Last week, senior designer Wendell Rodricks tweeted his unequivocal disappointment with Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) after it announced the name of Manish Malhotra as its finale designer for the Winter/Festive 2014 edition slated for August this year.

In the opinions that followed, it became apparent that the choice of a finale designer for a fashion week is not only contentious, but the disagreements behind it may need open voicing. It has always been a prickly issue and no finale designer’s name will ever appeal to the entire fraternity given its internal dissent, but there are fundamental questions worthy of a renewed debate.

How much does a finale matter to a fashion week? Who deserves to be a finale designer? And who chooses one?

Rajesh Pratap Singh with Kareena Kapoor at the finale of the LFW Summer/Resort in March this year.

Also, there is a certain prestige about being a finale designer. It is synonymous with being an established name and speaks of merit—one of the reasons why designers seldom agree to who deserves this place of pride.

I took my questions to those whose names had been raked up in this case. To designer Manish Malhotra and to those who controlled the two prominent fashion weeks in India: Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) that organizes the annual couture week and the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Weeks (WIFW) and Saket Dhankar, head of fashion at IMG Reliance, which organizes Lakme Fashion Week.

Rodricks, who is one of the founders of LFW, emphasizes that his objection to an established designer getting the show is not for any personal gain or hidden vendetta. “I am not personally against Bollywood or Bollywood designers," says Rodricks. “On the contrary, I respect their hard work. Since its inception in 2000 India Fashion Week finales were about awarding it to designers as recognition of their talent. But what has happened in the last five years is deplorable and degenerative. Finales are now being given as ‘favours’ to friends or members of a board," he adds.

Malhotra, on the other hand, considers this a “limited and unprogressive viewpoint" and says he finds himself targeted for no reason. “It is also contrary to international fashion where veteran designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani continue to work and compete despite having come of age and being examples of extraordinary success," says Malhotra. He stresses that he was approached for the finale by LFW instead of the other way round as some may think. “Finales are associated with those who can create fanfare, who can pull crowds, are popular and whose fashion sells," he adds.

A majority believe that a finale is indeed about spectacle, showmanship, celebrity guests (read Bollywood) and prestige. Not all may agree that Manish Malhotra is the best contender at all times but there is little doubt about the reasons behind his selection. “Let’s not forget that a grand finale is controlled by the title sponsor, in this case Lakme, which has a say in the choice of the designer," says Dhankar of LFW. “The sponsors wanted to project a glossy bridal trend as the look of this season and Manish Malhotra is the best person for that," he explains, adding that the finale is not just a fashion show but is a benchmark of production, entertainment and creativity of a fashion week.

His remarks are echoed by Sethi of FDCI who stresses that the title sponsor selects the finale designer based on his/her image in the media, saleability and expectations of publicity commensurate with the sponsor’s own brand. “If there is any request from a designer keen to do a finale, we forward that to the sponsor and sometimes recommend that they try different things but the final decision is not ours," he adds.

Rodricks, however, has other concerns too. “Why are designers being repeated when there is so much new talent? Why has Rahul Mishra’s international accomplishment not been recognized, especially since he debuted at LFW? There needs to be a finale ‘policy’ so that other designers are not disillusioned and the finale does not become a disrespected joke," he says.

All relevant questions to which his contemporaries have a reasoned answer. “The five days of fashion weeks are dedicated to encouraging and mounting young designers and new talent. But the finale is a different deal," says Malhotra who had just stepped out of LFW’s advisory board meeting when we spoke. “We have not only given finales to a variety of designers in the past but even experimented with younger ones like Kallol Datta and Pankaj and Nidhi earlier," clarifies Dhankar, saying that LFW’s commitment to GenNext continues unflinchingly. That’s also what Sethi says about WIFW: “We have made the opening show prestigious and well-publicized and have given it to young designers from Hyderabad’s Anand Kabra to Mumbai’s Masaba."

This time, to diffuse finale tensions, Sethi has done away with the concept entirely for the couture week in July. “While we have never had a grand finale concept for couture week as each show is expected to be a super spectacle, our closing show next month has nothing to do with a couturier. It is a jewellery show," he says.

That takes us perhaps to another story on how enslaving and diverting from the core cause is the influence of sponsors on fashion.

This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion.

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