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Selling Indianness to America

Amongst all those international luxury brands we haven’t even heard of till now, there are a few born and bred by Indians abroad. Surprised?

Amongst all those international luxury brands we haven’t even heard of till now, there are a few born and bred by Indians abroad. Surprised?

“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not’?” – George Bernard Shaw

Lakme Fashion week this year has a new Indian designer – Naeem Khan – who is showcasing his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection. New? Well, Mr Khan is well-known in the US, but till recently, hardly known in India. An Indian designer who created a name for himself by using Indian craftsmanship with bling allure, and adorning celebrities and socialites like First Lady Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Penelope Cruz, his designs have graced the silver screen in epic fashion films like Sex & the City and Dreamgirls.

Gone are the days when young Indian immigrants in the US were famous doctors, professors or engineers. The last decade has seen a refreshing change in the mindset of Indians and the professions they have chosen. Many have created luxury and fashion brands from a scratch in the US, for the US market only, and now interestingly some are slowly venturing into the Indian market.

What does it take for Indian designer brands to penetrate the global mainstream, and racks of a Bergdorf or Saks for more than one season? What does it take to be successful in the fashion industry – as a designer or a professional or as a brand?

Bibhu Mohapatra moved to New York City and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology after completing his Master’s degree in economics. Mr Mohapatra’s eponymous label launched its first collection during New York Fashion Week in 2009. The brand is currently sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and select specialty boutiques across North America, Europe, Russia and the Middle East. To date, celebrities such as Hilary Swank, Glenn Close, Kristen Wiig, Elizabeth Moss and Debby Ryan have all worn his designs. And the latest feather in his cap is dressing the US First Lady, Michelle Obama. Mr Mohapatra’s style is taking something luxurious and mixing it with something unexpected. Show-stopping gowns are his stock in trade, a natural extension of both his luxury fashion training and his Indian heritage. Incredibly, for his first collection, he used a material made of hand-woven peacock feathers, an old heritage fabric favoured by royalty, crafted in Varanasi.

Prabal Gurung, another master in fashion creation, launched his eponymous brand in February 2009 with a philosophy encompassing modern luxury, indelible style and an astute sense of glamour. Mr Gurung was born in Singapore and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. After beginning his design career in New Delhi, he moved to New York, to finish his studies at Parsons The New School for Design. Probably one of the only globally loved designers to come from Nepal, he is influenced by London-based Indian artist Anish Kapoor. “As much as I love his work, what I was really intrigued by was how parallel his life and mine were,” Mr Gurung told Vogue US in September 2012, explaining that both had left their South Asian homelands and created a name for themselves abroad.

Prabal Gurung, Bibhu Mohapatra and Naeem Khan are three Indian subcontinent origin designers who are in the top league of current US fashion designers. Interestingly, these designers till now haven’t retailed in India at all. They are designers in America with a contemporary design and fashion sense, and above all, have branded themselves very well.

The success and prominence of these three designers, originating from the Indian sub-continent, in a mature and developed market like US, made me wonder how many such people have created a name for themselves in the world of luxury. To my surprise, and delight, I found many.

Ankasa is a unique brand, created for the US market, again by an Indian couple, Sachin and Babi Ahluwalia who have successfully translated their vision of modern luxury into their products. Their two stores, located in Manhattan on Madison Avenue and in Soho, host an array of exclusive products like luxurious bedding, pillows, bedding, furniture, lighting, wall art and accessories. According to an Architectural Digest US blog posted on May 4, 2012, Ankasa is “best known for intricate hand-embroidered textiles”. Their product range has, in fact, advanced to include interior design services too. Last year, Ankasa collaborated with Thakoon Panichgul, a popular designer born in Thailand and raised in the US, to create a collection of vibrant silk print pillows that mixed tribal patterns with a Pop art palette.

Soigne K, another unique concept store on 63rd and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, is one of the most fashionable shopping destinations in the world. When you think of India, you might not necessarily think of a glamorous fashion boutique on Madison Avenue on the same block as Roberto Cavalli. But Soigne Kothari, the owner of this store, breaks that mould. She has changed the perception of Indian designers for the New York market. Her store is a celebration of India for the modern international woman and a distinctive brand that bridges luxury fashion between east and west in a most elegant way. Sprawling over two stories, the boutique, which is an architectural delight, carries a selection of the finest modern Indian designer goods, with Indian designers like Tarun Tahiliani, Gaurav Gupta, Manish Arora and many others, being represented here. Soigne K retails Indian designers in the heart of Manhattan and sells mostly to non-Indians.

So while Indians look towards the west to get their quota of luxury, it may be worthwhile to note that Indian designers and lovers of fashion have made foreign markets bow down to their creativity. The art and design world has no boundaries. We might be from different cultures, follow different trends, but good style, design and aesthetic sense is universal. And India’s lovely heritage of old-age craftsmanship finds many takers abroad. So how about we start giving Indian designers and creators as much respect as the ones from Europe and America?

Sanjana Chauhan is the Founder of LuxuryNext, which provides innovative and customized solutions to luxury brands internationally, in the areas of luxury brand management consulting, CRM solutions, social media strategies and customer experience evaluation. She is the former Head of Marketing at DLF Emporio and a luxury branding and social media marketing expert. She has worked for numerous luxury brands in the US, Europe and India like Villeroy & Boch and Louis Vuitton. She can be contacted at [email protected]