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Anamika Khanna and Darshan Mehta of Reliance Brands decode their AK-OK partnership

The line comprises pieces that can be worn to a sangeet or a Christmas party — how you style it is up to you

By Anannya Sarkar Published 21.12.21, 03:23 AM

Darshan Mehta, managing director, Reliance Brands Limited with Anamika Khanna at the launch of AK-OK at Pop Up @TheWhiteCrow at Jio World Drive

For Anamika Khanna, the phrase “everything is AK-OK” might have been born out of a personal phase but it has now transcended into something much bigger — both literally and figuratively. Not only has it become the signifier of her pret label but it has also come to symbolise a kind of mindset for her that is free of all barriers and boxes. And now, it has also led to a partnership with Reliance Brands Limited (RBL), which can act as a timely alchemist as she continues to make strides in creating a label that speaks to the younger fashion consumer — both young at heart and mind. However, Anamika’s discerning design sensibilities that have stood the test of time for 22 years, have ensured that AK-OK is not just another off-the-hanger diffusion and is something that one can elevate or dress down, depending on their mood. And, we got a peek of things to come on December 17 at Pop Up @TheWhiteCrow, nestled inside the new and swanky Jio World Drive; where a Covid test later, a handful of journalists got to witness a spunky presentation of a new AK-OK capsule collection. The line comprises pieces that can be worn to a sangeet or a Christmas party — how you style it is up to you and Anamika, of her own admission, is here for it. Anamika’s sons, Viraj and Vishesh, are significant stakeholders in both the creation of the label and the youthful energy behind it.

And now, adding force behind the AK-OK vibe is RBL as Anamika and Darshan Mehta, managing director, RBL sat down with me at the designer’s stunning Kala Ghoda store to tell us more about their association. The 60-40 per cent partnership between RBL and AK-OK, respectively, will see Anamika in creative control as she follows her dream of creating something contemporary, global and rooted in India, sans boundaries and baggage — from the American boondocks to someone sitting in Kerala, anyone could be an inspiration, says the designer. Excerpts from the chat:


A business association is also a partnership of sorts so what made the two of you say yes to each other?

Darshan Mehta: For us, it was the easiest thing to do. In all fairness, it’s a leap of faith for designers and any partnership is one but if I were in Anamika’s place, it would become that much more difficult. For Reliance as a corporation, it is relatively easier.

Anamika Khanna: Like how he said, it’s not just a leap of faith but more than that, we have a vision and a dream and you need really special people to help you achieve that dream. The kind of comfort and understanding I got after meeting them, I realised that this dream, perhaps, will be fulfilled with this incredible partnership and this energy that we already see. For us, it was that, that made us say yes.

Both of you spoke about a vision and a cultural postulation that you have for this association. Tell us about that…

Darshan: The first thing that we do is to break the expected cliched moulds like five-year business plans, rows, columns and that has been the story of Reliance Brands per se. Of course, like in every corporation, we have boards, shareholders and are expected to share our plans but we have reached where we have and a vision is truly built with a bit more cultural postulates and beliefs and I believe that if those postulates are true and you stand by them, then the outcome will happen. For instance, in this particular case, it is looking at the future with a sense of excitement and more importantly, it is starting off with mutual respect. Unless at a deepest level we don’t have respect for what Anamika and her sons bring to the table, and from their end, a respect for opening up doors and creating the realm of physical possibilities like stores internationally and in India, technological platforms, supply chain — unless that respect sets in, it is not easy. As that got established, then you start looking at the excitement and we are still at the phase of ‘why not that?’ and ‘let us do this’ and all of that.

Also, this is beyond Anamika and Darshan Mehta and involves fusing our teams and talking excitedly as one. I have always believed in building a strong foundation first, but people just applaud the edifice built on the foundation and not the foundation itself. So there are two-three zones that we are working on and I have no doubt that it will get built. Once that is built, the consumerism cycle we are living in, in India, and the slice of Indian consumers that we are talking to through AK-OK who are much beyond the traps of logo and brand and have a sense of their own self — and this brand actually salutes you to be yourself. If you put all of that together, there is this slice of consumer who I don’t think there is a brand by a mile who is talking to them in that sense.

