Halt couture in pandemic

The wedding season may not be able to salvage the fashion industry in the throes of a pandemic

Halt couture in pandemic

J J Valaya at a fashion event

Arushi Chaudhary

No drapes and lighting, no exclusive guest list, no front-row view, no celebrity showstoppers, no cameras or dizzying clicks — fashion runways have fallen silent. In a first, haute couture shows for Autumn/Winter 2020 collection have been compelled to make an egalitarian shift to the digital world. Reason? The unabating tide of Covid-19 that has forced people to embrace an isolated, socially distanced existence.

The ‘new normal’ has brought in its wake job losses, financial instability, remote work arrangements and shrinking social gatherings. Just like much else, the fashion industry has also felt the ripples of a shrinking economy. At a time when even the most affluent aren’t immune to financial instability, can high-end fashion stay relevant?

Be it designers, models, organisers and show directors, there is a consensus from every fold of the fashion industry that while a virtual experience is no match to displaying haute couture on a ramp, it is the necessity of the times we live in.

Ritu Kumar at work

Some of the pioneers in the Indian fashion world have been embracing the change and thinking out-of-the-box to reinvent themselves as per the demands of this pandemic-ravaged world.

Designer JJ Valaya managed to launch his couture 2020-21 collection ‘Bursa’. Inspired by the Ottoman history and heritage, the collection, reflective of his take on the impact of Covid-19, was showcased virtually at the FDCI India Couture Week in September last. The blend of Swarovski crystals, silk threads, beads, pearls and zardozi sewed into the folds of silks and velvets made one forget the grim reality of the pandemic’s spread, albeit momentarily.

Works from Tarun Tahiliani’s collection

And what about Covid-19’s long-term impact on the fashion world? “All things, good or bad, are transient and in that phase of time, they leave their temporary imprints. Of course, the pandemic will affect the fashion and wedding industry, just like it has everything, but it shall pass. I am confident that we shall emerge in a more appreciative and grateful world. One must always look at the positives hidden within the adversities. A passing phase can slow down activity, not change the ethos of a brand,” says Vallaya.

“I am glad that the world has realised that it needs to slow down. A similar decision I took for myself when I went on a two-year sabbatical some time back. We don’t have to try so hard. All we have to do is focus on our core skill, take it to the nth level. Having said that, there is no room for laziness and resting on one’s laurels. The creative process, in the end, is also a business and must be respected and treated as one,” he adds.

Master couturier TarunTahiliani has also launched his Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, ‘Pieces of You’. The Swarovski crystals, pearls, resham, zardozi techniques, chikankari and mukeish embroidery, all bring to life light resplendent lehengas, shararas, peplum blouses, saris, structured drapes, anarkalis and fusion-style jumpsuits. The menswear collection is rooted in the designer’s quintessential sartorial finesse. To pull it off despite what Tahiliani described as “the worst production capacity we have ever seen, much worse than 9/11 and the 2008 crisis,” was a feat unto itself.

Supermodel Lakshmi Rana was part of Tarun Tahiliani’s first virtual fashion show

A tough ask

About the challenges along the way, Tahiliani says, “After the migrant crisis and the unreasonable length of the lockdown, a lot of people have fled the cities because they feared getting sick and not being able to sustain their rented accommodations. Demand had virtually plummeted to very little because all our stores were locked down. Most brides want a tactile touch and feel experience before they buy. In India, people are not used to buying expensive things online unless there is proper customer interface with a couture team or certain store managers.”

Designer Ritu Kumar also agrees that the sudden vacuum created by the absence of kaarigars was the toughest challenge to scale, especially during the initial phase of the lockdown. “We were able to come up with the A/W 2020 line even though the kaarigars, who come from remote areas and villages, had no means to reach their place of work. The metros and public transport system were on a standstill.”

Providing the kaarigars with masks and sensitising them about the need for social distancing was one of the first steps taken by Label Ritu Kumar to get operations up and running again. The idea of making masks out of cloth cuts really hit home. They distributed 5,000 masks to the needy in the first month of the lockdown, and subsequently, 10,000 more.

