Arkish Jewels

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The guy in black & white

Sitting across from Ashish Soni in his studio in Delhi, sipping on green tea, we thought we would talk about his life, journey as a model, and crossing over to design. Little did we know that he was about to take us down memory lane… to a time when a brand’s organic growth was a reality, the fashion fraternity was one big, happy family, and when NIFT was just a prototype. 

 

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I am deep into the process of conceptualising the show for working on our collection for Amazon India Fashion Week. Ideation happened way earlier, it is execution time. But putting together a show is a different ballgame. Two weeks ago, I thought I had reached the final stages, but when it happened, I did not like it. So, I removed about 13 outfits, which is like half the number we need for the show. It is as good as starting from scratch, but I believe that it is part of the creative process.

 

Why did you think of dropping those 13 outfits?

My endeavour with each of my shows is that the audience isn’t bored for even a second. This is why I have made it more difficult for myself by removing those 13 pieces, and redoing the silhouettes. The collection is called Noir. The whole show is in black, except no garment is flat black. Every piece of clothing is textured and has interesting embellishments, different in each of the 35 looks.

 

The theme for the Amazon India Fashion Week is celebration, where every evening designer’s milestones will be in the spotlight. So, another reason for the last minute change was because it’s our 25th anniversary. I wanted this collection to represent that milestone in some way, and also stay close to the overall theme of the fashion week. I was so thrilled when The Fashion Design Counsil of India put across the concept. I believe it is essential to do an ethos-based show than a trend-based one, so that the true essence of the brand comes forth.

 

How do you plan to celebrate this milestone?

We will have an event later this year, an evening that will not just be about my fashion, but more about the person that I am, what I represent, and what my fashion philosophies are.

 

Were you always inclined to fashion, even as a child?

As a kid, I was a beauty junkie. As I grew older, the most accessible beautiful thing was clothing. That was also the time of emergence of Italian designers like Armani and Versace, who had just crossed over to the US. American fashion brands, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren had crazy sales, but there was no edge to it. Versace made clothing sexy and vibrant. Armani was just the opposite; very subdued, low tone colours, but exceptionally elegant. Growing up abroad, every American magazine I would read was about what these two Italians were doing in America. I was greatly influenced by all that. There was no social media, but I would keep myself updated by visiting the stores and reading up their catalogues. 

 

Is that why you shifted to India?

Yes. I came to stay with my grandparents and studied at the British School. But my love for fashion refused to leave me. I would ask my parents to send me magazines and catalogues. I would take the cut outs to my tailor to make me a similar pair, but with my own twists. Back then I didn’t even know one could study fashion.

 

How did the idea of training in fashion designing come about?

My father suggested. National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) has just opened an office in Hotel Samrat in Delhi, and had rolled out its first-ever six-month programme, of which Rohit Bal and Rina Dhaka were a part. I decided to join the course.

 

Was NIFT the turning point?

In one way, it was my destiny.  But, getting into the prototype of a college was not easy.

 

Why was it difficult?

I went to meet the dean, a lean guy dressed impeccably. I wanted to be a part of NIFT just looking at him. But, for some strange reason, he kept demotivating me. Maybe, because I was a science student or he wanted to test my patience. I will never know for sure. 

 

You did become a part of the first-ever batch of NIFT.

Yes. It was more like a boutique school, starting with two batches with only 60 students. I appeared for a series of tests, an art exam and three levels of interviews. There were about 1,000 people competing for it. NIFT had the best faculty brought in from across the world. Our art teacher was from the best school in Australia, menswear teacher was from Nottingham Trent University in the UK, and our draping trainer was an Italian from Duhamel.

 

So how did modelling happen in between all this?

It happened just before getting into NIFT. I was at a nightclub called Ghungroo at ITC Maurya Sheraton when the Late designer Rohit Khosla came up to me and asked, “Have you ever modelled before?” I said no. He offered me a fashion show for a sum of `2,000. I was thrilled. As luck would have it, it was Rohit Bal’s debut show, someone I went on to work for and share a very warm relationship. Modelling introduced me to the world

of fashion.

 

The fashion fraternity was very different back then.

Oh yes. Rohit Khosla helped a lot of designers find their feet. He helped Rohit Bal launch his label. Designers never hesitated to create opportunities for each other.

 

And how old were you then?

About 17. With modeling, my exposure to fashion grew and I realised I would be happier behind the scenes.

 

Were there moments when designers would be dressing you but you wanted to be in their place?

Absolutely… on many occasions.

 

How was it really to work with Rohit Bal in young, wilder days?

He is a true connoisseur with an evolved sense of appreciating beauty, art and design. People like to call his creative madness his flamboyance, but it is his genius. He helped me open my eyes to things finer in life and fashion.

 

When did you decide to start your label?

