Fashion as a career
It is a billion dollar industry, but people still think that it's something to do with glamorous women, clothes and parties. Just like any other profession, however, entrance exams need to be cleared, degrees acquired and interviews cracked.
And like any other course, studying fashion involves discipline, high-stress levels, assignment submissions and spending nights with a cup of coffee and books for company. In the past decade, the professional world of fashion in India has expanded to much more than the art of designing clothes.
There are several fields to choose from today. You could be a celebrity stylist, a fashion editor or editorial stylist, a shop window designer, a fashion consultant for commercials, an apparel or accessory designer, a merchandiser, a fashion buyer, retail expert or an entrepreneur who brings international fashion brands to India. At the moment, fashion media industry is booming.
It is one of the most paying and big new opportunity in India with so many fashion magazines around. This could be your calling if you take a keen interest in fashion and can write well. Recognize your interests, strengths and drawbacks before picking any one of them. It's a competitive profession. Knowing what you are good at, does help in having a good head start.
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Do you fit the bill?
Socrates said that a few thousand years ago and it still stands applicable. Creativity is not an option in this profession, it is imperative. Neha Salam, who completed a three-year course in Fashion and Apparel Design, from Mount Carmel, Bangalore says, "An aptitude for aesthetics, noticing designs, colors, patterns and trends is a must."
She now works for Colorlines, a company which exports ready made garments. Secondly, having creativity is not enough. You must be equipped with a way of putting your ideas on paper either by drawing it or using the computer. It's the realization of the idea in your head in physical, feasible terms, which matters most.
Get your ground work done To begin with, learn the difference between fashion and design and the similarities between the two. You might make fantastic designs, but that doesn't amount to understanding fashion. Shilpa Chavan, India's only qualified milliner, who trained abroad and makes the incredibly innovative headgear and accessories under her label "Little Shilpa" explains, "Fashion is much more trend oriented.
One has to keep pace with what's happening around, your competitors and the designs in vogue." Designing however, is insulated. One has freedom to be original, use the materials one wants to, without having the pressure of selling one's work. To be in the fashion industry, head for any of the NIFT schools in India and other such institutes which offer fashion degrees committed to fashion and for design, NID.
These are not pigeonholed categories though and it is your aptitude and interest that must determine which route to take. A lot of fashion designers, however, have finished from NID as well. Mumbai-based Nachiket Barve, one of India's most promising new designers, for example, has made quite a headway in the fashion world. Aishwarya Rai wore one of his creations at the recently concluded IIFA award function in Macao.
Role of a fashion school
There are successful cases of people both with a professional degree and without a one making it. But the odds are in the favour of having a degree.
"What professional schools do is help identify your strengths and give it a push in the right direction. They also help you deal with the larger picture and have a whole host of resources including forecast books, archives in libraries, the right equipment, a strong alumni association which is part of the industry and mentors," says Pearl Shah, who finished from London's St. Martin, now a Deputy Fashion and Beauty Editor at Marie Claire.
Faculty teachers agree. Ruby Kashyap, Associate Professor and Centre Coordinator (Textile Design), at NIFT Delhi, says, "It is important to get trained at a fashion institute, as it helps to hone the design skills of an individual in an endeavour to address the challenges of the fashion industry."
Having a degree does help. A fashion degree introduces a student to the basics; one needs to know what a Mary Jane shoe or drainpipe jeans are, without fumbling for a dictionary (where you wouldn't find it anyway). A Mary Jane, for future reference, is the name of Spiderman's love interest, but in the fashion industry it refers to a pair of shoes for women with low heels, broad and rounded closed toes, and a single-buckle strap across the ankle.
Several people testify to the advantages of attending a fashion school. Pearl Shah, says, "Studying at Central Saint Martins was the best career decision I took at the time.
Further, being in the market does help. I had job offers even before I graduated. It gave me an international exposure, access to archives, interaction with international experts and was able to relate to a lot of systems and understood trends very easily." Central Saint Martins is also the only school in the UK where one does not do a dissertation for the master's but instead graduates at London Fashion Week by taking part in a show that's attended by everyone who's anyone to spot the hottest new talent.
If you have chosen not to attend a fashion school and are already a professional, NIFT offers a range of Continuing Education (CE) programmes. These reflect the requirements and concerns of the industry. They are planned to spur professional growth and are relevant to individuals at different stages of their careers. These programmes are offered in the evening, to make it easier for a working professional.