So one one hand, we are doing all of this and on the other, there is this growing tribe or cache of consumers. As it is obvious, Reliance will bring in money but more importantly, the investment appetite will bring in the risk appetite and a lot of the times, the latter is just patience to handle the outcome. If you put all of that together in a box, I think over the two-three years, we will build something very special, unique and of substantial value. And finally, it is a business organisation on both sides but we want to do it correctly. And that is the way I have always described three or five-year visions, rather than saying this many stores and so many something else — in fact, even now, we were talking about “home” as a category. It is also not category-based as too many brands are saying that they will look at something as a “category”. I think in today’s age, if there is a customer saying that ‘I vibe with the brand at the deepest level’ and then, if there’s art coming from the brand, or even a throw — there could be some who wear it as a shawl or use it as a throw and here, I am just trying to explain the thought process behind this. But this is how we would like to define our vision and before long, we will put some numbers, goals and targets too. But again, the checking-in process to say ‘are we going in the right direction?’ is not based upon if we got those numbers. We create supply chains, etc. and I say it with a bit of flair and arrogance because honestly, it comes a little easy so that’s taken as granted. But within that, what we want to incubate and not tarnish is the vision that Anamika has.

Anamika: Taking forward from what he said is that for me, having done this for so long, I feel the very strong need to be able to build something that is also out of India because somewhere or the other, there is a generation that is taking pride in buying only international brands and being a certain way. I feel that if we can also find that respect for where we come from and yet be able to bridge that gap — you are proud to wear an Indian brand and still feel like you are part of that lifestyle and mindset that you want to be is something that is strongly rooted in me. I know that I come from India, the brand comes from India and all of us belong here –— and we have the strength, capacity and the vision to take it out of there to the rest of the world, and here to say: “We are proud of this and this is what we bring to the table, which is unique”. Because when we bring it from here and from our roots, it is unique. So even if we do a little jacket, there is going to be something that you will find special here that you will not find elsewhere. I am not discounting what you will find elsewhere as unspecial but in our own way, we bring that — the strength of being from India. So that was something else that I have always had in mind — why can’t we go out from here and become something to remember?

What is interesting is that AK-OK is already about two years old and has its own design vocabulary and an established base. How do the two of you plan to make RBL and AK-OK converge?

Darshan: I think AK-OK is very fresh and there is a freshness of approach and thought behind it. I found two-three things very unique about it. It is a very fresh lens that no designer or creative person or even anyone globally is looking at through, including the label or brand called Anamika Khanna. The second point is that this freshness or uniqueness is not screaming Indianness. If you pick up an AK-OK piece and see it at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, it could be from a designer in Korea or Japan and if you were wearing that in Paris, it could easily be taken as something that is from there — it is unique but not screaming Indianness. The third is the chemistry as we started talking about it, the numbers, the sons came in, my team came in and there were a lot of conversations and the excitement around the realm of possibilities. So these are the three broad things that made us excited.

Now, where do we converge? We are already hitting the ground running because there is so much respect and comfort instead of her thinking that this is how Reliance will make her do things or me thinking that this is such a typical way for a designer to do things. There could be misleadings or misgivings and very often, when you approach something with baggage or a paradigm of how designers and corporations work. But neither of us are approaching this from those paradigms and so the convergence is a daily thing. It’s like if she says ‘ye karna hai’ then we can say ‘okay, we might know someone who can help’ and pick up the phone; or Anamika can say that she knows a particular artist, kaarigar or fabric supplier. So our belief in the (aforementioned) three things was why we were attracted to this label and now, in fact, there is a bit of a sense of urgency to get over the legal trappings and the paperwork — and to get on with the things. The show (for the pop-up), for instance, was so exciting and the endorsement one gets when people say they want to reserve pieces even when we were not going through that process, is great. It should create a desire. The lens through which Anamika is approaching AK-OK is so unique and that is what creates a brand from a label.

