FDCI President Sunil Sethi: “My Golden Period is Over”

FDCI President Sunil Sethi: “My Golden Period is Over”

“There is nothing like being naturally good.” That was Aminatta Forna, the award-winning Sierra Leoneon author, currently the Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in a recent interview with Open magazine. “You are naturally good till you are untested,” she said. Forna wasn’t talking about the fashion industry but her existentially wise observation lends an insight to understand Sunil Sethi, the President of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), who is often referred to as a ‘natural’. Most people will agree that Sethi became a ‘natural’ after being tested.

A largely boisterous industry that comes together every season for a few fashion weeks but has grown its muscle and meaning without heeding to any law of the herd isn’t an easy fraternity to preside over. As a result, the FDCI presidency that Sethi has held for the last ten years has been more about fashion week management and event logistics than mentoring design.

Today, Indian fashion weeks are competitive, creatively chaotic, sponsor-dependent and, as a model, in need of a serious rethink.

Sethi himself is at an inflection point at the FDCI. Always breathlessly busy, articulate and animated, a man for whom exhaustion is perhaps a very private ritual to be dealt with in a shuttered, blinded room of the mind, he seemed, for once, a little beat when we met.

His summer jacket, that was suspiciously not Rajesh Pratap, nor Ashish Soni, nor A&T—his usual favourites—turned out to be a Shanghai Tang. Leaf green and deep blue, a contemporary silken print that looked like a woven textile, he said he had pulled out the never-worn piece for this interview. This was at his office in Okhla, New Delhi.

The most interviewed man in Indian fashion, being the most accessible to the media, Sethi is, ironically the least ‘listened’ to even when he is heard. He has herded the industry towards bigger numbers, mightier sponsorships, bigger shows, (a thousand plus in number as he counts), global displays and ample notice. But he has been unable to make the FDCI an organisation that stands for more than the organiser of two strong fashion weeks. More Sir Solution than President Sethi, it is equally true that the industry hasn’t been able to find a replacement for him.

Is there a tipping point? With Amazon India’s discontinuation of its partnership with FDCI as the title sponsor of India Fashion Week, Sethi and his board—which he says needs reengineering—are in a challenging phase.

Of all my interviews with him over the years, it is for the first time that I found Sethi vulnerable, genuinely tired, and frustrated with what is around him. He can’t find time for his charitable work he says—he founded and runs Parivartan, a school for underprivileged children in Muradabad, along with half a dozen other charities as his personal CSR. Here he shares his highs and lows admitting that he wants to move beyond event organisation. Edited excerpts.

Over these last ten years, with the 1000-odd shows you mounted and mentored as super director, what are your biggest takeaways from the industry?
When I started, I did not see that fashion will grow to this level. The biggest positive takeaway is that fashion has percolated to every city—every new generation person, middle age citizen, senior person, politician or businessman understands that fashion is an important part of Indian cultural life and wants to look good. Also, in these ten years, Indian designers have become a part of everyone’s closets. It is no longer enough to look trendy, but to have the stamp of an Indian designer. Even in the wedding and occasion wear market, customers from any part of the world want to check what our couturiers have to offer. The other big takeaway the change brought by e-commerce. Everyone has fashion on their devices. Being so spoilt for choice in fashion never existed ten years ago.

And the negatives?

We are overexposed. There is a lot of fashion fatigue. It may be easy to sell clothes today but it is more difficult to make a brand out of yourself. Only some designers, mostly from the older block, have been able to brand themselves in Indian fashion—very few newcomers have been able to break through that glass ceiling. You are considered a go-to designer if you are either a brand name or have a large social media following. This is what fashion sponsors ask for.

One way or the other, all fashion conversations lead to sponsors. However, despite top designers who bring in celebrity showstoppers, why is the FDCI looking for sponsors for the India Fashion Week?
Yes, and I am going to make a harsh statement. This is the worst thing that has happened to me in the last ten years. Earlier, bringing in sponsorships was a very easy job for me. I was able to bring seriousness and credibility with my background of export business in home and lifestyle. That was the time when sponsors were chasing us. Renewing a contract was never a worry. All it would take was one phone call to seal the deal.

When FDCI started this journey of India Fashion Week, Lakmé was with us for six years, Wills Lifestyle for nine years, and Amazon for almost four years. But today, I hate to admit that the incredible wealth of fashion talent is for sale as even top designers need a sponsor to mount a show. I am disappointed and cannot understand why we have to be dependent on a sponsor to pull a show through. Most Indian designers cannot have independent shows without a sponsor. So, even when it is not the right fit, we agree to sponsorships that come our way. Thankfully, the work of Indian designers allows this movement from one sponsor to another, without much baggage.

So, if sponsors are taking advantage of designers, designers too are taking advantage of the funds. On the other hand, sponsors have realised that the party is not forever; they must find other avenues. With so many fashion weeks, with even daily newspapers wanting their own fashion week, it is clear that nobody can move fashion from its strong position of catching eyes.

But, my biggest contention is that we are losing out on the quality. If designers participate wherever they are offered benefits, designer numbers will go up but the quality of work will certainly be less than their potential. Personally, I have been privileged to have seen the golden days of the fashion industry and I do not want to see it going downhill because of the market conditions.

