How to launch a label in the pandemic
Much like the graduating batch of 2020 across the world, designers looking to make their debut this year will face a future unlike anyone before them. Their mandate: be digital beasts, slow fashion gurus and ego-free entrepreneurs
Debut fashion shows are intense, awkward and memorable. So memorable, that designers remember those appetite jolting jitters long after their first wave and curtsey. "I was 21 when I took my first bow, and I remember everyone in the audience thinking I was a little girl who lost her way on the ramp!" the petite powerhouse Rimzim Dadu had told mid-day in an earlier interview.
Dadu's debut in 2007 at Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) GenNext show was something of a milestone. Not only did it announce her line, which was immediately noticed by major multi-designer stores, it also marked a shift in the Indian fashion landscape. A decade later, Saaksha Bhat and her sister-in-law Kinnari Kamat launched Saaksha & Kinni on the same platform, their label's ideology rooted in modern clothes for women driven by optimism and freedom. "Awkward," is how Bhat describes the emotion when she and Kamat walked the ramp.
Saaksha Bhat, Kinnari Kamat
As the first season fluid edition of LFW begins this week, blockbuster shows are out thanks to the pandemic, replaced by online presentations. The two prime-time slots—the GenNext show (4 pm, October 21) and the grand finale (8 pm, October 25)—will play out in their sanitised digital iterations. Once GenNext debutants, Rimzim Dadu and Saaksha & Kinni will close the week. "We are nervous more than excited," says Bhat over the phone from London. The duo's collection titled Banjara tells stories of the Lambadi tribe, highlighting the resilience of its women and their colourful heritage.
While the finale designers had their first bow in a room as packed as a mosh pit with fashion editors, photographers and front-row personalities, this edition's batch of three GenNext labels selected virtually from a pool of 200 applicants, hope their clothes will infuse bite and buzz even in the absence of a physical show. The industry may not know Anmol Sharma, Bhumika & Minakshi Ahluwalia and Aarushi Kilawat, or their respective labels Dhatu Designer Studio, Mishé and The Loom Art—yet. But they are determined to soldier through the challenging times. All shows are pre-recorded. The designers were asked to send their outfits, which were styled and shot on models. "I watched the recorded show while having lunch in my backyard… it was a strange experience for a debutant designer," laughs Sharma.
Dress to Reform by Anmol Sharma of Dhatu Design Studio
"The choice is really between no show or a digital show. While there is no substitute for the collective energy and experience of presenting your first collection in front of a live audience, I hope this season's designers make the best of the opportunity," says Mumbai designer Nachiket Barve, who debuted with the GenNext batch of 2007.
Sabina Chopra is responsible for the GenNext mentorship programme for the last four years, but this fashion season has been like no other. Social distancing meant that she mentored the designers remotely over video chat, and online fitting sessions with stylists and choreographers. "Younger designers are at an advantage. They understand the digital media better than their seniors, keeping them way ahead of the game in terms of what the industry needs. My inputs were about the look, feel and lyric of the collection; I helped them tell a story," says Chopra.
The pandemic is changing what we want from fashion, and young talent has the skills to make it happen. We need probing minds to develop new, eco-friendly fabrics to meet emerging purchasing habits of green-conscious customers. "Adopting a mindful, slow fashion model is no longer an individual choice but a market condition. It's not about matt versus gloss; our whole world is now matt. The consumer is more interested in quasi-organic, sustainable practices, be it in lifestyle, food or fashion," she says.
Sharma, 34, worked at fashion houses before launching Dhatu Design Studio in 2019, and admits to questioning the need for fashion even before the pandemic hit. "There is too much wastage, and fashion has already become old-fashioned. With my conscious label, I hope to find likeminded people to collaborate and work with. In our focus to reboot efforts and change, everyone from retailers to suppliers matter," Sharma says. His menswear collection titled Dress to Reform imbues practical and problem solving utilitarian details combined with naturally dyed denim, hemp and Ahimsa silk sourced from Indian weavers. "Everybody needs to calm down," suggests Sharma. "Creation has to be purpose-driven rather than feed already-unchecked consumption."
Between the Lines is Aarushi Kilawat’s debut collection and makes the Arashi shibori technique the hero
Kilawat, 25, found herself home bound in Jaipur, with her parents away during the lockdown. Time alone allowed for introspection on her four-year-old textile-oriented label, and most crucially: how to market her clothes digitally. "It's a big challenge to narrate the story of handloom in one frame," she admits. Investigations led to the introduction of Arashi shibori (a pole wrapping technique of tie and dye) applied by way of surface texturing. "Arashi shibori is the hero of my Between the Lines collection. I had to consider multiple factors while photographing for a virtual show and social media, and one of the key takeaway was—people love seeing prints."
Shuwa by Mishé, Bhumika & Minakshi Ahluwalia’s label
"It's a new playground for us," says Bhumika Ahluwalia 27, "Especially for my mother [Minakshi, co-founder] who is trying to figure best lighting tricks for video interviews," she jokes. Mishé's debut collection called Shuwa (sign language in Japanese) is inspired by hand gestures used by the differently-abled to communicate. These are translated on clothes via cording and pattern cutting details. Chopra has some frank advice for the new lot:
"If you have to shut your retail store, do it. Look for equal partnerships and expand your business with pop-up shops. The ego is finished."
Wise words for young designers
- Want to be a designer? Make sure what you're doing is what you believe in.
- Use this time to gain experience. Intern with designers and understand the inner workings of the business from casting to fitting.
- Invest in building a portfolio, and hit the ground when things open up.
- Have a clear, coherent, personal point of view.
- Be inspired by the breadth and depth of rich storytelling, especially forms that exist beyond your craft.
- Less is more. Learn to edit your work.
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