Manish Arora: Fall 2020

Manish Arora: Fall 2020

Lessons for Indian fashion businesses 

A lot has changed about Indian fashion in the 20 plus years since fashion weeks made it a legit business with a face, form and façade of its own. If design was a casualty for the first decade after the fashion week bandwagon rolled out, it became a lifeline in the next. International awards, shows abroad, stockists around the world, design collaborations, travelling shows and trade exhibitions…in small measures, it all opened up.

What has not changed though is the dominant culture of (public) silence among Indian fashion designers and industry biggies when it comes to discussing dismal issues threadbare. What has not changed is the repeated vote of no confidence it shows in the country’s fashion media, which does not like blood on its hands anyway. While everyone loves a fall story, only a few, if at all, will discuss it from an industry perspective. COVID-19 may have changed almost everything about fashion businesses, but it has not necessarily encouraged Indian designers to speak up about what they really believe in. Unless it is off the record.

Earlier this week, The New York Times published a damning story on the fall of designer Manish Arora, the first Indian designer to have set foot at Paris Fashion Week in 2007, and who continued to show there for more than a decade. Dozens of private conversations went around—among designers, journalists, models, merchandisers, stylists and the fraternity. Yet only a few pertinent ones surfaced publicly. There is no justifying a fashion house which has not paid dues to those it employed (as the NYT article alleged). No rationale can substitute withholding wages or Provident Fund (PF).


Photo: Shaun Curry / AFP

Indian fashion designer Manish Arora (C) at a fashion show at London’ s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), September 2007.

All the same, when you ask what this says about the challenges of running a successful fashion business in India, you hit a wall. Ask established designers with businesses that are 20 years old or more, if there should be redressal mechanisms for workers, karigars, assistant designers and junior staff left out in the cold, you find no clear answers. There may be a shared legacy of traditional crafts and weaving embraced by all fashion designers in some way or the other, but the industry’s entrepreneurial legacy certainly may not include sharing mistakes made in running brands or showing direction to the next generation of designers and labels. In a country where the fashion industry is not enabled or protected by the government, isolating useful experiences and knowledge can be hard on new designers and young brands. Especially as the pandemic has left many an enterprise shivering and bared to the bone by circumstance.

Manish Arora: No Response

Arora’s appears to be a clear case of bankruptcy. Businesses, both top league and stumbling ones go to dust across the world. Yet under the rubble, the promise of liability to employees quivers. As it must. On Tuesday, November 17, The Voice of Fashion reached out (yet again) to Arora requesting an in-depth interview where he could talk about the allegations levelled against him and his company in NYT. We got no response. Our previous message to him was sent, in fact, on March 12 requesting an interview on the impact of COVID-19 on fashion business, though by then word had seeped out in the industry that his partnership with Deepak Bhagwani was on the rocks and the business was floundering. There was no response then either.



Models present creations by Arora during the 2014 India Couture Week at the French Embassy in New Delhi.

On the other hand, following his quotes in the NYT story, Noida-based mastercraftsperson Aftab Alam, a former employee at Arora’s Three Clothing Company Pvt Ltd (from 2006 to 2019) spoke to TVOF. A leather crafts specialist, who made bags, belts and other accessories for the brand, Alam says that delays in salary disbursements began only in 2017. “I resigned when I wasn’t given my salary for four months,” says Alam, who served a 45-day notice last year. At the time, his employers owed him around ₹3.5 lakhs that included pending salaries, gratuity and leave encashment benefits. He was paid the pending salaries (almost a lakh) in December 2019 after filing a lawsuit against the employers, but is still waiting for the remaining settlement.

While another former employee with Arora, who spoke on condition of anonymity claimed that it was in the end of 2016, that the salaries first started being delayed for people in higher positions including department heads. The problem then percolated down to the karigars. In the second half of 2017, a large part of the team was let go and staff strength came down to around a 100 people. Though there were those who were paid before they left the company, many other employees are awaiting settlement of dues till date.

To glean lessons that could be important even critical for younger fashion designers with ambitions as colourful and big as the ebullient and exceptionally talented Arora, we reached out to a number of senior designers in the fashion industry. To ask about redressal mechanisms available within their HR or finance departments in such situations. How were clauses written in employee contracts should a business close down? Could they be accused of wrongdoing or had they worked on clearer contracts. Questions about adherence to labour laws, mandatory PF (not paying which is a statutory offence in India) went unanswered.



A model presents a creation by Arora during the 2015 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show in Paris.

We reached out to Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, JJ Valaya, Ashish N Soni, Rina Dhaka, Leena Singh and Tarun Tahiliani. An email was also sent to Sunil Sethi, Chairperson of the Fashion Design Council of India. Dhaka, Singh and Tahiliani gave us their views. The rest did not respond. Even before the pandemic, the recession had considerably diminished the fortunes of the fashion industry. Arora’s decline may have made it to NYT as its fancy to write home about a designer who made waves once upon a time but there are several other cases of undeclared bankruptcy among Indian designers. Since most prefer the “show” to the “tell” approach, these remain under the carpet.

Select Voices from the Designer Fraternity

“It is the saddest thing to have happened. Manish is an exuberant designer, he worked with grit and talent. He created a particular global look from India without relying on royal India metaphors,” says Tarun Tahiliani. The couturier who marked 25 years in the industry in 2020 says he is equally clear that paying employees fairly and on time is the only ethical thing to do. Not doing so is inconceivable. He says there are legal provisions to hold accountable those who don’t, adding that there are stringent labour laws that mandate periodic inspections of companies and manufacturing units. “Let’s not forget that Manish Arora did not intentionally get into this to decimate his brand, so let’s get some perspective,” he says quoting from Julius Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Veteran designer Leena Singh of Ashima Leena will concur. “Designers do not have partners who can support them financially. If you take your label overseas with no substantial backing and management, then creativity alone cannot survive,” she says. However, she adds that while every business has highs and lows, a designer should not allow glamour to overtake business sense. “The Indian fashion industry is consumed with the glitz and glam, with what is seen on the ramp, but what goes on behind the scenes demands equal responsibility and effort,” says Singh.


Photo: Patrick KOVARIK / AFP

A model presents a creation by Arora from his 2018 Spring/Summer show during Paris Fashion Week.

No one absolves Arora and Bhagwani’s company of what it owes to its employees. Yet almost everyone agrees that Arora’s debacle is not an exceptional story. “Manish Arora may not be a great financial head, but he is a creative genius. There are financial mistakes on the brand’s part, but there are hundreds of stories like these emerging every day of brands across the world. The difference between those that survive and those that succumb is the economy of scale,” says senior designer Rina Dhaka.

The Karigar Conundrum

The lockdown starting in March and the restricted post-lockdown period, the world’s changing priorities about what is essential and what is not, has hurt fashion more than most industries. Yet, regardless of the pandemic, the karigar community remains among the lowest paid layer of the fashion and design industry. The highest paid artisan among them would earn in the range of ₹25,000-₹30,000 a month. And those would be few. Many earn less than ₹ 18,000 a month. A majority of artisanal hands get between ₹9,000 and ₹15,000. Their exploitation—whether it is about their intellectual and design copyrights, insufficient wages considering they are skilled workers, or bypassing their health, safety and psychological needs—is endemic. Only a few fashion houses fight for and retain the right of the karigar from a 360-degree perspective.

So let us get it right. Arora did use handmade appliqué and embroidery in his flamboyant garments, a modernistic Indian interpretation modelled on Western trends in silhouette and form. But he has never been the saviour of the Indian karigar or weaver any more or less than dozens of his counterparts who localise production through artisanal (or unskilled hands) in India to minimise costs and maximise the much promoted idea of “handmade in India”.


Photo: Francois Guillot / AFP

Models present creations by Arora for Paco Rabanne during the Spring/Summer 2012 ready-to-wear collection show in Paris.

Arora’s departure to Paris could not have changed the fortunes of the artisans (as the NYT article alleges) who need consistent orders from hundreds of designers in huge scale to earn a decent living. As Arora’s anonymous former employee says, “Most karigars are not highly educated so they are not aware of their rights or remedial procedures. People from labour unions and other middlemen use these karigars to make money. A governing body or even a contributory, compulsory fund for these workers can go a long way to ensure that minimum compensations are at hand if companies hit bad times.”

The Legal Recourse

That is why advocate and fashion lawyer Safir Anand makes certain suggestions clear. “Employees should read and clarify appointment letters they sign. Often these letters only detail salaries but have no termination clauses,” he says, adding that it is also important to make the difference between a regular employee and a contractual one to know your legal rights. Just as a company can invoke the Law of Contract or The Doctrine of Frustration if an employee or contractual worker doesn’t give the said service or doesn’t perform to the standards expected, there are legal options for employees too.

Anand says the first recourse is to complain to the Labour Commission (for unpaid wages and salaries under the Misuse of Wages Act) and to Employee Provident Fund (EPF) officer. Complaints guided by well-meaning lawyers can help a complainant steer a clear direction of a legal fight. “I often advise employees to write to venture capitalists who fund such businesses for payment clearance if possible. After all a brand or a firm cannot just wash away its hands from unpaid dues on the day it decides to make the company insolvent or declares it as bankrupt,” he adds. If there are cash flow issues, there are legal ways out to liquidate companies—mortgaging a company being one,” says Anand.


Photo: Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP

A model wearing an ensemble from the PSG x Manish Arora capsule collection during the Spring-Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear collection fashion show in Paris.

The Fashion Circus


What remains to be seen is how Arora orchestrates his walk out of the mess. He has done fashion proud in many ways. As the chosen designer for spectacular opening shows and finales at fashion weeks, his India rode high on steroids of colour and whacky interpretations of pop culture. He branded himself with a unique coil of rebellion (against clichés of bridal prettiness) and exaggerated happiness (he often used the second word to define his muse and inspiration) that went from from space gear to circus ideas, from the wilderness of the jungle to LGBTQ + themes. He was one of a kind. But never someone who “wore artisans on his sleeve” much as Western interpretations may try to exoticise all the (fashion and design) work that happens in India. Arora’s creations were works of wearable art, but you had to be a circus happy Katy Perry or a six foot tall statuesque model sashaying down the catwalk to carry them off.

For most, Arora’s fashion was an extraordinary spectator sport. Only his collaborative work with other brands could bring a consumer closer to his creative frenzy. All of Arora’s previous collaborations are currently inactive. However for a designer to have worked with a litany of collaborations—Reebok, Swarovski, Absolut Vodka, MAC Cosmetics, Nivea, Good Earth, Biba, Tribe by Amrapali, Kama Ayurveda, Koovs and Paris Saint-Germain among other affiliations, and Paco Rabanne as creative director plus a recent collection for River by Amazon Fashion, a strategic return to the circus of fashion should not be ruled out.

Once Arora makes sure he and his company are not defaulters, he could focus on being what Dana Thomas, the author of Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano calls a “fashion egoist”, and persist with his risqué brand. Much as he may love the metaphor, Arora will have to try hard to rise above the ashes so that he is not remembered as The Burning Man of Indian fashion.


Additional inputs by Darshita Goyal.

Banner: Indian fashion designer Manish Arora acknowledges the public at the end of his 2016 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show, on October 1, 2015 in Paris. Patrick Kovarik / AFP