The Fall Season

Indian Express

The Fall Season

New Delhi : Star one day, struggler the next. Why some bright young discoveries of the fashion industry get scorched by the limelight.

The recent Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) in Mumbai celebrated five years of GenNext, its popular platform for fresh talent, with a special show by 10 designers. GenNext shows always get thundering applause — the undisguised earnestness, the fearless innovation and the sight of the next-big-thing taking a bow. This one did too.

In the revelry, most forgot Swati Bhimte, LFW’s falling star. In September 2007, the Delhi girl was chosen for Levi’s GenNext Designer award. “That award ended my career,” says Bhimte, who had to eventually shut shop. A flush of opportunities greet debutantes after an appearance on LFW’s media-blessed platform. Yet, Bhimte is a cautionary tale for those who assume that a sparkling initiation is followed by a smooth ride into retail.

GenNext is LFW’s most significant contribution to what the organisers term “the future of fashion”. It is a package for chosen applicants: mentoring by senior designer Wendell Rodricks, PR advice, media attention, important front row guests — everything that is a dress rehearsal for designer dreams. It became instantly popular. In five years, 68 designers debuted here. Compared to 25-odd applicants in 2005, this season saw 172, an 81 per cent growth from the last season (March 2010). Entries came from 34 cities, from Kochi to Rishikesh.

This soaring popularity makes Bhimte’s case relevant. She signed a contract with Levi’s, for which she was to be awarded Rs 5 lakh. The deal was for 125-odd garments, of which 35 ensembles would show on the ramp; the rest would be stocked in Levi’s stores. Till the tables turned. “For reasons best known to them, Levi’s pulled out as LFW sponsor the next season after I had invested money and made the garments. ‘No sponsor, no show’ is what LFW told me a few days before the fashion week,” says Bhimte. She pleaded with senior designers, LFW officials and Levi’s bosses. But to no avail.

Sujal Shah, vice-president and head of fashion, IMG India, which organizes LFW with Hindustan Lever (HUL) insists that Bhimte was given a fair hearing. But Bhimte claims that LFW chided her for signing “such a contract”. “Their annual report had proudly mentioned my award contract, adding how they provided a great platform to upcoming designers,” she says. Bhimte had turned away smaller orders that could have helped her stay afloat and made her staff work on this collection alone. That was her biggest mistake. Star one day, struggler the next. “No one in the media wanted to run this side of my story,” she says.

Bhimte is now a commercial stylist in Mumbai. “Staid, non-creative work mostly, but thoroughly professional,” she says. Levi’s did eventually sponsor her show but a season too late. Garments created for Fall-Winter showed in a week labelled Spring-Summer. By then, her Delhi unit had shut.

No other GenNext designer has had such a sour experience, but all admit that market realities are an acid test. This is an intensely competitive, intensely unforgiving business. “It is a psychological struggle, not just a business battle,” says Rimzim Dadu, who admits she survived only because she got working space in her father’s garment export unit.

“GenNext is not a bank loan,” says Rodricks, “It is a platform to spring a career but it is up to the designers to take their business further.” Those who made the most of it, like Nachiket Barve, Sailex Ngairangbam, Nitin Bal Chauhan, Aneeth Arora, Rahul Mishra and Kallol Dutta know this too well. To survive, a young designer needs a sound business plan, bandwidth to take a beating in the market and good products. Neena Gupta’s daughter Masaba who debuted successfully last year has graduated to the emerging designer category.

Bhimte or Masaba. A reality check is imperative as the industry can be disenchanting for many. Imcha Imchen learnt this the hard way. The bright boy from Nagaland was 25 during his LFW debut in October 2008. With an innovative collection Head Hunters, inspired by a warrior tribe in his home state, he got instant media attention.

But soon, he found himself unsuited to the big, bad world of glamour and its easy compromises. Every time he returned home, the pain of the youth there hit him hard. “Fashion’s celebratory nature makes me feel insensitive to the realities around me. I am confused,” he says. Good kid, bad choice of career. He is now setting up a library in Mokokchung, Nagaland. “I will soon convert it into a training centre,” he says.