Not going to a fashion school has its share of handicaps. It means not being in touch with the "network" of the important designers, stylists, apparel managers, and the people who really matter in supporting a career. It also means, being left out in the cold. Shah explains, "The design students you study with are also the future stars of tomorrow - and get hand picked by top fashion houses like YSL and Dior." So being in circuit is an advantage one would want to have.
Finally, pick a school only if it matches your interests and aptitude. NIFT is devoted completely to fashion, but not all are. SNDT in Pune specializes in textile design and development. Delineating one's strengths before one applies, is a good idea. A few schools also offer Continuing Education programmes, which allow you to pursue a formal certificate programme, without interrupting your work.
Two-tier entrance exam
In most schools, a written exam is followed by group discussion. NIFT is slightly different. The short-listed candidates in the written test are invited for Situation Test, which is for the design programme. A Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), Group Discussion (GD) and personal interview is common to all courses. Be careful however, of what you mention in the brief description about yourself. Edward Lalrempuia, Junior Fashion Editor at Vogue India, who finished from NIFT, was asked to dance before the interview board, because he had casually mentioned his fondness for dancing.
For the written bit, you would need to brush up on your general knowledge quotient. There are books available in the market and coaching classes as well. But the second half of the test is when cramming doesn't help and your talent is tested.
Focus on foundation
In most schools, including NIFT, the foundation programme is designed to orient and sensitize students towards understanding of fundamentals of fashion business: design, technology and management. This programme focuses on building the base for future learning of design in the subsequent years. It is in the second and third year of the programme that one could see which way one's inclination blows and specialize in that.
Photographs: Sahil Salvi
Career opportunities in the sector
So what does one do once you've finished with your degree? The unanimous opinion from students, designers, stylists and editors is: find an internship. Interning right after graduating is the norm in the West, where most young designers work as an apprentice to an established designer. It is only after a few years of gaining credible experience that they feel the need to break away, if at all. The situation is very different in India, where fashion designers are keen to start right away, right after graduating. But Vinod Kaul, Executive Director of Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) feels that this may not be the best thing to do. He says, "It is much better to work as an apprentice, keep the ideas of being a designer on hold and get real grounded work experience."
That's what Shweta Shah did, who is presently an intern with Nachiket Barve. The system is not institutionalized and there are no adverts in the paper offering an internship. How does one get an internship, in that case? Shweta says the internship depends on how much the designer's sensibilities appeal to you. In her case, Nachiket had mentored her, so she was aware of his philosophy of fashion. Nachiket's focus is mostly on textiles, an area which deeply interests her. So the interests of the intern and the designer do have to crisscross, not just at the seams.
If you choose to begin right away as an independent designer, one should know that there is a lot more about designing clothes than making models do the catwalk. Showcasing your collection isn't just about the panic backstage and getting the look of the models right. After all, the purpose of showcasing one's work is to convince the buyer. And in case, the buyer places an order of twenty thousand pale brown, knee length skirts, the designer is expected to have the factory, support and the staff to supply the order on time. This is where a fashion entrepreneur would step in. A person with the money and the support team to help a designer make sure that the order is designed, stitched, packed and delivered right on time. That's exactly what Sangita Sinh Kathiwada does. As a fashion entrepreneur and the founder of Melange that supports new and emerging talent as well as weaver groups, she trusts her ability to smell fresh and exciting talent and steps in to provide the support team to a budding designer.
Apart from working as an independent designer, one could also apply to institutes such as FDCI. It offers a host of people, such as designers, accessory designers, stylists and photographers a common platform and a number of top designers are members of the council. But Mr. Kaul points out that most of the applicants have a few years of experience. It is rare for the committee to accept a fresher straight out of fashion school. The membership committee looks out for factors including the institution where you studied, market for your merchandise your designer collection. Most members, even preliminary ones who are at the lowest of the four layer membership structure, have and experience in the market.
What you need to be prepared for
FDCI's Kaul says that one of the biggest myths about the fashion world is that its easy glamour. But it is not. Every year hundreds of graduates finish from fashion schools, armed with a degree, but not all of them find themselves facing an audience clapping appreciatively.
The challenge lies in knowing exactly what one is capable of and sticking to that. Edward Lalrempuia, finished from NIFT in 2005 with a Diploma in Fashion Design. But he now works as a Junior Fashion Editor at Vogue India. He admits that he is not utilizing his diploma because making fresh and original designs is difficult. Nevertheless, he vouches that NIFT has made him what he is and most of the contacts he has today are traceable to his years at NIFT.
