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End of the road for Indian fashion houses?

Kishore Singh | July 16, 2005

There are two things you need to know about Pradeep Hirani, managing director of India's largest fashion buying house, Kimaya. One, that he doesn't understand fashion (and nor, refreshingly, does he claim to). Two, that he's forecasting the death of Indian fashion designers, long may their breed live!

The fast-talking, earnest looking Sindhi with an entrepreneurial track record of fashion stores (Gimmicks; Ixtapa) is at heart what every good businessman should be: someone who understands bottomlines at least as well as his buyers know their hemlines.

In a soft industry, he can walk the smooth but behind his easygoing manner is "one tough negotiator", a fashion designer says; "he gets the best deals in the couture marketplace."

That's because, says Hirani, relaxing over an oriental meal at Pan Asian ("the Delhi restaurant beats the Mumbai one hand's down"), he puts his money where his mouth is.

In 2002, with his wife Neha, when he decided to launch Kimaya as a premier fashion outlet, a meeting point for India's leading designers and a few others from abroad, he says the industry laughed at him.

"They probably thought, 'Here's another sucker, let's take him to the cleaners'," he says. Hirani laughed along with them then, and simultaneously changed the rules of the fashion retail trade, paying cash upfront instead of accepting consignments on the sell-now, pay-later norm of the trade.

"I was able to negotiate better terms," he's now laughing at them, and not just rates but also the cuts and silhouettes that designers would change on whim and fancy. "If they didn't give me what we'd agreed on based on their samples, I would reject the complete order," he says.

To that extent, he's brought a little bit of order and heaps of discipline into India's arguably most chaotic and disorganised industry. But Hirani isn't worried about the popularity stakes. Not when, he says, designers are dispensable, and designer brands are itching to come to India when retail rules are relaxed.

"And that," he grins, "may be sooner than you think." That bit of forecasting is hardly any surprise, but his summation of its fallout is nothing short of brutal for the country's fledgling industry. "It'll wipe out Indian designers," he predicts.

Kimaya, now in Mumbai, Delhi and Dubai ("in the prestigious Jumeira area," he'll have you know) stocks 74 (and growing) designers, the likes of Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Rina Dhaka and JJ Valaya, Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahliani (for whom, clearly, he has a soft corner, insisting his financial acumen and ability is helping him corporatise his label), besides designers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

And will soon stock designers from countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt too. It is rumoured (since the fashion industry fails to divulge any figures) that he's been the biggest buyer at the last three India Fashion Weeks.

So why is Hirani so convinced the designers will go down like the proverbial ninepins? "Once the international design houses come to India with their deep pockets, they'll wipe out the local fashion industry because they're very good at what they do. Also, they will adapt and localise very fast. After all, they do kimonos in Japan."

Trousseaus might survive to a point, he says, but even that industry could get taken over by the big boys of fashion from the Western world. But there is hope, he smiles: If fashion designers decide that they are just brands and sell their services to fashion houses, they will ensure the longevity of their labels.

Does that mean they will have to work for those fashion houses? "Absolutely," he says, "and they must register and extend their fashion brand to include furnishings, shoes, accessories. . . That way, Western design houses will gain from local talent, and Indian designers will ensure themselves a future."

What about Kimaya? "Today we stock Indian designers," he says, "tomorrow we'll stock foreign designers. We're in the market to sell the best fashion there is, and nothing can stop us."

That includes more stores, in India and in Europe, though Hirani's keeping his plans close to his chest for now.

For, with FDI in retail "perhaps in two months" his eyes twinkle, there's a fashion revolution that's brewing under the surface. And, perhaps, though he won't say so, Kimaya is going to be matching its international counterparts in the run-up to own its own team of celebrity designers. No wonder he's laughing -- all the way to the bank.

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