The current health crisis has made many things “you took for granted” come to a halt, says fashion designer Payal Khandwala, adding how one needs to re-look and re-imagine things in the future. Taking this thought a step further, she recently launched a virtual shopping platform for those who would like to shop from the comfort and safety of their homes. In an interaction with indianexpress.com, she talks about her new initiative, the impact of the pandemic on the industry, and also suggests ways to bounce back.
Coronavirus has affected the fashion industry in a huge way. But what, according to you, is the biggest impact?
The biggest impact is psychological, across the board — for employers, employees — how do we procure stuff going forward; the uncertainty has made everyone risk-averse. But to run a business you have to take risks. However, if there is an element of fear because of the uncertainty around the pandemic; things like the sentiment of the buyer, do people want to go out, how many clothes do you make, how do you keep your employees employed; it affects everyone in the supply chain. And with the cash flow coming to a complete standstill, how do you put money back into the business? There is no timeline to this. That makes you fearful of the future and it’s something we all have to address — the psychological impact of your financial and mental well-being without having a sense of what the future holds.
What changes are needed for the industry to fight back?
The fashion industry will have to make quite a few rather big changes, some of which will come with some sort of self-reflection. The excess will have to be trimmed; there was so much of trying to sell 10 things to the consumer even if they need only two, pushing out products through sales, launching 16 collections a year or even thinking, let’s have so many fashion weeks in one country. All these cycles and trends, clothes having to be that much more expensive and extravagant, we will have to re-look at the part our greed plays in this ecosystem.
Do we really need and want this much stuff, and how do we consolidate the two? We need to re-think and edit out a lot of the noise, which will be key to the industry that is facing its most difficult times. How we filter out this industry to make space for good, honest, sincere labels with integrity that have purpose vs just making more of the same stuff.
Your initiative is a step towards the changing face of the industry in the wake of the pandemic. Do you feel physical stores will witness much lower footfall for a long time to come, or perhaps even be rendered useless?
Well, the short answer is yes, at least for the foreseeable future till things change. Perhaps there will be a vaccine, perhaps people will be so fed up of living life like this with their hands tied behind their backs that in a way they sort of jump back, become more resilient; it’s contingent upon so many factors. But, in the long run, I don’t think the experience of a physical store can really be replaced by online shopping. For now, we are trying to do the most we can to instill a sense of security and safety and make sure that our customers feel that they can still shop even if they are not comfortable coming to a physical store. The human spirit has a tendency to bounce back and be more resilient than we give it credit for.
Can you tell us a little about your online initiative? Also, what sanitisation measures will be followed?
Our initiative started because I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the consumer. If I still wanted to buy something to have some sort of normalcy, how would I go about it if I didn’t have access to a store. I felt some sort of human experience would be best, like I call a number and somebody picks up and I tell them hey, I am looking for a jumpsuit or kurta and would prefer these colours with these fabrics. And then, I would receive photos, videos, etc, of what that garment looked like and get to try it on, and if I didn’t like it, have the option to return it. So that’s exactly what we are doing. You can call our client services and we will send the garment across and you can keep it for 24 hours. If it doesn’t work for you, you can get a refund or have it exchanged.
In terms of sanitation, we ensure that everything is steamed before it is sent, we don’t circulate that garment for another 24 hours before it goes out (so it becomes 48 hours for the next person). Right now, though, to be honest, we don’t quite have to worry about that because there is not that kind of traffic. And in our physical store in Bengaluru (which is the only one open), of course there are masks, gloves and we make sure door handles, etc, are all sanitised, we also ensure that if you have tried something on then it is not put out on the floor for the next two days. If you’re uncomfortable shopping with others, we can close the store and have a personal appointment as well. We are trying to make it an online experience, but one that doesn’t feel clinical or robotic.
While you provide a 360 degree view of the product to the customer, many still believe in touching and feeling the fabric/trying it out before paying a certain amount. Do you think such a model will be successful in the long run?
