Gautam Vazirani: From Fashion Weeks to Vedanta Studies

Gautam Vazirani: From Fashion Weeks to Vedanta Studies

A day before the former sustainable fashion strategist with LFW rides into a three-year closeted pursuit of Vedanta studies, he talks about the fashion industry’s fair and dark sides and why he wanted to hit pause 

Usually soothe-driven as part of his reflex response to people around him, the 37-year-old Gautam Vazirani would waft into a meeting room like cool, gentle breeze. Even when the next show at Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) or a media conference on sustainability and ethical practices in fashion or a glamour event with big and powerful players from the industry had hot geyser potential.

Smiling had slowly but noticeably evolved as Vazirani’s reflex over the year; he had not stepped into the fashion world with his cheeks pulled on either side. However, he saw, felt, reflected, learnt and made resolutions to do his bit. Known primarily for what was initially called the Indian Textiles Day, then the Sustainable Fashion and Indian Textiles Day and finally The Sustainable Fashion Day at LFW, Vazirani became an industry interpreter of sorts. Finding links between relevant but disparate lobbies and elements of the fashion business in India, finding bridges of meaning and material gain between crafts, handlooms and fashion shows. Interpreting the relevance of one with the other. He would connect designers with karigars and karigars with entrepreneurial groups. He argued for sustainable practices in fashion thus initiating some conversations that had not yet hit the industry’s glitz biased action.

Born and raised in a conventional middle-class Sindhi family in Mumbai, Vazirani had meandered to fashion after an MBA from the UK.

Vegetarian, charming, mindful and well, much to the envy of many industry colleagues including myself, Vazirani also figured out weight loss! All this while his skin glowed, eyes shone, his taste in fashion softened. A promise of “happiness” was part of a quote he would use beneath his official email signature.

Something was clearly not rite.

Last month, Vazirani, quit IMG Reliance as its Sustainable Fashion Curator and Strategist to take a rather unusual sabbatical in an era of digital addictions. From tomorrow, January 15, just three days before his 37th birthday, he will join the Vedanta Academy in Malavli near Lonavla for three years, relinquishing contact for this time with friends, family, phone and fashion.

Here he bares his heart in a freewheeling interview. What fashion meant to him, why we need to question its very basis and celebrate its higher value. Edited excerpts.

You have decided to pursue Vedanta studies and practice for three years that will cut you off from your friends, family, career for this period. Did the sometimes-shallow nature of the fashion industry, its fickleness and focus on the external attributes contribute to this decision?

The shallow nature of fashion had already affected my interests quite a few years ago. This is when I had decided to shift my full focus to sustainability and take up a higher cause within the same context. I was interested in the human and material aspect of creativity and design, and their significance to improve lives. I realised one could utilise fashion as a means to an end, rather than looking at it as an end in itself.

What has contributed to my decision of taking a sabbatical is an understanding, as explained by Swami Parthasarathy, that living life is an art, skill and a technique that needs to be learnt and practised. All the choices a person generally makes to seek happiness during different stages of life seem to be often based on assumptions and beliefs picked up from our predecessors or parents, childhood, schools and colleges, friends and life experiences in general. Yet, are we really happy? How does a person create a life with sustainable happiness that is not based on transient external factors? We need to question our very basis of how we look at life.

Photo: Instagram/gautamvazirani

(R to L) Gautam Vazirani with Swami Parthasarathy, founder of Vedanta Academy.

I discovered Vedanta Academy over three years ago that offers a scientific and structured course of study to give you knowledge and wisdom on the science of life and living. It comes from our ancient Indian philosophy from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. It is led by a living, self-realised 92-year-old guru, Swami Parthasarathy who is still actively teaching. All this has led to the conviction that this is what I need to dedicate myself to after fifteen years of working and trying to find happiness in the world. It is going to be about finding sustainable happiness.

You worked specifically with crafts, textiles and people working in less empowered situations to try bridging them with mainstream fashion. Were you initially criticized for bringing to fashion an ideology that was not a part of how it defined itself? 

