At South Mumbai’s Atria mall, there’s a subtle revolution under way. While high-street brands Promod and Mango attach four-digit price tags to a pair of skinny pants or a racer back, at Sepia—designer Priyadarshini Rao’s seven-month-old label—there’s a rush of young clients waiting to get into ruched skirts and pin-tucked blouses that are far easier on the wallet.
Rao, 36, has always had a clear vision, more than a few successes and healthy ambition. But it would have been a long shot, even for her, to envision her name on a dozen stores in Mumbai and Delhi by the end of 2007.
Sepia—a tie-up with 30-year-old textile export house Texport Syndicate, suppliers to brands such as Gap and Nautica—is growing fast. There will be six more stores in Mumbai (one large store in Juhu will carry only the newly-launched luxury pret line— Priyadarshini Rao for Sepia—starting at Rs3,000) and Delhi will have six to seven Sepia stores by June.
Sepia still needs some work: Though the clothes are very wearable, some of the current designs, with their emphasis on patchwork and flowery appliques, appeal more to teens than adults. But the fact remains that one of the industry’s more low-key designers is the first to launch what can finally be called India’s first designer pret label for young adults.
“Priya has the sensibility and feel for the street without resorting to the regular mainstream bling design,” says fellow designer Wendell Rodricks. “She’s managed to take a more wearable and aesthetically compiled fashion statement to the masses.”
Pradeep Hirani, owner of fashion store Kimaya, considers her one of the finest pret designers in India today. “She doesn’t do fireworks; it takes a mature fashion connoisseur to appreciate her work,” he says.
Rao’s line was also well-received at Lakme Fashion Week, in March. Fashion stores like Ensemble and Kimaya—are in the process of finalizing orders for Autumn/Winter 2007. “Priya catches your eye with her attention to detail. At Sepia, she’s left her quirky cuts behind and moved to classics,” says Hirani.
Two years ago, Rao was happy cutting her beloved bias skirts and selling her trademark easy-to-wear bohemian clothing to Kimaya, Ensemble and Be:, Raymond’s retail-fashion venture.
When Texport Syndicate approached her in 2004, she refused because she was pregnant and involved with her own brand. The deal finally went through in 2006. Today—seated in her office in suburban Mumbai surrounded by the dressier, olive and turquoise Autumn/Winter line—the designer says she’s now as involved in bottom lines as she is in design. “By the time I got this offer, I had figured out that understanding the mathematics of a brand was the way to go.”
Rao says that creating affordable clothing came naturally; even when she was an independent designer, Swarovski-encrusted ghaghras weren’t on her list of offerings. “I learnt how to provide the right product at the right price from my stint at Be:,” she explains.
But even for a somewhat frugal designer, the challenge she faced at Sepia was to design pieces that could be sold at price points ranging from Rs600 to Rs3,000. “It’s easy to create a gorgeous outfit with embroidery and sell it for thousands. At Sepia, even though the prices are reasonable, we want to convince them to buy it because of the design,” she says. And it seems to have worked.
“My designer friends keep telling me how lucky I am to have an opportunity like this, but I know that if they were in my place, they wouldn’t want it,” she says.
Rao’s talking about Savio Jon and Anshu Arora Sen (the three of them could be considered the boho triumvirate of Indian design). “I can’t picture Savio or Anshu here. They need the freedom to do whatever they want, when they want,” she says.
“But it’s not like you have to sell your soul to the devil or anything,” she says. Rao now works four days a week and spends the weekends with her two-year-old daughter. She takes off on long weekends or goes shopping with Maya. “But I don’t make clothes for her. That’s the job of her favourite designer—Savio,” she laughs.
Rao’s vision for the future, is a kids’ line by 2008. “I would like it to be a subtle, flower-child kind of line. I can definitely see Sepia girl, if not boy,” she smiles.