Chennai leading designers have changed the rules of the fashion game to their advantage
At the beginning of every year, fashion’s elite look forward to what the trend analysts will forecast for the upcoming seasons. After all, there are multiple variables to consider while putting together a fashion-forward wardrobe for the rest of the year — from the fabrics that will capture the imagination of designers to the colours that will set the ramps on fire. But, 2020 has not been like every other year. The curtain raiser of the new decade has evaded most predictions.
Following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, designers world over championed the cause of sustainability. Apart from greener fabric options, seasonless fashion calenders and genderfluid collections were said to be the only way forward. Among the biggest and most influential names to come out in support of a move to a leaner, less wasteful fashion system was Alessandro Michele, the creative head of Italian luxury fashion house Gucci. The buzz then quickly shifted to the untapped potential of the virtual space — e-commerce, digital models and online fashion shows became the talk of the town. In an interview with Indulge earlier this year, veteran designer Rajesh Pratap Singh talked about the direction that fashion would take post-pandemic, “The year 2020 has obviously been a complete restart for all of us. I don’t have a crystal ball, but one could see that the industry was already heading towards a major shift, even before the virus happened. The pandemic has just accelerated things. I am very positive about the future. All we need is a little bit of patience.” As Chennai continues to open up post-lockdown and the festive season approaches, we speak to the leading designers in the city, who have been persistent in their strategies and reinvented their design sensibilities. We also find out if these trend predictions were true and what the luxury landscape might look like 12 to 18 months down the road.
Behind the seams
“It has been quite the rollercoaster!” That’s how Vivek Karunakaran describes his last six months. The Chennai designer, who has been in the business for over a decade now works from his new boutique space — a suite in Hyatt Regency. This shift comes after the year opened up with the promise of a new 1,500 sq feet store for the designer’s eponymous label at Rutland Gate. “We were all set to open in March. We were excited...the interiors were done, the new collection was ready. We were not just financially invested in the space, but also emotionally, and so, I held onto it for a long time. But, after an extended period of uncertainty, I had to take a hard call,” says Vivek. The following months have motivated the designer to reinvent, to ‘hit the proverbial reset’ button. Scaling down operations, the 40-year-old has gone back to the essence of slow luxury fashion, as he puts it.
“It is one thing to want something, and it is entirely different to make it work. You cannot want to be better unless you’re willing to put in the work.” And the effort is certainly not lacking! Refocusing the brand, Vivek Karunakaran is set to foray into spaces that require luxury design and style interventions, from extending consultancy services for brides and grooms to curating trousseau packages — think elegant wedding trunks, luxurious bed linen and monogrammed towels. “Vivek Karunakaran, the brand will explore everything that I, as a person, love. I think the biggest learning is if you want to do something, do it. It is all about making the best of what you have and moving forward.”
Leaning into love
Doing what you love is a sentiment that resonates deeply with Hisham Osman. Founder of Silkworm Boutique, the 42-year-old is quite ecstatic about his downsized move to a 300 sq feet studio space — all because it allows him to focus on the kind of saris he loves, without the added pressure of maintaining a big showroom and the bright lights. “I think somewhere between running the store and growing the business, I was chasing numbers. I was constantly playing out various equations in my head,” shares Osman, almost as a matter of fact. Across the road from his earlier store, Hisham’s new 300 sq foot studio boutique is still located on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, but at Gems Court.
Set on rekindling his love for tussar, we learn that Silkworm Boutique will now primarily stock the ‘wild silk’ along with other cotton drapes. “When I got into the sari business and went about studying and understanding the history and technicality of the material, I fell in love with tussar. Perhaps, that is because it is the most widely woven fabric in our country and the yarn is indigenous.” But, what of Silkworm’s famed annual Tussar Festival, we wonder out loud. “It was in 2010 that I started the Tussar Festival and it will continue to be my pet project,” he says, adding that a greater inclination towards handmade in India and sustainability is not a pandemic-inspired trend. In his opinion, the credit goes to an aware and environmentally conscious customer.