I never understood how fashion defined itself in India. It all depends on which lobby you are talking to. Much of it is borrowed from the West and the remaining seems to be an elite perception that a handful of people have like some magazines or designers. The average consumer who is contributing to billions of dollars of sales for fashion brands in the country is conspicuously absent in this equation. So are the millions of textile artisans in rural areas who have the intelligence of creativity and design without any formal education. They are struggling with their livelihoods to changing times and tastes. As a curator for sustainable fashion at a platform like LFW, I felt I could do something about this.

Until a few years ago, there were two separate worlds. The artisans who would go around selling through exhibitions and the fashion designers who were becoming popular at fashion weeks. The mission was to merge the two and create a new definition for fashion in India. There was a lot of criticism initially. It was bound to happen as one was challenging the existing status quo. It did not bother me, as I knew the higher purpose behind it. Thankfully, IMG Reliance, the organisation behind it believed in this wholeheartedly. Today, the scenario has changed. Fashion that is hand-made, hand-woven, and environmentally conscious seems to be the USP of contemporary Indian fashion at fashion weeks. The change has been heart-warming.

Photo: Instagram/gautamvazirani

Gautam Vazirani at an artisan’s home in Manipur.

Did you see the fashion industry conveniently changing ideological positions and opinions to suit the new order? 

There is a golden rule that if you want change, you have to be the change. My fashion conscience always told me that this was the right thing to do.

In a country like India where millions of people still depend on handlooms and handicrafts for their livelihoods, it is a lifelong mission to work for the cause of artisans and their economic, social, environmental and cultural sustainability in the mainstream fashion industry. There were already a handful of labels who understood this. A few examples are Abraham & Thakore, Rajesh Pratap Singh, and péro.

The whole movement by LFW created an awareness and appreciation for the potential value that Indian fashion could harness from its artisan sector. At the same time, effort was made to spotlight innovators who were working on an environmental agenda through projects like the Circular Design Challenge and SU.RE, a commitment towards sustainable practices in retail and manufacturing. This led to a wider receptivity among media and consumers. Thankfully, the changing global scenario towards conscious living only strengthened this movement. Once there was proven economic value, beyond just the sentiment, the market began to change.

Gautam Vazirani addressing the audience on The Sustainable Fashion Day at LFW.

You have always been sceptical about fashion media. Please feel to criticize us: are we barking up the wrong tree most of the time?

The debate on fashion media is that of limited perception. Fashion media operating out of metros, pre-dominantly English looks at artisans and their stories as a cause-related subject. However, inside the artisan eco-system, there is an industry like any other. Regionally, there are clusters and heroes and each one has a retinue of their own. There are some celebrated and globally renowned names and then there are young trailblazers trying to make the change. Largely, they all remain unsung heroes as we are too busy talking about what is happening in an urban context.

I had to speak about fashion to a crowd of a few thousand people who had come from different villages at a fashion show of artisan designer students graduating from Somaiya Kala Vidyalaya (created by Kutch-based educationist Judy Frater) in Bhuj. I realised how skewed our perception is about fashion and how we look and talk about it. At the same time, how exaggerated is our perception of who we are and what we do.

The gems in stories in our country related to creativity and design are not limited to the metros. How many of us know about Bidyabati Meher who is 25 years old today from Barpali in Odisha? She is the only female Ikat master weaver in Barpali who is using digital technology to educate other weavers and improve their designs and market. She helped Indigene make their collection at LFW through Digital Empowerment Foundation during August 2018. Artisans from our country are called to museums abroad for talks, presentations. Seldom do they receive such recognition back home. At most conferences and dialogues on crafts and fashion in the metros, the artisan is often missing. So what inclusivity are we talking about?

What do you think about hype, ego clashes and exaggeration in fashion? Often one hears about starry tantrums of designers regarding front row, access, sponsors, celebrities, prime time shows and so on. How would you handle such situations?

This is all a common occurrence during fashion weeks. It is quite a precarious situation when one has to plan a project that involves a sponsor with a designer, as both have distinct expectations. The science of correct assessment and then application of each other’s potencies has helped to create some noteworthy collaborations. Tencel and Rajesh Pratap Singh for instance is a classic case study of a sponsor-driven collaboration. It presented a new discourse in sustainability and fashion to the industry of an innovative manmade fibre combined with heritage textiles such as Banarasi, Jamdani and Chanderi.