Anamika: Very simply, we are here to learn, grow, keep an open mind, and not be boxed in the way it is supposed to be but find the freedom to say — ‘you know what, they are thinking that it should be this and it can be this’. I don’t want to come with a pre-fixed notion that no, this is how it should be because I don’t think we can build something fresh and new if there is a “should be”. I am seeing this new possibility of things and after so many years of my career, I am excited like a little child.

There was an idea that occurred to me at the launch party and I am already excited to do it. That excitement that I am already feeling and the assurance at the back of my mind that if I have an idea, sometimes, it gets parked because of limitations and challenges but here suddenly, the possibilities are so much more — not just because of the sheer strength of what they (Reliance) bring us but also because of the fact that they have the faith that they can make it happen. Up to now, no idea has been thrown into the dustbin and said that it isn’t possible. Anything that we are talking about is making all of us excited. So for me, it’s like starting all over again like how you give a child something new to play with — I am actually feeling like that. I am already designing new things.

Masoom Minawala (left) and Pernia Qureshi in AK-OK at Pop Up @TheWhiteCrow

What is the business aspect of this RBL-AK-OK partnership?

Darshan: It is a 60-40 per cent partnership and we have a new entity which will own the AK-OK brand. Anamika is the creative director and the sons are creative proteges in the broader sense and I am sure, it will be a symbiotic process. Apart from the fact that it’s the same family, there is constant conversation happening and that is the vestibule on which ideas are cracking and we are not here to sit and decide who does what, etc. Our job is to quickly hit the ground running. We have also decided that this joint venture will be headquartered out of Calcutta as she is the beating heart of the business and it is where she is. There is a creative process.

Typically, fashion gets manifested in three broad parts and the first two are the product itself and the physicality –— I am a strong believer of brick-and-mortar. The theatre in which we are sitting will never go away so any particular dress seen in a particular environment makes it more special. The third part is the communication process –— whether it is an Instagram post or a storytelling somewhere. And Anamika is the fountainhead of all these three — communication, the physical design or the physical spaces (it could be a pop-up space or transient space or a kiosk at an airport tomorrow if we decide) and the clothes.

Then there are other things such as supply chain, people management, tech platforms, data analytics and more, for which we will hire the best-in-class people. The pop-up was a prelude to more things in the future, such as spring/summer ‘22. You will start seeing a slightly wider presence of the brand and also a more independent presence — so of course you will find AK-OK inside Anamika’s store but will also find AK-OK standing alone and in that sense, we will hit the ground running.

From what I saw at the launch, AK-OK does not look like the run-of-the-mill ready-to-wear clothes on hangers. How do you approach the making of this label?

Anamika: There are two-three thought processes. Number one is that AK-OK is about this mindset and we are not approaching it as an outfit, a garment, a collection or a product. When we started it, the thought was that nobody was really targeting the millennials and the younger lot, and the boys (Viraj and Vishesh Khanna) were involved. Very quickly we realised that the customer was beyond the age bracket — it was about pieces you could wear to sleep or to the airport. Recently someone wore a pyjamas set to a mehndi with a polki necklace. So it’s your own approach to it and I want to be free of these barriers. I want someone to look at it from outside, not know that it is from us and then try and say, whether it’s from us or not.

While designing, I am coming from this space that we know no barriers. Today, it might be something but tomorrow, it could be just something else altogether of what influences us at that moment or what inspires us at that moment or who is inspiring us at that moment. It could be someone sitting in the American boondocks or it could be someone in Kerala and I don’t want to bind it down. The world is moving so quickly and we need to think fresh, out of the box, and actually, have fun! There is a denim jacket that I am obsessed with myself that we have taken, ripped and shredded, and that is what I want to do. It is just not coming from any baggage. 

Pictures: Courtesy of designer and RBL

Last updated on 21.12.21, 03:52 AM

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