Understatement: Who started the India Fashion Week?


Understatement: Who started the India Fashion Week?

Most traditions, like stereotypes, have an element of truth and large measures of distortion. In some ways, this perpetuates the idea of “invention of tradition”. To validate the present, people invent and reinvent tradition even facts since the most powerful want history on their sides.

After my story Beyond Bling on fifteen years of organized fashion weeks appeared in Mint Lounge on 21 March, my inbox buzzed with messages. Curiosity and nostalgia are all too well, but the question that hung in the air was who “really” launched India fashion week?

Over the years we have heard theories and explanations, rebuttals and arguments, names and anecdotes. This time I strongly felt that free floating anecdote must replaced by facts and the right names.

For verification, I reached out to those whose references resonate in the “factual history” of LIFW. These include: Sumeet Nair, then the head of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) who many credit with the institution of the council and for putting the first fashion week on its feet. Zubin Sarkari then the head of IMG, the international event management company which represented FDCI in commercially running fashion weeks till 2005. (I could not contact Sarkari). Ravi Krishnan, the former managing director of IMG, an international event management firm, who commercially strategized the operational implementation including convincing Lakme to tie up as the title sponsor. And Anil Chopra, the former CEO of Lakme Lever (then Unilever) who had the vision to bring Lakme on board to sponsor the fashion week despite the risks.

Nair, a long time entrepreneur and now an author who began working on forming the FDCI in 1996 with some designers, said, in this rare interview, that he no longer frets about how fashion week history has been obfuscated or rewritten but would like to set the record straight. “Zubin Sarkari who had just returned from New York and had interesting ideas about international fashion and I sat down and wrote the entire plan for India fashion week. It was a long haul and the two of us took on different roles in its execution and implementation. Ravi Krishnan of IMG got all the partners on board. Anil Chopra, took the risk of bringing in Lakme (owned then by Hindustan Lever) to sponsor it and shape the fashion week. The clinching agreement was the culmination of a long, eleven hour meeting between FDCI and IMG,” says Nair who had an executive role in the FDCI from 1998 and 2002. Few know that he worked gratis on this as a part time job for those years. It is also on record that it was he and his FDCI team who moved LIFW from hotels to Pragati Maidan in New Delhi as a trade event where it continues to be held till date.

Krishnan, who was in Hongkong when I spoke to him confirmed these details adding that it was the IMG and FDCI who jointly approached Lakme for the title sponsorship. “There was a five year deal between IMG to and FDCI for the former to represent the latter in commercializing the fashion week and the deal was extended by a year lasting till 2005 when Lakme too refused to carry on as the title sponsor and the split happened.”

While Nair admits that FDCI was his first love, he adds that he has moved on from the fracas. Nair left FDCI in 2007 after a series of disagreements even though he was called back to help the fashion weeks with course correction.

Chopra says he is not surprised that this issue has constantly been contentious. It was a big, first time initiative with several stakeholders and so it can’t just be boiled down to a conversation between three people,” he says emphasizing that it was designer Wendell Rodricks then doing an internship in fashion museology in New York who suggested the idea of a finale as specific to an India fashion week and that Lakme as the title sponsor should own it. Chopra also recalls (as has Rodricks in the past to me) about a vital conversation on India Fashion week on the steps of the New York library. Rodricks who had already been working as a consultant with Lakme adds that Lubna Adams who choreographed the first fashion week was incidentally in Paris that time and they invited her to New York to discuss and assign her the choreography.

Chopra says credit goes to Krishnan who felt that a cosmetics brand like Lakme was a good fit as the title sponsor. “There were a lot of other valuable inputs from Fern Mallis,” adds Chopra.

I also spoke with veteran designer Tarun Tahiliani as he was one of the first few designer-members of the FDCI and one among the three who presented the first finale. He agreed that it was time for the truth to be spelt out. “After seeing the way they treated Sumeet Nair, I realised there are few friends in fashion,” says Tahiliani. He adds that it is also important to remember that Ritu Kumar, one of the first FDCI Presidents as one of the most involved designers ever in that role.

Besides freezing history inside facts, it is time now for the FDCI to take its story forward. Its board should no longer remain a conglomerate of designers. But should involve and recruit other fashion experts from various parts of the industry. “One of the reasons why I drifted away from the FDCI board is because it is full of designers. There could be too many vested interests without enough visionary progress and continuity of thought,” says Tahiliani asserting his point.

I strongly second it. So the rumour that Nonita Kalra, the former editor of Elle will soon join the FDCI in an executive capacity sounds like a welcome step towards a gear shift.

Let’s raise a toast in anticipation of some fundamental changes: the launch of much-needed fashion awards to recognize the work done, clarity on copyright laws to fight out plagiarism, an inflexible fashion week calendar instead of shifting dates every season and significant manufacturing details (besides the Made in India tag) spelt out on garments and products.