Finally, what makes one designer surge ahead and others not? The first is, reacting to the market intelligently. The basic objective is to sell your designs to the market through a buyer. Fashion is not about having a celebrity walk in your clothes, which might bring publicity but not the money.
Secondly, creating a specialisation for yourself really helps, because out of the 500 odd designers those graduate each year in India from top schools - the thing to think is what makes you special? One needs to create a niche, identify one's personal style and not be afraid to learn. The world is changing constantly and fashion more than anything else. Shilpa Chavan did just that.
She interned for six months, first with a garment exporter and then with a designer and only then did she specialize in headgear. Her creations, bordering on the bizarre and brilliant have found appreciation, a fact Shilpa attributes to her passion in headgear. So one does need to find what one truly wants to do. It's also important not to be very influenced by designers doing well.
"You really can't be a designer if you think that I want to do a Sabyasachi. There is a lot of competition and the only way to survive is by having an open mind, being free from influence." Shilpa says that she finds a lot of young students who work as interns with her, a little cloistered in their approach because they want to be like someone else.
"Don't do that", she cautions. Her advice is worth taking. In the past few years Shilpa's creations have been displayed at the India Now season at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Her creations are also sold at Barcelona's Drap-Art gallery, My Sugar Land, as well as her own boutique in Goa called National Permit.
Finally, the nature of the profession is such, that one needs to be constantly proving oneself. Get going.
Why fashion works
After fifteen years of mainstream journalism, when I took up editing the Indian edition of Marie Claire, seniors and peers chided me for having chosen the easy way out. Suddenly, I had become a toothless writer without a point of view. Fashion magazine? Oh well, they shrugged.
Fashion's die-hard association with the rich, famous, glamorous and by skewed extended logic with the party-going (which for some, translates as dumb) is a constant eclipse over a field that mounts some of the best creative ideas in the world today. Assumptions that trend forecasts, fashion weeks, designer collections and the business of fashion has largely to do with dressing up for an astronomical price, belittles the multitudinal impact the industry has made on our modern, global lives. In an age when iconic designer John Galliano sends his models down the runway dressed as Abu Ghraib prisoners making a poignant social statement; when Hermes, the renowned French luxury brand takes inpiration from India, when American designer Stella McCartney advocates and creates natural and organic fashion and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Indian fashion's blazing talent has given a commercial resurgence to Bengal's crafts by making them a global fashion statement, calling fashion frivolous would be foolhardy.
As an aspirant for a career in fashion, it is important to separate the wearers of fashion from its creators. Equally important is to connect with the undercurrents beneath fashion's external self. The industry is about handmade (and machine- made) craft and art. About never-tried-before ideas. About evolution and revolution. About liberation from predictable ways of thinking and wearing. Most of all, it is about turning personal expression into commercial success.
No doubt, it is an industry dusted with glamour and the obsessions of the rich and the famous. But at the same time, it is a competitive, well-paying and gratifying pursuit that has given a contemporary makeover to traditions, costume histories and craft legacies of different countries. Careers for fashion students are far from being airbrushed options. Fashion designing, like engineering or sociology is a journey of realizations directly dependent on research, knowledge, learning, relearning and application. From a piece of unstitched, untreated raw fabric to the most scintillating garment that might stand up tall to receive an Oscar some day, designing is about giving shape, silhouette, power, recall and value to a country's inheritance. That apart, right from choreographing how the models will sashay down the catwalk to dressing up shop windows for visual merchandising, to communicating on fashion academics, or becoming a buyer of local and international labels, careers inside fashion are many and lucrative.
Styling celebrities or models for films, calendar shoots, parties and commercials appears to be a lot fun and hi-glamour. To some extent it is that. But it also needs a strategic understanding of the market, vis- -vis the international and Indian fashion brands. And if that sounds too much, try being a fashion writer, editor, even a fashion advertising guru. You could be a show organizer, a fashion week consultant, why even an accessory maker for a huge company!
To me, fashion has opened previously ignored links to anthropology, dress histories down the decades, even business strategies and market knowledge. It is one of the clearest mirrors to look at, especially if you want to decode the age we live in. Fashion is not only about who we are, it is also about why a people or a generation dress the way they do. It is about individuality. And if you can make a career out of that, there will never be a day when you feel you are working!
Shefalee Vasudev is Editor, Marie Claire