Well, it’s true that nothing can replace touching a fabric/textile or garment and trying it on or the experience of going to a store, smelling the fragrance, listening to the music, the lighting. But online shopping works for a lot of people; it is convenient as people from across the world may not have access to physical stores as you only have so many. So even though you can’t experience it in our stores, you can still try the garment. Of course, the ideal situation is people step out, go shopping, make an afternoon of it, but given the constraints, this is really the best we can do.
The Fashion Design Council of India or FDCI has recently announced a ‘digital fashion week of India’. Do you feel physical fashion shows/events may be a thing of the past?
Fashion weeks and shows have had better days. In any case, it’s time for them to be updated. I do find that they pander to a few select people that are invited to see it, and in a way that isn’t very democratic. For whatever reason, I thought it had lost a little bit of its allure. Also, if this continues for the next two years and people are uncertain about being in crowded spaces, then this clearly won’t work. We will have to find a format which is accessible to most people, perhaps from the privacy of their homes, live streaming. So, if you are doing a fashion week for stockists to get more business, for example, then perhaps there is a different way to reach out to them, and a fashion week is not the way to do it anymore. So these things will have to be 100 per cent re-imagined.
What has been your biggest lockdown lesson — personally and professionally?
Personally, one of my key learning in all of this is just having to sit back and think about all the things we took for granted. Not only the big things, even just the little things like sitting with all the girls from my team and having a tea break or interacting with my masterji and tailors. All these little things now seem like such a daunting task — is everything sanitised, meeting people and giving them a hug, sitting in restaurants and going to concerts and movie theaters; all of it seems impossible right now. There’s this fear of trying to find an enemy we can’t even see. Small things like walking on the street and smiling at a complete stranger and them smiling back — now everyone is wearing a mask — it just seems like such a hostile place. It doesn’t seem like an open, warm, welcoming world right now. All this just gives me a lot of food for thought.
Professionally, this has given me the time to just pause and think that as left of centre we may be as a label and though I have kind of dug my heels and done things my own way, there is that pressure to work within a system. It makes me rethink how I want to work. We never really showed at fashion weeks anyway and, of course, we don’t do 16 collections, and make season-less clothes, so in that sense we are ahead of the curve, but I would like even more to do things at my own time, speed and volume I see fit. The way I had imagined when I started the label to make some beautiful clothes when something inspired me. Now, I feel that I am on a calendar and would like to change that, going forward.
The fashion industry works in a very close-knit way which includes fabric procurement, karigars, designers — do you think it will remain the same in the future too?
For the foreseeable future, everything will change. People aren’t just going to jump on a plane and go and sit with the weaver just because they could not understand something that you were trying to explain to them or for relationship-building. Supply chains will be interrupted, things are going to take longer. We were so hyperconnected earlier. But I don’t think of this as an unending story. I think we will be able to pick up from where we left. We just have to try to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on.
The pandemic has also brought about a fashion trend — masks — so much so like they are now being used to make a fashion statement. What do you feel about these?
Personally, I am very particular. If I had to wear a mask I would make sure that it’s technically efficient; it has to be made of a particular gauge of fabric, woven a certain way and have certain thickness. Making a mask out of a leftover fabric to just match it to my outfit is not the way I would do it. If I wanted to send a mask to everybody who bought from me, then I would give them a technical grade one that I know would do the job. Safety is more important than the fashion aspect of it.
Fashion is always evolving. What trends do you see coming out of the pandemic?
The thing about trends is that they are trends, they are cyclical, flippant, fleeting, so I don’t know really. I hear a lot of talk about how clothes will become more minimal, practical, artisanal, people will focus more on how to source locally and I guess that would be a good thing. I have always believed in season-less, timeless clothes that don’t follow fashion cycles, trends and colour forecasts and I don’t think that anybody should care about such things. It just adds to the clutter. We will have to keep our greed in check and be mindful about what, how and why we produce. Those are the biggest changes that will happen.