Still Clinging On To That Ol’ Pink Maxi


Still Clinging On To That Ol’ Pink Maxi

Fashion education has come a long way, but is out of tandem with the marketplace

In 1990, the Planning Commission told Rathi Vinay Jha, the founding director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), that the fledgling couturiers’ school, then just four years old, needed to be closed down. Why? Diverting the Rs 3-crore annual fund from the handloom budget for this elitist institution was unaffordable. Twenty years later, Rajiv Takru, now the director general of NIFT, has a diametrically opposite mandate—to make India’s premier fashion institute non-elitist. NIFT’s expansion to 15 centres (13 now and two more this year) is to accommodate 54 per cent additional seats over three years for OBCs and other quotas following the 2008 Supreme Court ruling.

To make sense of the new challenges, a small flashback. NIFT was set up in 1986 to bolster the need for trained expertise to handle increasing export demands, which till then, was only backed by cotton mills run as family units. A two-room centre in the shopping arcade of Delhi’s Samrat Hotel was founded in association with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York. In terms of ideology, this institute was completely different from NID, the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (see box).

“We need faculty who understand international and local markets as well as luxury and hyper city marketing.”
Rathi Vinay Jha, President, FDCI

Soon, a Rs 9-crore campus in Delhi’s Hauz Khas laid the blueprint of what we now debate. Even so, initially, few took fashion education seriously. Many who made enquiries were mothers wanting to park their daughters till their weddings, recalls Rathi Jha. But the market changed rapidly and radically. In fact, exports crashed along the way—a blessing in disguise that gave rise to the local fashion industry. The boom in retail, manufacturing and fashion media resulted in several layers of job opportunities and numerous private fashion colleges have warmed up to the demand.

The Pearl Academy of Fashion (PAF)—which was set up in 1993—went on to become a highly rated institute offering degrees as well as short-term courses through three campuses. Then, if Apeejay School of Design, Amity School of Fashion Technology or Wigan & Leigh have some recall value, there are tens of others with blink and miss reputations. Some are just spruced-up versions of women’s polytechnics with trendy names. Others are hole-in-the-wall offices that promise the moon—celebrity faculty, paid internships and international coaching.

Fashion Institutes

What’s hot… …And What’s Not
Top institutes are now leveraging internship opportunities in industry, including paid ones With mediocre faculty, fashion education is out of tandem with the immediate needs of the radically changing industry
Top institutes have placed graduates into leading local and international brands, including media institutes Multiplication of fashion institutes is at the cost of adequate infrastructure like photography studios and pattern-making laboratories
NIFT’s interactive work with grassroots craft clusters has yielded viable product development available to consumers Colleges have no room for interdisciplinary study linked to architecture, cultural studies or sociology. There’s little emphasis on research.
Vastly improved libraries, internet databases, and infrastructure at many leading campuses like PAF’s Jaipur campus Foundation courses are fragile: most students pass out with a confused idea about Indian aesthetics in the context of contemporary design
Global recognition for some: six of the 10 finalists at the annual Triumph Inspiration Award were students of PAF There is no National Design Council to implement policy guidelines on ethical practice and quality

One such is Delhi’s Fashionista, which has been generously advertising in city supplements over the last few months with promises of training at Singapore and “celeb workshops”. This correspondent found the Fashionista “campus” as claimed by its website ( on a second floor in the South Extension market run from the same place as Flying Cats, an Airhostess Training School and the director unavailable for comment. “Institutes that impart select generic skills should not be evaluated on the same lines as ours or NIFT colleges,” cautions A.K.G. Nair, group director, PAF.

Meanwhile, the market reality has completely changed. Lifting of export restrictions and the opening up of retail space has brought the world’s top brands amidst us, competing with homegrown fashion labels. To become a fashion destination of any influence, India now needs manufacturers, marketing wizards and merchandisers who follow international benchmarks, as well as stylists, fashion journalists, and researchers—categories that were non-existent earlier. We need internationally savvy design thinkers and professionals with a rooted Indian aesthetic to bring order to the completely disorganised Indian fashion industry.

