New Delhi: India has arrived. Traditionally better known for its textile exports and manufacturing capabilities than the verve and sophistication of its designers, India has emerged in recent years as a contender on the global fashion scene.
Design names such as Sabyasachi, Rohit Bal, Abu Jani, Sandeep Khosla and Manish Malhotra have transformed the industry, which today hosts four fashion weeks a year between Delhi and Mumbai, while retail and luxury sales are booming, driven by a fashion-conscious middle class.
A key factor behind the turning point of the industry was the establishment of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in 1986. Set up under the aegis of the ministry of textiles, the school was created to inject home-grown creativity into the garment making industry which, despite bringing in foreign exchange revenues through exports, was lacking in originality and innovative design.
Competitive edge: Students at Nift, Delhi. At the forefront of fashion teaching in the country, Nift offers a variety of career options for aspirants. Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
“The growth of contemporary Indian fashion can be traced to 1986,” says Rathi Vinay Jha, director general of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). “Nift was established for training students in design, management and technology, paving the way for Indian designers to take leadership in the emerging global scenario.”
The school was the brainchild of Pupul Jayakar, known as India’s “czarina of culture”, who was then adviser to then prime minister Indira Gandhi on cultural and heritage matters; today, it regards itself as a benchmark in the industry to which other fashion institutions aspire.
“Pupal Jayakar wanted the school to be very professional and run to international standards,” says Asha Baxi, dean of studies at Nift. “As a result, because India had no experience in fashion education, we partnered with New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). They were very involved with the industry, and we signed a five-year agreement with them.”
Although Nift sees itself as its own competition, and relies on advisers and faculty for regular critiques of the curriculum, it shares the fashion design space with a host of new arrivals. Other institutions active in training today include Sophia College in Mumbai, Pearl Academy of Fashion, the National Institute of Design and Mod’Art International, a Paris-based school opening up in Mumbai with plans to leverage its international experience and context and offer students access to brands and thinking from abroad.
“Before Nift came in, the export business was really taking off but India really didn’t have professionally skilled trained people to help the growth of this export business,” explains Baxi. “Nift studied the requirements and needs of the industry and started off with three programmes—design, management and technology—and each of these was focused on imparting technically sound education to the students.”
Along with instituting a change in perception within the industry as to the value of fashion design education, the faculty and founders of Nift found themselves gradually bringing about a change in cultural and social attitudes.
“Fashion was always treated like a frivolous activity,” adds Baxi, “and it was treated as a profession which only was about gender bending and people getting into all kinds of nefarious activities. I think Nift has been instrumental in bringing about realization amongst people in India that fashion is a serious profession. In the beginning, it was very difficult for us to make people understand this. They would think that fashion is only glamour, money, models and fashion shows.”
Today, males outperform females at the school, with the majority of award winners being male, and the proportion of males to females standing at roughly equal.
The school also credits itself with infusing the design industry with pride in itself, so that international success was no longer held up as the sole measure of success and designers could consider themselves established on the basis of national acclaim.
Additionally, the school has seen itself ride the retail boom, which has expanded the range of opportunities offered to young designers.
With the opening of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the market underwent a radical change, and the launch of chains such as Shoppers Stop and Pantaloon “redefined” the choices of consumer India and, along with it, the fashion landscape changed, according to Jha.
The India Fashion Week launched in 2000, created a “ready to wear” market which then served as the trigger for aspiring Indian designers to expand their market to international shores, and set the scene for the arrival of fashion design as a serious career choice.
Nift, which counts many of India’s leading fashion designers among its alumni, including Ritu Beri, Manish Arora, Ashish Soni and Rajesh Pratap Singh, receives 20,000 applications for just 2,000 places each year, and offers courses for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Undergraduate students applying to the four-year BFTech (bachelor programme in fashion technology) can specialize either in design or technology. Within design, the courses covered include design training in fashion, leather, accessories, textile and knitwear, as well as fashion communication, while the core focus for technology students is apparel production.
