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I’m the Boss,but…

What happens to our fashion labels after our designers are gone?

Written by Namrata Zakaria | Published: September 4, 2013 5:24:04 am

One of the biggest lemons of the Fashion Design Council of India (Indian designers’ governing and official fashion congregate) is its defeat in bringing about a corporate structure among designer labels. This was its mainstay when it was formed in 1998. But the FDCI has gone little beyond organising sponsors for seasonal fashion weeks. That said,there is little it can do when dealing with gargantuan Mr Know-It-Alls. It is only in India,where some fashion labels will soon touch the Rs 100-crore figure in its profits,where the designer controls his label’s creative rights as well as business.

A decade ago,several big-ticket designers known for making elaborate bridal wear were only too excited about the country’s prêt-a-porter promises the new malls were making. But manufacturing a few hundred to a few thousand of one designer shirt proved to be a challenge for their small and specialised factories (in some cases,there were none). This is when they needed to seek help from the various business houses,textile companies or private investors willing to offer financial aid,in return for profits or a partnership.

But then,who sells their own name? Why would any designer let go of his labour of love to a virtual stranger? Oodles of money wasn’t enough. Neither was the idea of ‘brand building’ properly understood. Brand building is such an overused term these days,but no one is quite sure what it means. For some designers,it means opening more stores. For others,it is tying up with a watchmaker or a bed-linen company. For some,it is but a TV show that makes them famous on the streets. This is why they are barely going beyond bridals again.

In the past few months,I asked a few of them: What will happen when you are gone? Many leading designers are in their 50s already. Several of them have not married. Most have no business partners. These amazing labels would be forgotten when the owners have passed.

This is a terrible topic to discuss over champagne,but Rohit Bal’s (in his 40s) heart attack a few years ago has undoubtedly shaken many. Bal insists he has a “succession plan” but won’t divulge. As does Wendell Rodricks,the beautiful and reclusive minimalist Goan designer. Tarun Tahiliani and Rajesh Pratap Singh,among very few others,are commended for their business acumen. But no designer is in a partnership or anywhere close to selling his company and keeping the creative rights.

Designers as creative heads of corporate-owned companies have been the norm in fashion houses for decades. Almost every big French and British label is owned by the LVMH Group or Kering. A few Italian labels are still family owned: Giorgio Armani,Versace and Tod’s. But in an interview to The Wall Street Journal last year,Armani,79,says he regrets not striking a deal with LVMH in 1998. It is something he thinks of “when I wake up in the morning and when I go to sleep at night”.

Could Gucci have been such a success today if it weren’t for Domenico de Sole and Tom Ford’s joint efforts? In the ‘70s,Gucci would have sunk if it weren’t for a tie-up with Corum’s Severin Wunderman to make watches for them. Christian Dior’s label makes for a strong case. After the death of Dior,Yves Saint Laurent (all of 21) took over creative reigns and gave the label a new life. When John Galliano,who helmed Dior’s 50s-flavour glamour so wonderfully since 1997,was sacked in 2010,Dior took two years to replace him with Raf Simmons.

In those two years without a chief designer,Dior’s profits doubled (they added several stores too). This is not to say the chief designer is irrelevant. It only means the original designer has built a strong signature,the business head has built a solid company,and the chief designer is required to be nothing but a creative genius.

And this is how a legend must bequeath his legacy.

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