New Delhi: When Ashna Aggarwal searched for a fashion school and landed up in west Delhi’s Naraina Industrial Area four years ago, she wasn’t sure if the institute she had picked had been the right choice.
“Initially, the reaction was: ‘Where have I landed? Are you sure this is a fashion college?’” says the 21-year-old from Ludhiana, Punjab, about her first impressions of the school, a red-brick building sandwiched between industrial units.
Having graduated from the Pearl Academy of Fashion, Aggarwal says in retrospect that she had made the correct choice. “Definitely, I made the right decision... My course, my teachers and the placements I got (were) only because of (the) college.”
Fashioning growth: New Delhi-based Pearl Academy of Fashion has opened branches in Chennai and Jaipur and plans to build a 5-acre campus in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
She now works as a knitting designer with an exporter in New Delhi.
The academy dates back to the early years of India’s economic liberalization. It was founded in 1993 by House of Pearl Fashions Ltd that exported garments to global brands, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tesco Plc., Carrefour SA, JC Penney, Gap Inc. and H&M AB. The fashion house wanted to nurture talent in an area virtually unknown at the time in India as a career.
The academy offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in disciplines such as fashion design, interior architecture, jewellery and textile design, fashion business management and fashion retail management.
Although it was launched in a bid to “fill the void”, as chairman Deepak Seth puts it, Pearl Academy is now among the leading fashion schools in the country, counting designers such as Mandira Virk and brothers Nikhil and Shantanu Mehra among its alumni.
Also See Top 15 Fashion Institutes (Rankings)
“Frankly, what I am today is because of Pearl,” says Virk, who sells under her Mandira Virk brand and hires from her alma mater. “It’s not like an institute where (you) go in the morning and come back in the evening... They put in very hard work and it’s genuine. They have a lot of passion in them to make the students go to the next level.”
At its start, House of Pearl picked career bureaucrat A.K.G. Nair to spearhead the school. Nair had worked in ministries but, most importantly, he had headed administration at the country’s premier National Institute of Fashion Technology, or Nift, set up under the ministry of textiles.
At Nift, Nair had helped secure a $5 million (around Rs24 crore now) United Nations Development Programme project.
“The mandate we got was to be globally updated because fashion is a global industry,” Nair says about the brief he got from the House of Pearl.
With a focus on the global fashion industry, Nair hired British fashion author and consultant Martin Shoben to conceptualize the school’s initial curriculum.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, (the) export industry was like a sunrise sector and there was a lot of demand from overseas for exports of garments,” says Seth. “At that time, we had virtually no organized education to cater to the export industry.”
Seth says his efforts have paid off. “Now, we have alumni working all over the world. When I travel to countries like China, Vietnam, Indonesia…I run into them all the time... It’s a great feeling.”
The school also has some foreign faculty members..
Fashion designer Maya Kaeschgens, along with her two children, came to India from Paris four years ago to “discover India” and is now teaching at the institute.
“After two years, I decided to stay here and I looked for an interesting job… (the present job) is interesting because all my experience from Europe I can give to India,” she says.
Pearl Academy’s growth has mirrored that of the fashion textile industry in the country. When it started, fashion textile exports from India were valued at about Rs70 crore, a figure that has ballooned to Rs40,000 crore.
Pearl is now branching out to other cities. It has opened schools in Chennai and Jaipur, and has lined up 5 acres in Greater Noida, near New Delhi, where construction is set to begin next year.
The school is scattered over several buildings among various industrial units in Naraina, and Nair admits they are a “little bit dispersed”. Once the new campus in Greater Noida is ready, the school will relocate some of the programmes it offers to that campus.
In 2007, Pantaloon Retail, the country’s largest listed retailer, tied up with Pearl Academy to launch a six-month visual merchandising and retail experience management programme. The course was aimed at training students in conveying the value of a brand through store display.
“Right from the moment a customer walks into a shopping environment...what are the shopping experiences we can create both in terms of look and feel?” says K.C. Kurien, marketing manager for Future Learning and Development Ltd, a unit of Pantaloon’s parent company Future Group, explaining what the course set out to do. The course, however, has been put on hold this year following a retail industry slowdown.
Retailers such as Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd, Shoppers Stop Ltd, local units of global brands such as Benetton Group SpA and Gap, and Indian designers including Rajesh Pratap Singh and Satya Paul hire from the school, according to its website.
House of Pearl has invested Rs75 crore in the last five years in the Little People Education Society, which funds educational activities—the Pearl School of Retail and Little Pearl nursery schools.
The company says it is not worried about returns on investment. “The returns, probably the future generations may see,” says Seth.