“Showcasing the collection presented another challenge. For the first time, we had to make a shift towards the virtual realm, arranging photoshoots while adhering to the norms of social distancing and such, so that buyers can get a sense of what the collection is all about and make up their mind. Even so, a complete virtual shopping experience is hard to deliver in the world of haute couture. Fittings and trials have to be done in person. While the pandemic has bolstered our web presence, I don’t think it can ever take away from the immersive experience of watching fine fashion up close.”

Tahiliani agrees, “We did see some traffic in online sales. Some of the customers are happy to interact with our sales teams via WhatsApp or virtual consultations. Our teams have quickly adapted to the need of the hour. That said, no screen, big or small, can replace the feeling of attending a fashion show, physically. A show is immersive. There is buzz created by the audience, the scale of multiple models, styling, lighting and the theatrics, all contribute to a spectacle that can never be duplicated digitally. However, for the time being, life must go on, business must go on. That is how we thought about the digital fashion show.”

From ramp to camera

But how has the shift from the ramp to the camera been for the models? Supermodel Lakshmi Rana, who was part of Tarun Tahiliani’s first virtual fashion show, says, “The format has changed considerably. Today, only five to six models are working on one campaign. Besides the scope to reshoot and redo until you achieve ‘perfection’ means longer working hours. Since this is new to everyone, one is clueless about the right fee to charge, the stipulated hours and other logistics.”

Lakshmi, currently in Mumbai shooting for the upcoming Lakme Fashion Week, is glad that the fashion industry is up and running after a lull. “A lot of people have been affected adversely by the pandemic. Many models, backstage teams, makeup artists are out of work. Many design labels won’t be able to sustain operations.”

Jaspreet Chandok, head of lifestyle businesses at IMG Reliance that organises the LFW, agrees, “Unfortunately, some designer businesses may not survive an extended period of low consumer demand. The ones that do emerge will be more agile, think out-of-the-box and adopt new-age communication formats.” “As a fashion week platform, we are developing a technology interface that will aid business with a buyer-designer interface through virtual showroom as well as spur demand directly through tech-focused digital showcases with ‘See Now, Buy Now’ built into them,” adds Chandok.

Nishankh Sainani

Be it designers, models, organisers and show directors, there is a consensus in people from every fold of the fashion industry that while a virtual experience is no match to displaying haute couture on a ramp, it is a dire necessity of the times we live in. Fashion stylist and designer consultant Nishankh Sainani feels the need to optimise virtual shoots and shows as well as consider a way to safely open fashion week, exhibitions, etc. in a staggered manner. “This way, atleast, people will be able to earn their bread and survive in the industry. A lot of models are broke today while others are surviving on their savings or loans.”

Jatin Khirbat

Says fashion model and model coach Jatin Khirbat, “Designers, models, backstage style and makeup artists have all suffered setbacks. Many have gone back to their hometowns. But on the bright side, India’s online market is growing and we can see more opportunities digitally.”

Lokesh Sharma

Show director and fashion choreographer Lokesh Sharma says that while the fashion industry is no exception to the impact of the pandemic, the problem gets compounded by a lack of government support.

“The current measures such as virtual fashion shows, online photoshoots and shifting the physical store to e-commerce and online store are taking away the essence of the display culture, and assessing the products by look, touch and feel method. But it is also important for us to change our concepts, creativity to adapt to this new normal,” he adds.

As they say, the show must go on.


JJ Valaya

Of course, the pandemic will affect the fashion and wedding industry, just like it has everything, but it shall pass. I am confident that we shall emerge in a more appreciative and grateful world.... In a way, I am glad that the world has realised that it needs to slow down.  — JJ Valaya

Ritu Kumar

For the first time, we had to make a shift to the virtual realm, arranging photoshoots while adhering to the norms of social distancing and such, so that buyers can get a sense of what the collection is all about and make up their mind. Even so, a complete virtual shopping experience is hard to deliver in the world of haute couture. — Ritu Kumar

Tarun Tahiliani

Most brides want a tactile touch and feel experience before they buy.

In India, people are not used to buying expensive things online, unless there is proper customer interface with a couture team or certain store managers. — Tarun Tahiliani

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