach and earn from that. I did not have to take any immediate measures to shore up the business because our production costs are low, and we’ve always operated with very few people. Of course, there were questions of what will we do now, how will we survive, but that is fair.
For the first couple of months, I gave a lot of talks to keep the fun alive. Then when I started virtual classes [from my home in Ahmedabad], they picked up really well. It was packed! We taught about 600 people in two months. While we used to charge ₹1,000 to ₹2,000 per day, now we’ve priced it at ₹2,000 for eight classes, so we could get more people on board. I believe it appealed to people because they could learn without having materials or equipment.
I do not really look for inspiration within the design community. But I was surprised that some were panicked in the first three months. That made me wonder: these designers have been working for decades, and if they panic after just three months, there is definitely something wrong with the business model. It basically means that their three-month expenditure is higher than their savings. For young designers I will say this: stay small and within your means. The size of your operations should not be looked at as a measure of success, but rather the quality of your work. How many people you sell to and who you sell to does not matter. You end up paying for an exaggerated image of yourself. It is not just a monetary burden, but an emotional and physical one.
Sandeep Gonsalves, 34
Brand: Sarah & Sandeep, Mumbai
The thing with fashion is, it’s easy to get carried away: it’s about going bigger, grander and all out with everything you do. That’s where projections and budgets play a strong role in ensuring your business stays financially viable. A corpus, specifically for working capital, was so necessary during this pandemic to survive, which I noticed many designers failed to keep. I’ve always been conservative with my marketing spends, and decided to grow organically to help me ease into new markets. There was definitely a strategic shift behind our decision to launch sleepwear during the pandemic. While concept capsules are always part of our yearly schedule, we knew a utility-based alternative to our aesthetic was a priority. People were very receptive, and that was a positive sign for other one-dimensional brands to branch out as well.
Also, generic advertising for fashion is dead. The concept of fashion shows and previews are changing dramatically. It’s essentially a PR exercise, so the more uniquely a brand can create buzz through a showcase, especially without a physical crowd, the more the brand benefits.
My advise to other design brands? Be as frugal as you can with your expenses currently, and stay alive. The market is already seeing a pick up and we’re looking at returning to some form of normalcy by 2021, so a stronger, more adjusted plan for the next year could do wonders.
I love everything inspired by minimal geometry and spent the early months of the pandemic designing lights and chandeliers. Finding the right vendors for each task was a hassle, but we were very happy with the overall outcome. People have approached us to get into designing their homes, which we haven’t agreed to yet.
That community spirit
Sanjay Garg, 39
Brand: Raw Mango, New Delhi
Despite the pandemic, Garg managed to set up his popular Raw Mango Diwali Artisanal Market earlier this month at his Delhi store. It included fashion by Bodice, péro, khadi woollen durries by Gongadi, skincare by Pahadi Local, and chaats and snacks. Unapologetically Indian in his use of colour and textiles, he has often shown at LFW and with FDCI, but says, “I do it because there is a lack of the right platform. When the term ‘designer’ is used, I always feel like an outsider. I don’t feel the sense of family in the bigger group, because there are so many things I disagree with.”
On the community spirit needed today, especially with the distress in the fashion industry.
As I keep saying, I don’t see design as one-directional. I work with different mediums, from objets d’art, music and dance to furniture and architecture. When there is a lack of platforms, and I have space where I can show someone’s work, especially when I believe in that work, why should I not share with them? I’ve always thought that way.
We’ve been selling Itoh, a menswear brand I love, in our stores for years. And we have the Raw Mango Mela in our stores, sharing space with other designers and brands. This is 2020 and people are still sitting with the idea that ‘I am a bigger brand and you are a smaller brand’…just grow up now, is what I say. The time has come to collaborate.
Finding relevance in the local context.
I don’t have answers as to what model works. I started 12 years ago. And I want to say it loud and clear that fashion magazines initially refused to talk about us as they didn’t think we were ‘fashion’ enough. Today, I want to understand where the point of view is coming from. Your target audience is different, what you want to say is different, the skill sets and products are different, yet the references and visuals are coming from the West. That is the only thing I focus on: Indian design and craftsmanship. Take for instance, en Inde (one of the participants at the Diwali market), which uses jute thread and the patwa technique of winding. Their designs do not look ‘Indian’ but yet are. Overall there are set notions about Indian design.
* The interviews have been edited and condensed.