“Institutes that impart select generic skills should not be evaluated on the same lines as ours or NIFT colleges.”
A.G.K. Nair, Group director, PAF

Experts find fashion education out of tandem with new realities. The biggest charge against institutes, including NIFT, is mediocre faculty. “Expansion of budget, resources and buildings is fine. But what about the faculty, where is the training of teachers?” asks Rathi Jha who went on to become the president of Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). Others echo the sentiment. Dr Darlie O. Koshy, former director, NID, now CEO and director of the Institute of Apparel Management, is very critical. “We need faculty who deeply understand international and local markets as well as luxury and hyper city marketing. But those who apply for such jobs are mostly women on a break from full-time careers. In recent times, I cannot recall any faculty member from any institute who has shared podium space with the industry in a conference,” he says.

Nair of PAF agrees that it is crucial to hire people of academic excellence with an industry background and then invest in their further training and performance tracking, including evaluations by students. A process, he says, PAF follows. Young designer Jasleen Kochhar of the label Koga—who with her partner Jenjum studied at Wigan & Leigh—chips in with her own experience. “Faculty rarely update themselves given fashion’s dynamic needs. Worse, different institutes teach different courses and there is no fashion council to oversee,” she says. That’s a valid point. Most fashion colleges in India work in association with a variety of international institutes. Therefore, there is no such thing as a common fashion syllabus in India.

The capricious nature of the beast called fashion makes many other demands. To thrive, it needs to bask in the reflected glory of ramp shows, trendy markets, glamour events and the aura of industry bigwigs. An environment that isn’t necessarily available in small towns where NIFT or private universities want to start fashion colleges. Of course, NIFT’s Takru has a different view. He talks of the keen support given by state governments through land, money and infrastructure to bring a national-level fashion institute to towns like Kangra, Kannur, Shillong, Rai Bareli and Patna among others. “Kannur is the handloom hub of Kerala; Shillong, the fashion capital of the Northeast; Kangra has always been associated with local Himachal art and crafts,” he says, adding that a collateral benefit flows back to the state through craft cluster projects.

Take, for instance, Nijhum Patra, a second-year fashion design student from NIFT’s Mumbai centre. Presently working on khadi weaving in Wardha near Nagpur as part of a craft documentation project, she finds the course content vibrant and challenging. Adds senior professor Asha Baxi, who has taught at NIFT since its inception: “It is a two-way process of sensitising students to understand Indian craft traditions and then getting them involved in product development without corrupting the character of crafts. It is actually a contribution to ethical fashion.”

Yet, Indian students begin to seriously reflect on their training when they go abroad for further studies or work. Priyanka Misra, a former NIFT student who worked as fashion editor of Marie Claire, says when she went to Central St Martins College of Art and Design, London, for her MA, she realised the lasting value of interactions with influential persons in British fashion. NIFT alumnus Arti Sandhu, now assistant professor of fashion design at the Columbia College, Chicago, also says she found herself unprepared for the rigours of research during her Masters degree in the UK. “I was unaware of what shaped my own design philosophy and had little knowledge of fashion theory. My peers from British or Japanese backgrounds seemed more comfortable with this approach,” she says.

Dr Koshy asserts that institutes now need to reformat the education module to suit contemporary industry. Many top brands and media organisations now hire through placement programmes of fashion institutes but the absence of policy guidelines means the industry has to keep expectations vague in terms of quality. “It is high time that initiatives are taken to form a National Design Council to set benchmarks for quality and ethical practice that are applicable to every industry,” says Vinay Jha, former director, NID.

Indeed, the effort to make fashion colleges non-elitist is an embellishment that could make the industry shine. Enough people know how to copy Parisian fashion or become media-savvy without really possessing real talent. But few are confident about creating original and commercially viable modern Indian fashion—something we urgently need. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the largest contingent of students currently at NIFT is from Bihar. And the topper this year in fashion designing is a Rae Bareli student