If you’re in New York with a traditional Indian event to attend and no outfit, be assured an appropriate kurta or sari will always be within reach. However, finding contemporary Indian design—that looks effortlessly at home in Tokyo, Copenhagen, New York or Mumbai—may be a bit more difficult.
For many contemporary Indian designers, the American market is the final frontier. Modern Indian design has found demand and success in Europe and the Middle East and is now trying to find a foothold in the US. In the past few years, an increasing number of young designers have signed up for trade shows, even as they look for agents and strike deals with stores. At the New York Fashion Week in September, lesser-known designers such as Archana Kochhar and Vaishali S showed their lines for the first time.
Probably the earliest, and most widespread, exposure that American audiences had to Indian fashion was via the racks of Anthropologie, a chain of stores known for its carefully curated hipster-bohemian aesthetic. Anthropologie sources fashion, accessories and home goods from designers the world over and in 2009, it started offering Western fashion by Indian designers such as Manish Arora, Rina Dhaka and Ashish Soni.
Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), was the brains behind this collaboration and orchestrated it through his sourcing company Alliance Merchandising, which represented several high-end home and fashion stores from India. “For me, the biggest compliment to the Indian designer is that what Anthropologie bought was not based on their pedigree or the number of years they had been in the business, but whether they had what was required to be on the rack with a hundred other labels. Their pieces were displayed prominently, and they were sold under the designers’ own labels,” says Sethi.
Another plus was the R&D the team brought to the table. “They guided the designers in American sizing and fits and sometimes suggested changes without affecting the design to make pieces more sellable,” says Sethi. Strict quality control, ethically and socially compliant working conditions and timely delivery were other requirements. “No concessions were given for delays due to Indian festivals!”
This exposure gave Indian designers a foothold in the US market and started a relationship that continues. Today, there are nearly a dozen well-known Indian labels, including Hemant & Nandita, Norblack Norwhite, Pankaj & Nidhi and Varun Bahl, selling on Anthropologie.com. These pieces, though completely Western in silhouette and fit, give a hint of their provenance by artfully placed embroidery or threadwork.
Higher up the fashion chain, New Delhi-based designer Aneeth Arora’s péro label is everywhere from Barneys New York to ABC Carpet & Home—it currently sells out of a substantial 43 stores in the US. Her seemingly effortless, but painstakingly crafted, dresses, kaftans and separates appeal to customers aiming for a global nomad vibe. The pieces seem exotic, but you can’t easily pinpoint their origin. There are no blaring cultural markers screaming Made in India.
This thoughtful, pared-back approach to Indian design may be winning over the West. Arora and other designers tell us about their learning curve and how they’re working on achieving their American dream.
Starting small, growing organically
Maithili Ahluwalia, Founder, Bungalow 8
We started selling our clothing line, The Bungalow, in New York because customers from overseas kept saying they missed a store like ours. It started off mom-and-pop style: For several years, I took clothes when I travelled, doing private appointments with existing clients and friends. Two years ago, we had our first formal trunk show. That format gave us the confidence that the market was willing to spend on us.
Yet, we have done things slowly. It’s not just about demand, it’s about being able to supply effectively. A number of Indian designers have struggled with that end of things—seeing orders through, being able to deliver on time and ensure quality is at par. Also, we are not competing on Indian exotica, or on price. We are competing on design. That took a while to refine. The growth has been organic, and it’s taken eight years having a wholesale line in a domestic setting before we were ready to take it to the next level. We have just scratched the surface.
Sticking to a signature
Rina Singh, designer, Eka
I started selling in the US six years ago, and it is now one of my strongest markets. For them, I am not easily duplicable. I make my fabric from scratch in India, and that makes me more distinct than a Scandinavian designer buying mass-produced fabric. I do Indian textiles in non-traditional ways, such as a ‘jamdani’ weave with checks or gradation stripes. People relate to that crossover.
What they hesitate about are the logistics: we don’t have government support like other countries and taxes to import from India are high. It’s just the product that is a win-win; everything else goes against it.
If I didn’t work with handloom fabrics, I would definitely sell more. Handlooms can sometimes become a limitation. I can’t bring the prices down. A mill-made voile, washed similarly, with computer-embroidered details, can be sold much cheaper. My buyers would be more than happy, and I would be able to sell more than I currently produce all season.
But that doesn’t mean I should change. In the long run, I’d much rather stick to my handwriting, my DNA. As a universal thought, sustainability and fair practices have a longer mileage. In the years to come, sustainability—whether it is fashion, lifestyle or housing—is only going to get bigger.
Cracking the code
Aneeth Arora, designer, péro
Our Autumn/Winter 2012 collection was the first one we showed in the US. It featured ‘ajrakh’ prints; the feedback was that it’s too ethnic for the American market. We didn’t get many orders that season.
A few seasons later, we found a showroom in the US that matched our sensibility. Unlike a trade show, which lasts three days, in a showroom the collection is on display for a couple of months. Stores focused on a particular philosophy are invited to view the clothes and place orders, so brands get the right attention. Showrooms have sales targets to meet, so they push brands to perform better, which is helpful. We have been with them for five seasons, and it’s working well.
I’ve realized that it’s not traditional fabrics they’re opposed to, but anything that seems too “ethnic”. Though we work with traditional crafts, we transform them and offer them in a global context. For instance, I wouldn’t show an ‘angarkha’ with a ‘churidar’. If people don’t have a pre-conceived notion of what it’s traditionally paired with, they’re free to wear it as a soft jacket or with a tank top and denim. They can relate to it as a fashion garment and not craft. This is what led to the acceptance of the brand, and we’ve slowly seen our orders grow. We sell our Chota péro collection parallel to womenswear and some pieces for home at ABC Carpet & Home. A full home collection is in the pipeline.