Sadly, a time slot at a fashion week is considered as a status slot in the industry. If you have an evening slot, it is considered a statement of being a successful designer. Initially when I started working with designers and planning their LFW schedule, I realised the rules of the game meant only a handful could dominate evening slots and the younger ones did not really have a choice. As a team, we made some unconventional decisions like bringing together artisans for a 7 PM show in March 2017. On the Sustainable Fashion Day at LFW, some of the best audience response has been for the noon and the 1.30 PM shows.

What are your thoughts on the Mumbai-Delhi divide in fashion? Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) versus LFW? Is it overstated or true largely?

I have had the privilege to be with LFW for over seven years. I have seen this divide go through its different versions. The equity value of both the platforms have gone through several fluctuations. The general notion has been that LFW is for celebrities and PR, and FDCI is for buyers and business. That LFW is known for its shows and FDCI for its stalls and exhibition space. Prima facie this is absurd, as how can you sell something without marketing it well. Especially in an industry where visual appeal is most important. Those who started doing shows with FDCI after launching themselves at LFW in Mumbai eventually stopped doing shows/stalls there. Their reasons were not enough business or value. So what is really the truth? When you investigate, you realise this divide is based on many unfounded beliefs. FDCI and LFW both have a common agenda to grow the fashion industry; however, the approach tends to be different.

What were the high points of your career with IMGR and LFW given the role you played as Sustainability Strategist? 

My career with IMGR and LFW happened due to a chance meeting with Saket Dhankar in 2012 who was the fashion head at the time. Initially, I thought of myself as a misfit at LFW. However, soon I found a deeper interest in sustainability that seemed meaningful. When the leadership changed from Dhankar to Jaspreet Chandok, my focus on environmental and social sustainability became a hundred per cent.

I am lucky I found support and understanding from the team and leadership for something that was not well understood at the time. Where else in our country do we have this kind of an opportunity and a platform where one can engage with the Ministry of Textiles and state governments, the UN, NGO’s, farmers, foundations and corporates, fibre brands, designers, brands, and media – all on one platform for one cause? My mantra was to stretch possibilities and keep widening the circle. I believed that any social or environmental issue could be highlighted and discussed through the medium of fashion. Such as the Shades of India presentation with NGO Kranti and the children of commercial sex workers or the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To limit it just to clothes would be doing a big disservice to power and force of fashion.

Is the fashion world often wrongly categorized as flippant and frivolous?

There are two sides of the fashion industry – one that creates millions of jobs and livelihoods through massive production, distribution and sales, which brings great economic leverage to the country. The other that can be labelled as the ‘fashion week industry’, which tends to be obsessed about looks and styling, designer shows and showstoppers. The former is like the substratum of the latter, but is hardly recognised despite significant statistics. The latter receives a lot of attention for its glamorous appeal, earning it a frivolous tag from the intellectuals. Nothing wrong with it. Gen Next, Sustainable Fashion Day at LFW or the projects done by IMGR for sustainable fashion have demonstrated how a popular platform can be utilised for larger good.

However, in the ‘fashion week industry’, there is an excessive dependence on designer personalities and many are blown out of proportion. Like in art, music or performance, artists are put on a pedestal and worshipped. Unfortunately, many of our artists fail to live up to our expectations over a period. Only a few become icons. You realise the fashion world is built on a foundation that is weak and fragile. We need to question its very basis and celebrate its larger value and its unsung heroes as opposed to being obsessed with just one aspect of it.

Sustainability is the newest, fastest growing trend today. It will eventually lead to a blur. What would you advise to those who will continue to pursue this?

Keep it simple. Question why sustainability matters. When you go to a beach and see the waste and its impact on our environment, you will be charged to do something about it. When you sit with an artisan in a village for a day and understand how he/she weaves one metre of cloth with no comforts, you will be motivated to support them. We have to make it real and relatable with clarity and conviction. Not keep it idealistic and rhetorical. It is a mindset and way of living. It is our duty to protect the environment, minimise harm and benefit people as much as we can in a realistic manner.–3487