Point of view
Rehane Yavar Dhala cannot help but cheekily smile a little at the push that sustainability and slow fashion have received the world over during the last few months. “I have been reading this book called Civilization by Niall Ferguson, and in it, the author talks about the Industrial Revolution in England, how the Japanese took it forward, and its spread in Europe. The entire world took to the modern way of manufacturing textiles sooner than us. Our Achilles Heel has always been that we did not adapt our fabric and handloom culture to the industrial age fast enough. But, look where we are today,” shares the designer, who is known for her pronounced affinity towards all things handmade — crafts, fabrics, embroideries.
In tow, Rehane has focused all her energies on made-to-order garments, moving base from her year-old retail store at Venus Colony in Alwarpet to her production hub in T-Nagar to be closer to her karigars and master tailors. However, apart from just switching up geographies in the city, the designer, who has been in the business for close to three decades, is now exploring virtual space for her label. Tying up with a model and friend Alison Kanuga on her newly launched website, Yours Locally, Rehane’s pret collections (ranging anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000) will now be available for purchase across the world.
Big digital energy
The webspace is not new territory for Kaveri Lalchand. A staple at Lakmé Fashion Week, the designer has often harnessed the power of social media to connect with her growing legion of followers. During the initial wave of the pandemic, the 47-year-old was among the first voices from the city to leverage her online presence to create awareness and rally support for distressed artisans. However, the Chennai designer was recently introduced to a newer aspect of the digital world via her participation at the first virtual edition of LFW. “The virtual format of the show has nothing on the live runway. You certainly miss the buzz, the adrenaline rush and the build-up. But, the virtual show is a lot more accessible, and you get many more eyeballs than you would normally get,” offers the designer, whose brick and mortar stores in Mumbai and Kochi are still closed.
Sharing a key insight following her showcase on the fashion week ramp, Kaveri’s bets are on smaller collections and quirky loungewear lines. Fashion has not changed. Buying patterns and market requirements have. To cater to this shift, the brand By Kaveri now offers the Sassy at Home line. “At first, all of us were content wearing those five T-shirts and joggers on repeat. Now, people are looking for something as comfortable as pyjamas, but aren’t as causal,” says Kaveri, who conceptualised and launched two new collections and a rejigged sustainability initiative for her label over the last six months.
***********************************************************************************Make a statement
People who are working from home are still getting dressed up from the neck up for videoconference meetings, and jewellery designer Raji Anand says statement earrings and neckpieces are on an upward trend. ”People are buying jewellery that represents the times. Apart from bridal pieces that will always have a market, Zoom-worthy jewellery has attracted consumers the most during the pandemic.”
Celebrated for her Boho-styled of reconstructed temple jewellery that is quirky and not for those used to being wallflowers, the 43-year-old has been relentless during the lockdown. From conceptualising the city’s first digital fashion show with Stephin Lalan to collaborating with brands that have a strong online presence and even reinventing her aesthetics to deal with the dearth of raw materials, Raji has been thinking on her feet. “I think a lot more women are now open to the idea of statement jewellery. I think it also has to do with the category being repositioned over lockdown as a way for consumers to dress up a casual WFH look.”
For designers like Ashwin Thiyagarajan, who thrive on the unrelenting pace and pressure of the fashion industry (throwback to Sami Khan’s Oscar red carpet outfit which was completed in under a week), the lockdown din was a welcome change. “To be very honest, I was really worried about how things would be. But, people were still celebrating the little things. And though it was slightly subdued, I still had projects to work on.” Yet, that isn’t what excited the 30-year-old. It was the added breathing space that allowed him to work on his end-of-year project. “Earlier, I always said, ‘This may be too much to invest in right now.’ The concept is something very personal and dear to me. And, I always pushed it to another time because I needed enough time to work on it.”
While not divulging too many details, what we do learn is that the line will be a made-to-order bridal edit. “In terms of the direction, my bridalwear has always been simple and subtle. This collection is unlike anything I have done before. It’s grand, it’s flamboyant,” offers an unfettered Ashwin, explaining, “As long as people have a reason to celebrate, couture will never die.”