Is it now official that Amazon and FDCI have parted ways?
Amazon has been a wonderful partner. It came at a time when the business was moving from retail to e-commerce. All partnerships, all sponsorships, no matter who it is, are for a limited period. Amazon stayed with us 3 years and even after that, it extended the title sponsorship for one more season to evaluate if it was the right thing for them. We don’t know what goes in boardrooms and behind the scenes of large companies, after all. So, yes, it is now official, Amazon has informed us that they will not be the main sponsor of Fashion Week from this season. However, even if it may be to please us or them being diplomatic, the top management has stated that they are taking a break, and would like to come back if the position is open in the future. Since then, quite a few enquiries have come my way for title sponsorship.

What about India Couture Week, which gets so much media attention? Where does it stand today in terms of title sponsorships?
Yes, it is difficult to get the same amount of sponsorship monies that we were used to initially. Two of our sponsors, who had three year deals, went in for a public issue. Couture Week puts the sponsor in the spotlight and the names get noticed throughout the country because of the media response it generates. Once the sponsor has achieved this, there is no continuity after the initial term.

It is also important to emphasise that FDCI operates without a marketing and sales team. There is only person besides me who handles sponsor relationships. Even with this small team, we have an impressive lineup of sponsors for the event that starts this month (July), on the 25th. India Couture Week will be presented by Hindustan Times and Sunil Sethi Design Alliance, powered by RK Jewels. Besides that, we have Swarovski, MAC Cosmetics, Pearl Academy, and BMW.

As we speak, the FDCI board has decided to change the constitution to include younger people on the board. Till now it was only senior designers. We have also decided to take one quarter who are non-designers but belong to the industry. The next elections are due soon and I would much rather the new board decide how this sponsorship thing be taken ahead from here.

I have to say, though, that I take the credit of starting the couture week in 2008 when couture was still looked down upon.

Today, a 100 designers are making couture. We had 62 applications for the forthcoming couture week. So many designers have become couturiers because FDCI gave them a chance.

In these golden years, as you term them, what do you think has specifically been your extraordinary contribution to the industry?
Plugging holes, keeping the ship afloat, and the fraternity together. If people have called me a Noah of sorts, it has brought me immense personal satisfaction. But there was nobody else to do this job full-time. Everyone kept moving on. Whether I have been able to take the fashion industry up many notches or not is another debate. I am not saying that I could not have done better, but I have achieved to keep the ship afloat and move at a steady pace is what. Now that so many opportunities have appeared for designers, it is easy for them to jump ship as they can sail away on different boats.

As the headquarters of the Indian fashion industry for the last 20 years, the FDCI still has no library, no archival records, no combat mechanism against plagiarism.
That is valid. FDCI used to have a library of books and archives, but in the last ten years most of my time has been spent in developing the best platform for fashion. Three serious attempts were made to break the FDCI. One of them had, in fact, the involvement of a former minister of textiles; another time it was some designer members; and the third time, a private body. Frankly, it was difficult—the challenges were humongous.

Now I think my golden period is over. If at all I was to remain in the fraternity in the future, I definitely would want to contribute to the areas you have mentioned. I always dream big. My plan includes attempting to make a design museum that documents how fashion has grown in 20 years of the FDCI’s existence and I have an offer to write a book on this. I want to get past day-to-day event management.

The FDCI board is allegedly defined by a split. How true is this?
To be honest with you, this is the 3rd board in ten years. There have been disagreements from day one, partly because all members have been fashion designers. Industry experts and outsiders have always formed a very small part of the board. But, all disagreements have always been resolved. These disagreements essentially happen because different groups of designers have had different interests and not all board decisions can equally favour prêt, couture and export at all times. To the outside world, what seems like politics actually stems from the business interest of designers. Through The Voice of Fashion, the one thing I want to clarify is that the differences in FDCI have always been professional and never personal.

Would the FDCI consider looking at haphazard pricing and plagiarism as two very important issues that must be addressed?
When it comes to haphazard pricing, neither the FDCI nor I want to advise designers about pricing. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a very serious issue; the process of coming to a decision has to be formalised. We have taken on IPR consultants on board to help us with this.

Even those who criticise you in the industry or don’t get along with you concede that it is hard to replace Sunil Sethi. Have you reflected over this? After all, there is no dearth of talent.
There is no dearth of talent, of course. But I come from a background where I struggled to make it to the top of my field. My family was the market leader in the automobile parts industry. I started export related work in lifestyle, fashion accessories and home products ten years after joining the family business. I already had financial security, recognition, awards, and success. At FDCI, I came because designers invited me and I felt very privileged that they gave me the charge of the fraternity with complete trust. I had detractors of course, but when you lead an organisation there are bound to be conflicting opinions. Perhaps people don’t find me easily replaceable because that I have had no conflict of interest, I was not establishing my own business through FDCI. After this long a tenure, I feel I have contributed enough with my time, passion and experience and don’t have the tact in the technology and digital space to take it to the next level.

You seem tired and frustrated. More than a few times in this interview, you used words that suggest exhaustion. Are you ready to quit?
Every industry needs brand new ideas, new leadership. Ten years is a long time. The industry is willing to give me many other positions—chairperson, an Emeritus position, consultancies of various kinds have been offered to me, including from some from sponsors, a stake in designer business as a partner, new opportunities of alliance. I feel FDCI positively needs a new group to come in, not just another person who heads it, and also a new board. It needs reengineering—even the board agrees unanimously. Whenever something like this happens, positions are reworked. If my role is to be redefined in this process, so be it.