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REVEALED: The inside story of the Indian fashion industry

Last updated on: October 13, 2012 13:12 IST

REVEALED: The inside story of the Indian fashion industry



We bring you two exclusive excerpts from Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion

In her book Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion, Shefalee Vasudev travels far beyond the runway and takes a look at the various shades of the fashion industry in India.

Vasudev, former editor of Marie Claire (India) offers fascinating insights into the business that touches us all -- from the housewives in Ludhiana on a perpetual fashion high to the salesgirls in fashion stores, the models who walk the ramp and the thousands of traditional weavers as well as the nameless ladies tailors who define fashion for the masses.

First up is a story of a salesgirl Jennifer (name changed to protect privacy) who works for a prominent luxury brand in Delhi.

Jennifer is a dark skinned, slight looking girl. She came to Latitude, the Good Earth cafe in Delhi's Khan Market, wearing a pale blue, chest print T-shirt with black jeans and black metallic hoops in her ears.

Her thick, raven hair was pulled back by a hair clip, making her look like a teenager. Without her store uniform -- formal black trousers and a well-tailored lilac shirt with black, kitten heels -- she looked younger than her 23 years, similar to the girls I would see on the Delhi metro every day.

She has a warm sunny disposition and an earnest, extremely polite manner -- and if you observed closely, a subtle refinement which put her a few notches above the regular Delhi Metro Girl.  One of three siblings, she belongs to a middle class family from Patparganj in East Delhi.

Her sister was in higher secondary school and her older brother worked in a Costa Coffee shop. Two years after finishing a pass course at Delhi University and some odd jobs later, Jennifer was short listed by a head hunting firm for a luxury brand store.

After an interview with its Indian representative, she was recruited and put through rigorous training sessions. 'They presented the brand to us through photographs and CDs. We learnt about its ethos, history, all the product lines, prices, and also how to handle customers,' she told me. She was given grooming and make up tips by a visiting consultant who also coached the team on language and articulation. 'The trainer reminded us that the store was not a beauty parlour and a lady customer should never be addressed as didi,' she said.

Training sessions such as the one Jennifer described are an intensive process handled by a team of professionals. Prasanna Bhaskar, who formerly worked as Regional Director, South East Asia and India, for Salvatore Ferragamo, would lead similar sessions for her staff in India.

She would fly down from Hong Kong where she was based for this. Prasanna, who was trained by and worked for Louis Vuitton when it first arrived in India in 2003, told me that LV was like an academy when it came to training its employees.

Most candidates who sought work with luxury brand stores as sales staff belonged to middle class families and needed to change the way they thought and behaved.

Jaideep Sippy, the founder and CEO of Style Kitchen, a Pune based company that markets healthy eating solutions, was once the corporate trainer for LV's Middle East and India stores. Never, ever address a customer by the first name, Jaideep would tell his store staff, not even when you are invited to. Hindi was a big nono. Everyone from the youngest sales girl to the store manager was encouraged by the brand to 'believe' that they weren't just representatives of the brand, but were Louis Vuitton themselves.

'If a customer is Tarun Tahiliani, you are Louis Vuitton,' was Jaideep's way of empowering his store team. He had been similarly empowered during his training period.

Paris or New Delhi, sales staff are taught how to walk across a shop floor. French elegance isn't incidental. It is learned. Teams at these stores get specially tailored clothes made for them and during fittings they are also taught the importance of wearing the right size, even for undergarments.

Some brands now hire grooming consultants to teach new staff as in the case with Jennifer. The right choice in lipstick and make up, personal hygiene, use of deodorant and perfumes, how to greet the customer -- everything has to be taught and drilled in.

Prasanna, like Jaideep, found role playing a useful tool. She would enact a customer, both the well-mannered and the fussy one and then turn into a store manager to explain to a trainee how to greet them, show them around the store discreetly, and handle objections. Details are harped upon; a sales person selling a shoe must know how to bend down on one knee and help a customer slip on the shoe.

'It was during these sessions that I realized that Indian boys and girls don't bend down easily,' said Prasanna laughing.

The 'Act' as Prasanna called a new recruit's relationship with the brand, must then eventually become a part of her life. 'They should stop acting the act and slip into it naturally the moment a customer enters a shop,' she said.

While junior recruits like Jennifer are trained in India, those who manage stores, select merchandize or work at a country manager level are flown to brand headquarters from wherever they are in the world and encouraged to mingle with workers inside factories to understand the brand's sensibility.

Everything from the vision of the chief designer to the positioning of a brand in advertising commercials is explained to them. Some brands insist that store managers physically experience the brand they sell by stitching a part of a shoe, cutting leather, driving a fine nail into a handbag in a factory, or if it is a beauty brand, participate in laboratory processes to see what goes into the making of a lipstick or an age-defying cream before it is packaged and sealed.

Human resource trainers of luxury brands are prepared for the class divide between a brand and its employees, especially in new markets and recruits are culturally immersed in the brand. Prasanna would show new trainees images of the Italian countryside, the view from a train going from Milan to Florence, and the Palazzo Spini, the building that houses the Ferragamo offices and museum in Florence.

Jaideep showed his students exactly where LV offices were located across the world through Google maps, which was the nearest airport, which river flowed past.

Recruits were made to pronounce street names correctly and to remember the tourist sites near the stores. Since many Vuitton products are inspired by places, Jaideep would also give the occasional geography class so that his trainees could understand why a collection was titled Manhattan by Marc Jacobs or another was inspired by a rain forest. Soho, Hudson, Russia, Canal Street -- everything was explained, as was the peculiarity of fine, French cuisine. What is fondue? What is nouvelle cuisine?  Sales teams were enabled to answer all these.

Prasanna's training sessions were scheduled once every fifteen days from seven till nine in the morning before the Ferragamo store at the Emporio mall opened. Team scenarios would be reconstructed and at Friday breakfast meets every week, everyone had to present a recap of what they did. That's how most brands function.

It was at one such recap meeting that Jennifer was asked to walk across the shop floor. Her manager wasn't happy with the way she noisily dragged her footwear and wanted her to correct it. While role playing, Jennifer stumbled and slipped. The trainer was beside her in an instant. She taught her how to pick herself with grace, brush her clothes lightly even if they were not dirty and then smilingly move towards the customer apologizing without making a big deal about it.

After attending some of these sessions, I began to understand where Jennifer learnt her refinement. She had been working at the store for ten months and during this time, not only had she been put through the training process, but the brand she worked for had flown her to Dubai for a workshop for sales staff from the Middle East and India. She came back armed with a new
Goal -- to work in the luxury sector in Dubai where she was told shop assistants were paid much more as when compared to their Indian counterparts.

In 2010, