Remaking Satya Paul

Remaking Satya Paul

India’s first sari brand is in the process of a complete rehaul, virtually and physically. Here is the math, material and creative chronology behind it

Last week, Satya Paul added a sari drop called ‘Phool Mandi’ to its wares. The distinct design spike seeded in the brand’s storytelling after the announcement of designer Rajesh Pratap Singh as its creative director this June has unmistakably begun to flower with Phool Mandi. An Instagram video shows young models in an alluring mix of woven saris in bold colours, some with festive, zari finishes set to Shubha Mudgal’s music.

In the life and times of drapes of India, zari-charmed, woven saris, flowers of festivity with Shubha Mudgal’s renditions are not unimaginable together. However, it may be a first at Satya Paul, known for long as a “cocktail sari brand”, stamped with bold digital prints as an identity marker.


Photo: Madhav Mathur

Rajesh Pratap Singh.

A week or so before Phool Mandi launched, we met Pratap at the brand’s Gurugram office. Pratap has been quietly working on the Satya Paul rehaul for almost a year before his name was formally announced as creative director. In a COVID-quiet office, Pratap wears casual whites and a wide smile that rises above his mask to his eyes. He handles and unfolds graphic ikats and Jamdani saris fresh off the loom to show. Most are prototypes for upcoming collections as is a bunch of stark and bold handbags in the sampling phase. “There is a possibility of a push to another level. I can do a lot of things here which I cannot do at Rajesh Pratap Singh, my label,” he says.

Pratap: Seen Not Herd

It was in September 2018 that Reliance Brands Ltd (RBL) acquired its first stake (a bigger investment would follow in 2019) in Genesis Colors Ltd that owns Satya Paul. In India, RBL controls the retail of the largest conglomerate of international luxury brands. In June, when it announced Pratap’s name as creative director, the news made it to fashion, lifestyle and business publications across the board. The story was a surge of optimism as it was of surprise. Rajesh Pratap Singh and Satya Paul? Is that right?

The responses presumably stemmed from what Pratap stands for. A designer of pared down, modernistic, non-fussy, tailored clothing. Architect of the pin tucked white shirt. A low-key man associated with hand-weaving, indigo dyes, sustainable practices in thought and process, and investment in R&D for what goes into fabrics and textiles instead of the embellishments that often define Indian clothes. Rajesh Pratap Singh or RPS his eponymous label stands for that.


That is not how Satya Paul was defined in the past. Launched in April 1985 by Delhi-based design entrepreneur Satya Paul, it became embedded in consumer psyche as a brand of digitally printed cocktail saris. Body conscious and figure hugging in their fall and feel, you saw scripts or buildings (New York’s Empire State Building for instance), on them. Big and brazen prints, bold stripes, waves, flame-like spikes, large flowers in patterns, sizes, colours and contrasts that inflected away from the Indian traditional. In the late Eighties and Nineties, Satya Paul products—saris, scarves or men’s ties were seen as “forward” or progressive designs as some would like to term it.

While Pratap agrees that the stark difference between his design DNA and the Satya Paul definition is one of the reasons he finds this a challenge, he pointedly asks if people really know him as a designer. “People haven’t seen much, they barely know me. It is a challenge for me to elevate the current quality. It will be a very different version of Satya Paul, ,” he says.

It is a compelling point. Reporting the expected story on Satya Paul’s reinvention seems easier with bracketing both the old brand and the new creative director in past definitions. But we forget perhaps that only flexibility in design and business mindset could breathe new life not merely bringing two signposts closer to each other.

Incidentally, Pratap used to personally know Satya Paul during the former’s student days at National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Delhi, and held him in respect and fondness. That he would also come to be acquainted and friendly with Puneet Nanda, son of Satya Paul and the creative designer of the brand for many years until 2012, gives the backstory strains of familiarity.


A glimpse at the new line of handbags.

Yet what fires Pratap now is the opportunity to turn around what had become a jaded brand of saris and some accessories. “Few remember that Satya Paul brought many handwoven saris to the mix,” he says, as he shows graphic handwoven ikats, in black, white or colour blocks and on the other hand soft and gorgeous patterned tender to touch Jamdanis with woven flowers. These are for another “festive drop” scheduled for next month. Later there will be a line of saris—we saw some prototypes in vermillion red, grey and black with embroidery on digital prints, 3D flowers that look like a meeting point between Satya Paul and Pratap. “We will continue to create digitally printed and embroidered saris to keep the legacy of the brand alive but in newer, more interesting ways,” he adds.

Pratap’s formal arrival at Satya Paul coincided with a line of 17 men’s shirts inspired by the jungle theme. The first time the brand introduced menswear. Now, after sleekly designed bags for men and women, stitched clothing, wallets and purses, buttons, cufflinks, pocket squares, ties in an array of new designs, the future holds an additional plan of designs for home. “I am just one of the people trying to make this brand interesting once again. New stores are being designed, new customer service ideas are at play,” says Pratap.

Reclaiming the Lost Customer, Seducing the New

The words at the conversation table are predictable. “Modern, new, different, contemporary, quality, luxury, craftsmanship…” You begin to wonder about the actual business of pushing this new storytelling and promise to the consumer.

After all, following Puneet Nanda’s exit as creative head in 2012, Genesis Colors brought Masaba Gupta, then a 24-year-old promising designer to infuse youth and cheer into Satya Paul. At the then Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in 2013, Masaba’s lipstick prints, tunic dresses, three-way blocked saris paired with Peter Pan blouses, palazzo pants, black and white abstract gowns, luggage pieces and shoulder bags, did smear India’s oldest sari brand with some excitement. The collaboration however did not last long.


The ‘Urban Jungle’ menswear line.


Then came a burst of Gauri Khan designed saris in 2016—confusing the consumer (including this writer who was never a Satya Paul customer) about the brand’s definition—from Masaba to Gauri Khan. From cheeky millennial to an older star wife? Wealthy, woman of leisure with an interior décor business on the side. Blonde streaks in her salon-curled hair, bronzed face, Dolce & Gabbana dresses and logo bags. Where was Satya Paul headed?

No wonder then, when the first murmurs of Rajesh Pratap Singh taking over began to sneak out a year back, the surprise was sharp.

So is Satya Paul trying to redefine its customer yet again?

Karandeep Singh, the brand’s business head says defining the customer by age is irrelevant today. “Age is not a filter, the mental makeup and shape is,” he says over a Zoom call. “Dual gender merchandise, enhanced product offerings in all categories and contemporariness, the big legacy of Satya Paul along with revamped store design are a part of the plan,” says Karandeep. He adds that even though it was a sari brand, Satya Paul always looked “forward”. It was contemporary for its times, never burdened with the idea of the traditional. The plan is to to also add stitched clothing for men and women besides a range of sensibly priced luxury accessories.

Pratap on the other hand says he hopes that some of India’s better-known sari enthusiasts, including textile heavyweights appreciate Satya Paul woven saris. “All Chinese materials are going to be weeded out from Satya Paul. We will do prints of course but on Indian textiles,” he adds subtly.

A brief peek into the Satya Paul store at Delhi’s DLF Promenade mall shows that the story is indeed shifting. Block, Unblock—one of the drops of hand-blocked crepe saris after Pratap took over—is displayed with an altered visual language. . It is not coy; it is forthright. “All stores across India (the plan is to have not more than 25 a year from now), will be redesigned. They will not just look like “garment shops,” says Karandeep.

He also explains that instead of overwhelming stores and the e-commerce site with merchandise and new ideas, Satya Paul has decided to intentionally pull back before it strategically overwhelms the offering. That will happen in early December with a new iteration of the brand’s e-commerce destination Availability at multi-brand stores with direct inventory control and less instead of more (six drops each year) and fewer stores instead of rapid, reckless expansion are on the cards.


From the latest lineup of saris.


Lessons from Brand Turnarounds

While Pratap’s position at Satya Paul sparked some quick global comparisons of established design houses bringing on independent designers as artistic directors, even those who had their eponymous labels, the context here may be slightly different. With the exception of Satya Paul bringing on Masaba in the past and the late Wendell Rodricks handing over the creative reigns of his brand to Schulen Fernandes, most Indian designers have not taken on creative directorship of brands with a history. Manish Arora helmed French couture brand Paco Rabanne in 2011 but the association was not renewed after two years.

Other collaborations include couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s association with American brand Pottery Barn (2016) and his ongoing, selective work with shoemaker Christian Louboutin; his partnership with H&M or L’Oreal are creative projects. As is Rina Singh of eka’s with Japanese retailer Uniqlo. On the other hand, Zegna’s association with Indian designer Raghavendra Rathore (since 2018) is an investment, an equity stake by the Italian brand into Rathore’s business. Zegna is retailed in India through RBL.

Lasting roles in directorial roles are yet to inflect the resumes of Indian fashion designers. Brands opt for brief capsule collaborations with film stars: Vera Moda and Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt and Caprese among many such. Or temporary collaborations like Swarovski with a handful of couturiers for jewellery and couture. Reebok with Manish Arora, Shantanu & Nikhil with Adidas are among other instances. Well, that is the story so far.

Internationally, Alessandro Michele’s tenure at Gucci and the brand’s compelling turnaround in customer connection, relevance and 21st century nonchalant humour is as interesting a case study as is Sarah Burton’s at Alexander McQueen. Burton has carried on Lee Alexander McQueen’s legacy (after the designer’s tragic suicide in 2010) and irreverence with design-led interventions and tweaks that define McQueen today. Craft, man, machine and technology, Burton brings it all together. Incidentally, both Michele and Burton were a part of the brands for long years before they were brought to lead them creatively.

Last week, Kerby Jean-Raymond of American label Pyer Moss was named global creative director of Reebok. Honoured in September as CFDA’s menswear designer of the year and Designer of the Year by Harlem’s Fashion row, Jean-Raymond who was collaborating with Reebok for sneakers and apparel will now head creative leadership across all design disciplines. He will also be involved in the brand’s ‘Product with Purpose’ programme, part of its United Against Racism commitment, launching in 2021.

Among the global fashion experts who analysed this move, one claimed that this could revolutionise the entire sportswear business. As expectedly, Nike and Adidas will run up with their own, competitive strategies.

Satya Paul might want to consider that kind of push and ambition with Rajesh Pratap. A renaissance instead of a reinvention. Lasting and linear, that influences the overall nature of sari and accessory businesses from India.

As parting shot, Pratap says he has decided not to make saris for his own label RPS. “All the design energy and the vibe I have for saris will be focused here,” he says.

Banner: A look from the latest collection drop, ‘Phool Mandi’. Courtesy Satya Paul