JJ Valaya and I would always talk about starting our own labels. One day, we tossed a coin. If it was heads, we would continue doing what we are doing — I worked for Rohit Bal and he worked for Rohit Khosla — and if it were tails, we will branch out. I think, tails it was.

 

What was the most difficult thing?

To understand the consumers. It wasn’t like today. There was no social media, where you share your designs and not only get the word out, but also receive a few orders in return.

 

Take us back to the ’90s.

Fashion was an exceptionally tight rope then, but we also had the luxury of time to work on our collections. For a show in October, we would start working in January. We would figure out sponsors, the venue, invites, partnership with airlines to fly our team. For six months, we would be roaming around, trying to sell concepts and finally put a spectacle together. There were a lineup of 40 to 50 clothes, some would even make 100 pieces, and the success was determined by how soon these pieces we sold. It was the beginning of ‘see-now, buy-now’ period, but, finding consumers and judging their mood was a big task. Tabloid culture and Page 3 were emerging. As we learnt our roles as designers, there were journalists learning the ropes of lifestyle journalism.

 

Tell us about your first collection?

The one that I showcased or sold (laughs)? The first one I showcased was at NIFT and it was a denim collection. I was enamoured, like every ’80s kid, by denim. The memories of Calvin Klein jeans, unbuttoned fly, a young Kate Moss and 20 models wearing only jeans plastered on huge billboards at Times Square, Ralph Lauren’s jeans on horses, and lovely brands such as Armani and Versace.

 

Where was your first studio?

It was a small barsati in Lajpat Nagar and I started off by borrowing `50,000 from my father. I started with 200 pairs of jeans, and sold those over 2-3 months. But, I didn’t want to be labeled as the denim man. I put out my first collection, a menswear line, at a store called Mutiny in Delhi. It was August 1992. I, then, made cotton trousers in six colours with interesting details. It was sold out in 10 days. The stockiest wanted me to repeat the order and I didn’t have the money or means to do it. I had two tailors, and a person I was training to do the cutting. 

 

While I was busy doing all this, Tarun Tahiliani visited a store in Bangalore that stocked my designs and bought one of my trousers. He tracked me down to my studio in Delhi, walked up those dingy staircase and told me in his baritone, “I have a multi-brand store in Bombay and we would like you to stock your creations.” I was speechless.

 

Would you say that growth was pretty organic back then?

Absolutely. We created opportunities for each other. By the end of the ’90s, our brands were way bigger than our businesses. But, it was still like a cottage industry. The real growth happened in the 2000s, when FDCI came in and fashion fraternity grew.

 

You have also showcased at New York Fashion Week. Is it easier today to get a break?

There are advantages and disadvantages of first timers. There was so much I didn’t know. I asked, learnt, either by falling, or as we went along. I was struggling to get even a PR agency to represent me. Getting meetings was impossible even if I was a brand ambassador for Incredible India. Today, if you are talented, you can make it, and things can be taken care of.

 

What does a designer need to make a breakthrough in New York or Milan?

Definitely some Indian-ness and something quirky. A balance between being Indian and addressing the western audience is the key. For me, I want to say I am an Indian designer who speaks a global language. It still is my pitch.

 

But by becoming too western, chances are, one might get lost.

When I say global, it can’t be sticking to our traditional silhouettes. One can give a contemporary twist to Indian creations. Traditional Gujarati jackets inspired my second collection for the New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2008. The silhouette was contemporary, the idea was innately Indian and of course, the cotton was Indian. It made a lot of impact.

 

And then you created the white shirt phenomenon.

Through the ’90s, my bread and butter came from white shirts (laughs). It was something very close to me when I started. Even if there were 12 shirts, I put a lot of thought into it. For Indian men, Chinese collared shirt was new but my Mandarin collars became quite popular. Even today, I do basic shirts with Egyptian yarn. 

 

What's your design sensibility?

For me, it’s always been less is more. I think I am a natural minimalist. I can see details even in a glass of water and amplify it. My biggest philosophy is that this life is all

about reinvention.

 

Your take on responsible fashion?

It’s a movement that I am hoping truly lasts.We, unfortunately, are living in an age of consumerism. We want to wear today and throw tomorrow, which is against sustainability.

 

A lot of high street brands are collaborating with designers. How does it affect the Indian designers?

It’s a very interesting question. The reason they collaborate is the vast difference in price points. A high street brand product is priced between £10 and £40 while designer prêt  line starts at £50. When designers create these capsule collection, they push the price from £10-£30 to about £40 to £100. That’s what they are trying to do… infuse a little of their halo into the high street.

 

BY Nidhi
Associate Editor

Nidhi Raj Singh is the Associate Editor of L'Officiel India. You can find her hidden behind a book, when she is not writing or taking photos.