Monday, Dec 05, 2022

Sunil Sethi: The Truth Is That Fashion Is Still Not An Industry In India

Sunil Sethi: The Truth Is That Fashion Is Still Not An Industry In India

Talking about the Indian bridal outfits, Sunil Sethi mentions that when as few as fifty people attended an Indian wedding, the bride still wanted to wear designer bridal wear.

Fashion designer Sunil Sethi in conversation with Outlook Outlook Photo/Tribhuvan Tiwari

In conversation with Outlook, the most influential man in Indian fashion and FDCI head, Sunil Sethi says that while fashion is getting a bit organised now, it is still a bit of an unorganised market. Designers still don’t like to share numbers of statistics of their profit and loss. He feels that in the field of bridal wear Indian fashion has a kind of a monopoly because none of the foreign brands were able to make an impact in the Indian bridal wear market.


Q: Would you say that much of the Indian fashion market is still organised?

A: If you ask me the truth, we are still not a full-fledged industry and there are many reasons for that. One is when you are churning out thousands and thousands of young designers from design school, how do you expect them to start getting straight into factories, having large organisations with merchandisers? It is not easy to say that fashion is going to become an industry for everyone. When I started my journey in the year 2000, that’s when the Fashion Design Council of India came up, it was the first platform given to all the designers to showcase their collection.

In 2000 it wasn’t really an industry; we were just about stepping into the fashion world. At that time there were many small, mom and pop outfits, a lot of them were in the Lal Dora kind of villages where small factories and workshops were there. It took us a while. But in about 2008-2009 when I took over as the President of FDCI, I noticed that a lot of people understood the meaning of compliance. The big stores would give you business, the factories were compliant. You needed to be social and ethically compliant. Many people in and around Delhi started putting up factories. That is when we felt that we are fairly organised.

I must compliment the Indian fashion designers because once they started doing that a lot of the people started following them. So, there were many designers who moved on to factories. But when we talk about whether we are an industry or not, I can tell you that we are not officially recognised as an industry. Even if we say that we are getting organised, we are a bit of an unorganised market. Designers still don’t like to share numbers of statistics of their profit and loss. At the moment young designers are unable to take loans against simple orders. So, you really need to have some property in your name. As far as I am concerned, we are living in both worlds, in one world there are designers who have well established factories, there are another set of designers who are still working in small basements and small units and workshops. The truth is we are still not an industry.

(Credit: Outlook Photos/Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Q: How long will it take to establish itself as an industry?

A: Deep within ourselves we feel that we are an industry already because thousands of people are attached to it. One unit of fashion or design just doesn’t mean fashion designers, it means masters, hundreds of tailors, it means whole lot of merchandising staff. It also means many younger designers who are assisting. We feel that we are an industry, but technically the fact is that the young designers will certainly take a long time and by then the next generation of designers will come up and have their own proper unit and industries. So, the bottom line is there will always be a struggle and it will take a long time. The truth is that the ministry of textile and the government of India have many schemes, the designers are essentially creative people so all the running around government departments, they need people to help them with the paperwork. Otherwise, to establish themselves and to become a part of the industry, the medium and small-scale industries will take some time to register themselves. The designer first needs to work on his creativity, second, he needs to look at how he can get his business and this really comes third on the list. The good thing is the cup is half full and many of the bigger corporations today like Reliance and Aditya Birla are on a buying spree. So, as long as the corporates are backing the Indian fashion designers and as long as they are putting in their money, they are acquiring brands, this fashion fraternity will soon turn out to be an industry sooner than we can imagine.

Q: How much of the Indian fashion market is bridal wear?

A: India is home to around eight and a half million luxury consumers. They say that the ethnic wear market is close to twenty billion. The younger generation wants to imbibe the luxury ethos. When you talk about luxury it is not always bridal. The market of couture, bridal and occasional wear has become a very important market. When in 2002, designers only talked about pret garments. That time nobody wanted to be a bridal designer and all they wanted to achieve was to see their collection on the racks of a store in a foreign country. That was what the designers back then were hungry about and a lot of them achieved it. When the market opened up and the Indian fashion designers understood the need to have agents for the pret market most of the international fairs that we attended were for pret and ready to wear.

