Masaba Gupta’s camera and cow prints from her Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2012 collection have been spotted on so many people lately that the designer recently declared on Twitter that it was “time to move on”. Little did anyone suspect that her next move would put her on the verge of creating fashion history in India. The Mumbai-based designer, 24, has been appointed fashion director at 27-year-old iconic brand Satya Paul, a first in the Indian apparel industry, which has traditionally been run by individual and family-owned enterprise.
The irony isn’t lost on her that, barely three years and seven fashion week collections later, she is all set to lend “design direction” to a label that was launched before she was even born.
“I’ve grown up watching my mother and her friends look at Satya Paul saris as an asset. People would save money and go buy a Satya Paul sari. So when the opportunity was offered to me by Sanjay Kapoor (managing director, Genesis Colors, the company that owns the label), I immediately said yes,” explains Gupta, her trademark curly hair pinned back, waiting to dive into a plate of sukha bhel at her store in Juhu at the end of a day full of meetings.
This confidence is a dramatic change from the 19-year-old flitting between the idea of a career in sport, music or fashion. Even while pursuing her fashion course at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, she admits she wasn’t the happiest person around. The syllabus was demanding and the teachers didn’t seem to like her work. But mentor and friend, designer Wendell Rodricks, changed all that. “He made me believe in myself. He said your work is not meant to be reviewed by a bunch of college teachers, it’s meant to be at fashion week,” she recalls.
From presenting her debut show Kattran under the GenNext category at the Lakmé Fashion Week in 2009, to heading a label with two signature stores (one in Juhu, Mumbai, and the other in Meher Chand Market, Delhi) and being poised to creatively front a fashion retail enterprise in three short years—it’s been a giant career leap for the youngster. “Everything has literally fallen into my lap. I keep asking myself, ‘Have I done enough?’”
Her single-minded dedication to work may have cost her friends and taken a toll on her personal life, but Gupta is unperturbed. “Friends tell me success has gone to my head. But I tell them it’s gone to their head, because I’ve always just been honest to my work,” she says matter-of-factly.
So while her peers plan weddings, Gupta’s busy planning her wedding collection and her eventual move to Delhi to take on her new role at Satya Paul.
Gupta feels a strong aesthetic connect with the label that has become synonymous with the sari and its fearless use of vibrant colours and innovative graphics—all cornerstones of Masaba’s inimitable brand identity. “The sensibility for both brands springs from the same place. I feel as though Satya Paul and Masaba are the elder sister and younger sister. The younger one is someone quirky and fun and the elder sister is also fun, yet mature and sophisticated,” says Gupta, who, in her capacity as fashion director, will look after the prêt-a-porter and Satya Paul signature lines, as well as the scarves and accessories ranges, giving design inputs for seasonal and fashion week collections and handling photo shoots, marketing activities and press relations. “The aim is to give the brand a fresh and contemporary look while sticking to its innate sensibility and signature style. We want to develop fresh prints, explore newer fabrics and introduce different silhouettes,” she says.
While a couple of Indian designers have in the past been the creative force behind big international brands, the associations haven’t necessarily been success stories. Ritu Beri’s tenure at French fashion house Scherrer was short-lived and Manish Arora’s outing with Paco Rabanne lasted two seasons only, but Gupta is looking forward to a long stint at Satya Paul. “In India it’s easier because the work environment is the same, you’re working with people from the same space—be it a Nift (National Institute of Fashion Technology) or NID (National Institute of Design)—and we designers share a unique relationship with our karigars (craftsmen) like no other fashion industry. It’s a different connect,” she says.
And it is her “artistically commercial” approach and an instant connect with a primarily younger audience that an established brand like Satya Paul will hope to capitalize on. “Satya Paul was largely known as a brand that sells to women in the 40-70 age group. Masaba’s entry immediately brings the target audience down by another 20 years,” says Sunil Sethi, president, Fashion Design Council of India. Having spent 20 years in the business, designer David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore thinks it’s definitely a good idea for a brand to have a creative director at the helm, to give it a new focus and direction. “For such an arrangement between a designer and a brand to work, it’s important that both have clear identities and market positioning. The most successful partnerships have been where the designers have maintained the sensibility of their own label and enhanced the brands that they have worked for,” says Abraham.
For Gupta, the challenge will clearly lie in being able to nurture her own label Masaba as well as take Satya Paul’s design statement forward. But she says her vision for both lines is very distinct. “Masaba is necessarily edgy, fun, fuss-free and easily transforms from day to night. Satya Paul, on the other hand, is all about cocktail dressing… Their work was very lyrical at one time; I hope to bring that back. They worked with artists like S.H. Raza, which was so ahead of its time. Now I hope to do something that’s ahead of my time, but at the same time wearable and appealing to the youth.”
All eyes will now be on her debut Spring-Summer 2013 line for Satya Paul. It will also be interesting to see how the forthright designer takes on her new corporate role. “I always call a spade a spade. But henceforth I will be more conscious about what I say because there’s a lot of people’s reputations at stake.”
For now, she’s enjoying the journey. “This is my time.”