The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In fashion, out there

Thirty-eight years ago, the grand old lady of Indian fashion, Ritu Kumar, spied the thread of a demand for 'exclusive clothes and good designs' among Calcuttans. So, the designer gifted the city its first ever designer-wear outlet ' a small room rented out by a grocery store on Wellesley Street 'stocking hand-block-printed saris she was experimenting with. That was 1967. The response to the store where 'rainwater used to seep in from the ceiling all the time', prompted her to open the plush boutique on Park Street, 15 years later. Twenty years after that, Ritu Kumar moved to the swank shoppers' stop of Forum.

Designer wear in Calcutta has crept along and is ready to ride a crest today, having invaded malls and marriages, boardrooms and bars.

Star designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee says why: 'Till about six-seven years back, Calcutta designers were considered to be regional. But in the past five years, the city has seen the emergence of a strong core of young designers who have put our fashion on the international map. This has generated massive awareness about designer wear in the city. I can say now that the designer wear culture has finally hit Calcutta.'

Anamika Khanna stretches the point: 'From being a non-entity in terms of fashion when compared to Delhi and Mumbai, Calcutta today has become the most important fashion centre in India.'

Awareness aside, the fashion boom has a direct connection with the commercial boost to Calcutta, be it in retail, real estate or IT.

Kiran Uttam Ghosh lays store by a multiplicity of factors steering the fashion brandwagon. 'The city has never looked better, we have the best chief minister in the country, we're attracting big business, we're sorting out traffic problems, power, water and everything else. This general development has led to a lifestyle boom. The propensity to spend on clothes and pay more for the exclusivity and quality that a big label offers has really grown.'

Clothes, city designers feel, have joined jewellery on the Calcutta consumer big-spend list. 'In the last five years, there has been a 30 to 40 per cent growth in spending on clothes,' feels Sabyasachi.

The major chunk of the clientele still comprises business families and wives of industrialists. 'In Calcutta, professionals still don't invest that much in designer clothes. They either go to the top-end malls or to Be:,' observes Sabyasachi.

But no one seems to be complaining about missing out on that market segment, as long as the existing one is loyal. If Calcutta accounts for 40 per cent of Sabysachi's total sales volume, for Kiran the figure stands at 30.

Trend Stock
Anamika Khanna’s fashion studio

What sells'

Couture (short for haute couture, meaning hand-finished designer clothes, made to individual measurements) wins hands down over pret (short for pr't-'-porter, meaning ready-to-wear) when it comes to designer clothes in conservative Calcutta. And the trend can be attributed as much to supply as demand.

'Safe, conservative and ethnic designer clothes primarily sell in Calcutta. For pret, people go to shopping malls,' declares Sabyasachi, for whom Calcutta accounts for just five per cent of his pret sales.

'Designer pret is meant to be worn to high profile parties. Not too many such parties happen in Calcutta as compared to Delhi and Mumbai. So, people don't invest in such clothes here,' explains the young man who made a mark in the Milan Fashion Week.

And they end up knocking on a designer's door only to buy high-end sari, lehnga and heavy salwar kameez they can wear to weddings and special occasions.

But the trend of Calcutta emerging as an occasion-wear market is not necessarily a mere liability. It allows designers to exploit the heritage and tradition of Bengal, where the strengths lie in the weaves, the hand-embroidery and the prints. So, the rich ethnic couture content.

The ethnic effect can also feed on the inherent shortcomings of Western wear production here, with the infrastructure being weak and not too many export houses manufacturing the required fittings ' zippers, buttons and trims.

'Calcutta is not a strong Western wear market,' stresses Sabyasachi.

'Most affluent people here do their Western wear shopping from abroad, casual and daily wear clothes from shopping malls in the city and turn to the designers for couture,' he sums up.

Anamika highlights the dominance of designer wedding wear: 'Calcutta has emerged as a big wedding centre. A lot of people from other cities, even Delhi and Mumbai, come down to Calcutta to do their wedding and trousseau shopping.'

As for the poor demand for pret, she swings the eye of the needle towards local designers. 'I don't know why, but Calcutta designers have always been more into couture. No one has done pret in a big way yet.'

Today, couture is the clincher, but designers see the demand for pret climbing tomorrow. 'There is a boom in the entertainment industry ' more multiplexes, new restaurants and people getting new places to hang out. This will provide people with more and more occasions to flaunt clothes and increase the requirement for pret,' forecasts Sabyasachi.

Fake factor

More than low spend or less peer pressure, the fashion leaders of Calcutta fear falling foul of the fake factor.

While rip-offs of big labels are a common phenomenon the world over, in India the menace is the highest in Calcutta, feel designers. And they point fingers at the availability of cheap, skilled labour in abundance in and around town.

This, coupled with the easy availability of raw materials in the state, has led to the emergence of a parallel market run by 'garage' designers.

'Calcutta has always been a hotbed of fake designer wear. My designs have been copied ever since I started,' complains Ritu Kumar, who raided seven printing units in Calcutta and the districts of Bengal producing copies of her designs some five years ago.

Her case against these units is still pending at the Delhi High Court. 'I refused to accept this blatant copying, but I didn't get any support from any quarter. I have fought a lone battle for so many years. There is a law to protect the rights of designers, but the implementation has been a very slow and frustrating process. I am expecting the judgment very soon,' she reveals.

The size of the parallel market is much larger than the actual designer wear market in the city. The mode of operation of garage designers acts like clockwork. They hire scouts to visit boutiques and workshops of big designers posing as customers, bringing back the chosen designer work. They also manage to bribe karigars of senior designers to smuggle out designs for a fee.

These are then mass-produced using cheaper material. The lower price tag is obviously the unique selling proposition for the grey market to colour it right.

'There are two parallel markets running, both with their own economics. What we make in terms of exclusivity, they make in terms of volume. The two markets have completely separate clientele. Someone who understands quality would never buy a fake,' explains Sabyasachi.

The silver lining: garage designers, it seems, keep the real couture creators on their toes.

'You know that as soon as you release a collection, it's going to get copied, so you start creating something new,' smiles Sabyasachi.

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