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Designer destination
Rahul Khanna & Rohit Gandhi

When Ritu Kumar had set out to sell saris in 1968, there were few takers. Today, Calcutta is busy picking and choosing from the country’s biggest fashion labels

Who is the latest big boy on the F-block in town'

If things go as planned, Bollywood couture king Manish Malhotra will be the latest big name to join the city’s ever-expanding fashion block. “I am keen to take up a shop-in-shop in one of Calcutta’s big multi-label stores. And I can do that as early as next month,” Manish tells Metro on a visit to Calcutta on Friday, where he was besieged by “your clothes in KANK rock” pats, from Tantra to Shisha. A spokesperson for a south Calcutta store Manish is eyeing, confirms: “We will first hold an exhibition of his collection and depending on the response we’ll launch his label here.”

Who will Manish be joining'

The racks of the multi-label stores in Calcutta — CIMA Design, 85 Lansdowne, Ogaan, Espee, Simaaya, Belong, Zenon, Little India, Be: and Kali — now boast the creme de la creme of the country’s design brigade. Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, Rohit Bal, Raghavendra Rathore, Manish Arora, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Suneet Verma, Ritu Beri, Rina Dhaka, Aki Narula, Neeta Lulla, Anita Dongre, Krishna Mehta, Sonam Dubal, Shantanu & Nikhil, Priyadarshini Rao… They all share space with our city biggies and in-store labels. A standalone store by design ace Ritu Kumar at Forum adds to the basket of national fashion labels.

Rohit Bal

When did this start and why'

“It was just a matter of time before the fashion boom happened here. When I started out in 1968 with a collection of handblock printed saris, the response was lukewarm. But then suddenly it grew at a rapid pace and Calcutta emerged as a very strong market for designer saris,” recounts Ritu Kumar, who started it all off Park Street.

But the “strong sari market” was never resistant to funk and experimentation. “In the early Seventies I had an exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts with a collection using denims with zippers, nuts and bolts as embellishments; it was a total sell-out,” recounts Ritu Kumar.

If she lit the fashion fire way back in the Seventies, stores like Espee, Ogaan, Kali and Zenon provided the much-needed fuel from the late-Eighties through mid-Nineties. “We opened Espee in 1989 with a fresh batch of NIFT graduates like Rina Dhaka, Rohit Bal and Suneet Verma at a time when one had to travel to Delhi and Mumbai to access designer labels,” says Purnima Chawla from Espee, on Shakespeare Sarani.

A lull of about seven-eight years followed, when the above-mentioned stores were busy “educating the city” about designer wear and cushioning the shock of what was considered absurd price points. This prepared the ground for a near-revolution that the past couple of years have witnessed, with new stores in newer formats (like the shop-in-shop concept introduced by 85 Lansdowne earlier this year) broadening the city’s style horizon.

Ritu Kumar attributes the now boom to the cosmopolitan character of the city. “While there’s a strong market for saris because of the Bengali and Bangladeshi clientele, there’s an equally strong market for ready-to-wear westerns,” she feels.

Raghavendra Rathore, a popular draw at CIMA Design in Forum and 85 Lansdowne, adds: “Calcutta is a new market but the response has been strong for men’s and women’s wear.”

Conservatism and price sensitivity are the common allegations levelled against the Calcutta fashionista, but Ritu Kumar for one rubbishes them: “Delhi took much more time to understand and accept the boutique culture than Calcutta did. And price points are equally important everywhere in our country.”

Manish Malhotra

Who sells — what and why'

Calcutta has never been more spoilt for choice in designer wear. Every store in the city has its list of bestsellers steered by the sale of their signature silhouette.

“The market in Calcutta looks for comfort and convenience more than fashion. The taste is conservative, hence there are not too many takers for avant garde designs. Also, price really matters here,” says Pratiti Sarkar from CIMA Design.

At CIMA Design, Cue and H2O by Delhi designer duo Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna are among the top sellers. The designer duo is also making its presence felt in other retail biggies. “We started supplying to Ogaan, on Lake Road, in 1998 and initially the response was tepid. But things changed vigorously in the last few years. We do only westerns and our stuff sells quite well from stores like Kali (in Alipore) and 85 Lansdowne. What sells in Calcutta is wearable, well-priced clothing up to Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000,” reveals Rohit.

The other Rohit — Bal — is also up there when it comes to pop picks. His shirts, suits, tops and tunics all do brisk business here. “Rohit Bal the brand sells well and the most common price bracket that moves is within Rs 5,000,” explains a spokesperson from Little India on Elgin Road.

CIMA Design

The trick is to have a finger on the fashion pulse of Calcutta. Like Espee’s outstation bestseller Rina Dhaka who has twisted her collection to “suit Calcutta”, throwing in lots of ethnics, tunics and kurtas, all within Rs 10,000.

Or like Delhi’s Manish Arora, who has turned out to be the surprise hot seller at 85 Lansdowne with even a signature sari line specially for Calcutta. Varun Bahl, also from the Capital, has “reworked his entire line, prices and workmanship for Calcutta” at 85 Lansdowne.

Raghavendra Rathore agrees that the Calcutta market is driven by price points but adds: “What’s also important here is that the clothes have to be well thought out. Whatever works in Delhi and Mumbai might not work here. People here understand and are educated about craftsmanship. Also, Calcutta doesn’t have a market for avant garde clothing, the taste is classic and logic-driven.”

This is mirrored in the popularity of Anju Modi’s wearable collection that is the hottest haute line in Zenon, or that of Ritu Beri’s saris flying off the shelves of Belong.

While ready-to-wear is red hot, the popular notion is that for couture Calcuttans opt for city designers (read Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anamika Khanna, Kiran Uttam Ghosh...) or travel to the designer source in Delhi and Mumbai for personalised service.

Finishing touch

Ritu Kumar, who set the fashion ball rolling, says: “We’re planning a major retail expansion in Calcutta; it should be ready by early 2007.”

Calcutta is ready for that and much more.

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