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Designing for success

Maitreyee Handique | July 15, 2005

The fashion world is bursting with creative passion. Just when the designers were being branded as Page 3 socialites with whimsical tempers and poor business acumen, some of them are plunging into diversified ventures.

Following the footsteps of international designers like Armani and Versace, who've embraced every conceivable home utility from tea cosies to umbrellas to make a lifestyle statement, Indian designers are getting experimental. Many of them are now looking at cashing in on their brand equity by getting into new businesses like shoes, food, art and hotels.

Take Manish Arora, the wild fantasy dresser for women in vibrant psychedelic colours, for instance. He has bagged a contract from Reebok India to design premium sports shoes in strawberry pink and tangerine red which will be called Fish Fry for Reebok, after his label Fish Fry. The shoes, manufactured in China, Malaysia and Indonesia, will be launched at select Reebok stores next month.

J J Valaya, meanwhile, is busy sketching uppers for a new shoe range -- Valaya for Skin Sin -- to be launched in mid-August. Under a royalty arrangement to design 30 styles a season, Valaya has signed a five-year contract with the Rs 25 crore, Agra-based Amar Shoes, promoted by shoe exporter Arvind Bajaj.

"After clothes, footwear is the most important of all accessories. If someone wants to buy a dress worth Rs 50,000, shoes are a small change," says Vinod Kaul, in charge of marketing at Skin Sin and former head of the Fashion Development Council of India.

Designer Rohit Bal seems to be thinking big too. He's done his bit from endorsing fabric to designing shoes and watches and is now emerging as the city's big-budget wedding planner. However, he's spent the last few months sourcing specially crafted furniture from Rajasthan for his new restaurant, Veda, in Delhi's Connaught Place.

Promoted by Anup Aggarwal, an NRI who owns the Baluchi restaurant in New York, Veda will open next month. Bal, who also has a small stake in the venture, says it "is going to be a super luxury dining experience in the Sheesh Mahal ambience."

On the cards is a boutique hotel chain with a "Singapore-based party that is into real estate and retail," says Bal. A signature perfume, with Mumbai-based business partners, is also in the development phase.

Fashion designer Ravi Bajaj also launched his signature cafeteria called Cafe a few months ago, along with his two-floor retail store. The Cafe is a collaboration with chef Ritu Dalmia who runs Diva, the popular Italian restaurant in Delhi. Bajaj says "like the world over, I am keen to expand the Cafe and my clothes together as a lifestyle statement."

Designer Vijay Arora does not own a restaurant but he used his management education background (he has a degree in business administration from Cornell University) to start a sorbet, slush and gelato brand, Gelato Vittorio, in May this year.

Arora hired an ice cream expert from Italy, attended a three-day ice cream making course in Bologna and set up a Rs 80 lakh factory and an outlet in Greater Kailash in Delhi. His clients already include restaurants such as Diva and Olive.

Sceptics within the fashion industry, however, say it's difficult for Indian designers to make their other ventures work. Critics argue that fashion designers' diversified businesses -- Valaya's failed design consultancy venture with and Raghuvendra Rathore's seasonal chocolates venture -- have not really taken off.

"They are a long way off from the stage where they can sell licenses of their designs and sit back to collect the money," says a fashion expert. "I see this [new ventures] more as an intellectual curiosity [on the part of the designers] than any serious sense of business," he says.

Questions about designers' organisational skills in handling multiple businesses are also being raised. Today, the biggest high fashion company in the country has not yet crossed Rs 30 crore in terms of turnover. No prÍt labels have so far created big volume business. "It makes sense for designers to set their own house in order first than focus on spin offs," says a critic.

Yet, designer Rohit Gandhi's art gallery Pallete has been making neat profits. Rumoured to be doing better than his clothes label H20 and Cue, the gallery -- which launched in February in Delhi's posh Golf Links area, the gallery has shown nearly 80 works in more than six shows. With an average price of Rs 2 lakh, he has already sold 85 per cent of the artwork.

Which bring us to the question: can the designers break the mould? As Arora, who plans to franchise his gelato brand across cities, says,† "If Anil Ambani can do many different kinds of businesses, why can't we?"

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