In the year 2008, we started India Couture Week as a platform and we realised the potential of how it was such a super success that the numbers started to come. We realised that we couldn’t even have twenty designers who were part of the couture and bridal market at that time. Getting fifty designers was a difficult thing, but as the years progressed, we felt the need of doing the Delhi Couture Week along with Mumbai Couture Week. There was nothing like red carpet fashion in India then and gowns were not a part of the Indian fashion scene. But later on, when they came to reception, or cocktails everybody wanted to wear an evening gown. Today when you say bridal, it doesn’t necessarily mean wedding, it means couture and occasion wear. That is the market that tends to be more towards the luxury part. Personally, I think the Indian handloom industry should also become a part of luxury because almost ninety percent of textile comes from India. Hence Indian textile should be considered as luxury. Today, the fact is most of the designers who are also in the ready to wear market, who are in the ret market are shifting to bridal wear and this is the reality. They say, “Joh dikhta hai, woh bikta hai aur jo bikta hai wohi saab log banata hai [What is most visible, sells, and what sells most is what is made]."

In the pandemic we have seen when the stores were shut and when wholesale orders were not coming to fashion designers, and when foreign orders completely washed away, what they had to depend upon was the Indian domestic market. When only fifty people attended the Indian wedding, the bride still wanted to go to an Indian fashion designer for a bridal wear. In the field of bridal wear, I can very confidently say that we have a kind of a monopoly because none of the foreign brands was able to make an impact in the Indian marriage wedding. Every bride and bride groom wants to get a lehenga and a sherwani made by an Indian fashion designer. Even during the pandemic, the designers who were in the bridal wear which most of them are were doing good business.

Q: Comparison of the Indian bridal wear market abroad…

A: I would say that the Indian bridal market when compared to the foreign market, we are much more prosperous because we are innovative. Abroad it's only about a gown. The Indian bride today wants to experiment. She doesn't go by conventional colours that her mother was wearing. The brides are exploring different options. You need not always be in a typical lehenga choli. Indian brides and bridegrooms are experimenting with different colours, outfits and it need not be traditional embroidery and it could be completely a minimalist design for a bride.

People are talking about slow fashion being the way forward in the post pandemic scenario. How will slow fashion affect the Indian fashion industry since foreign fashion industry is based on consumerism?

I will talk about my personal opinion first and then I will talk about how it should be for the industry. Pandemic has made us realise the importance of slow fashion. Much before that, everybody was using sustainability as the key word. No matter which debates you turned into and no matter which article you picked up on fashion, everybody was talking about sustainability. But it was during the pandemic time that made us realise that slow fashion exists. I was a voracious buyer. I used to wear only designer outfits and I still like what the designers are churning out and I still like what they are making for the Indian male. So, someone like me who has been a hoarder, realised during this one and a half years you need to take a trip of your wardrobe and you will find so many things that you have never worn in so many years. So, I was able to find many gems in my closet. Even though the shops have opened up, I have not bought myself a single thing in the last two years, which goes to show that slow fashion will work. And yes, I feel I have enough. You just need to recycle and upcycle and you can do so many different things with the wardrobe essentials that you have.

Q: Your personal views on slow fashion…

Well, I believe that slow fashion for me has now become a way of life. But there is a very niche group of people who are genuine believers of slow fashion. The fact is that we are so much affected by the consumerism of the west that in social media every day you will discover new collections. But again, I believe in the business of fashion too. So there has to be a model which is created so that the business of fashion and slow fashion go hand in hand. My only fear is I cannot completely advocate slow fashion because that might stop my designers in getting business. But again, a designer need not come with a collection every one month or two months. They can come up with a new collection every six months or a year. I will be glad if the Indian fashion designers come up with ways to follow slow fashion.