Fashion's turning point?

New York’s SoHo is another country from midtown Manhattan where the big boys of the fashion industry look down their Burberry-clad, Salvatore Ferragamo-striding, Prada-carrying, Gucci-scented noses at the younger aspirants South of Houston Street. The upstarts may have a raw appeal for reasons that range from edgier silhouettes to greater value or ethical clothing, but they have a long way to go before they can cock a snook at Fifth Avenue’s cast of elites. It is in this neighbourhood that Anita Dongre has sensibly found a spot for her wearable fashion from India to rah-rahs from the Indian fashion fraternity holding its collective breath to see whether she succeeds or fails.

For all its flash and glamour back home, Indian fashion has not made it to international runways or shop floors despite the occasional success of a Ritu Beri heading French fashion house Jean Louis Scherrer, a Manish Arora hitting the Parisian spotlights, a Rahul Mishra commanding the Milan Fashion Week, or a Bibhu Mohapatra dressing Michelle Obama. Indian designers have gowned gossamer Hollywood A-listers in what are essentially PR exercises, but their names haven’t lit up shopfronts in the US. And it isn’t because they’re not good enough. It is because fashion needs the muscle of big money to build a brand and invest in real estate.'

For all its associations with opulence and royalty, the Indian fashion industry is riddled with deep-rooted insecurity. Venture funding in the sector is virtually non-existent, leaving designers to raise debt on their own. Given often fractious relationships with their own CEOs, they manage most aspects of the business, from choosing high street locations to selecting interior designers to do them, packaging their shows, making pitches to sponsors, buying advertising space, negotiating trade-offs with the fashion media for editorial placements, and being available to an increasingly pesky blogging community that has promoted itself to the snobbish front ranks of their shows.

It is for this reason that most designers prefer to work in the high-profile, higher-value couture business catering to the Indian wedding market, making their trade highly localised. Given similar design affinities in West Asia, desi designers favour doing pop-ups in Dubai and its neighbourhood while ignoring Europe and America for most part. It is difficult to even imagine Sabyasachi, who is the darling of the wedding band, baja, baraat community, or the likes of J J Valaya and Suneet Varma, styling clothes that mere mortals might wear on a regular basis.

Establishing a brand in the Western world is difficult, but PR activity and brand endorsements do help. Jewellers Amrapali and Nirav Modi, both of which have partaken of the Big Apple, have benefitted from it. Ms Dongre’s fame grew exponentially when the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, wore an outfit designed by her last year. But it needs considerably more than that to leave a lasting impression. 

Ms Dongre has her task cut out for her if she wants to make a mark beyond a token outlet in New York. Her clothes have an appeal for jaded Americans looking beyond the mass manufactured; they are handmade, handwoven, hand-printed and hand-embroidered. But given their affordable tag, the designer will require a very high turnover to allow for the luxury of a New York rental. 

Meanwhile, across the pond, in London’s tony Mayfair district, an Indian brand called Varana has opened in a space formerly occupied by Alexander McQueen. Its collection of luxury apparel is styled by Europeans but consists of the finest cashmeres and Indian textiles aimed at those who like their clothes chic, discreet and luxurious. Ms Dongre can replicate her store far more easily than Varana, which is where the comparison comes in. Which is the better retail model? The answer will be known by 2018.

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