Along with training in basic design skills and methods, undergraduate students are required to take core courses in technology that involve production processes and materials sciences, as well as undergo education in marketing, promotion and merchandising, get a grounding in the “socio-cultural” history of fashion, art and design. The final element involves hands-on training through internships and field study.
Good options: At the postgraduate level, Nift offers two-year master’s degrees in the design, management and technology specializations. Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
In the last semester of the final year, students take part in a graduation project which, in the case of those specializing in fashion design, means creating an entire collection using the skills they have acquired including sourcing, pattern-making, cutting and stitching.
“I always wanted to be a part of the fashion fraternity,” says Diana Kakkar, a third-year student specializing in fashion design.
“Nift incubates you to be part of the industry and it lets you go out to the villages and intern within the industry. It is also one of the most recognized fashion institutions in the world, so it gives you good prospects.”
The academic fees for one semester stand at Rs36,750, while for non-resident Indians the academic fees for two semesters, or one academic year, come in at Rs3,18,500. At the postgraduate level, two-year master’s degrees are available in the design, management and technology specializations.
From its inception in Delhi as a school for fashion design, Nift now has eight centres spread across India, in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gandhinagar and Rae Bareli. There are plans to open more centres, in Kannur, Bhopal, Shillong and Patna, as well as in Mauritius and even in the UAE and Malaysia.
“Nift has been growing at a very, very fast pace,” says Baxi. “There’s this pressure to expand because the government feels the industry is growing and we need to impart this professional education to students in different states. I think perhaps we would also constantly be looking at the new specializations, the new professions that are constantly emerging, for example, styling.”
Although the school is government-run, Baxi says the curriculum remains independent of policy: “They don’t impact at all and they don’t interfere with our curriculum. Government policies may impact us indirectly but not otherwise.”
As part of its efforts to remain relevant and at the cutting edge of design, Nift helped set up FDCI in 1998. It also laid the foundations for the establishment of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology, which today has 25 members, and hosts meetings at which member institutes discuss and share ideas, research, trends and new ways of thinking about design and education.
The school also regularly looks to introduce new sub-specializations to meet changes within the industry and provide a variety of career options for its students.
In addition to a new course on styling, the school is currently contemplating introducing modules on the business of luxury, and even theatre and make-up.
Despite Nift’s focus on industry interaction, and pride in its 100% placement guarantee, the industry feels education and training in the design space in India still has some way to go.
“Nift is adequate for basic education,” says Ritu Kumar, fashion designer and Nift graduate who sits on the school’s governing council. “The training could do with more emphasis on pattern making and style. The experience students get from the internships could also be expanded out into active involvement with the industry.”
Fashion designer Narendra Kumar, also a Nift graduate, who spent some time teaching at the school, describes Nift products as “robots”.
“They are taught to conform rather than be independent nowadays. They are taught by rote,” he says of the students at fashion schools, including Nift. “When I was a student there, there were good teachers and a lot of international faculty.”
Recruiting and keeping good faculty is one of the challenges that Nift faces, with the school relying heavily on its reputation and on returning graduates to attract good and well-trained teachers on board.
“We are looking for progressive thinking from our lecturers,” says Baxi. “They have to be very open-minded and open to new ideas. It is very, very difficult to find good faculty because teaching is a different sort of profession, and lecturers need to have a passion for teaching and be able to develop good chemistry with the students. Also, the industry is doing very well and people are better paid in the industry, so they find that a more attractive option.”
She adds that the school offers faculty development and exposure programmes, which invest in teachers and enables them to travel abroad for training and trade fairs, and take sabbaticals, in a bid to attract and retain faculty.
Although Jha believes that India “has definitely made great progress”, she argues that in comparison with international institutes, training centres in India need to further build capacity, adopt new techniques and skills and include new curricula in fashion education to match international standards.
She adds: “Another important area which we need to develop is producing in-depth literature and well-researched documents on fashion.”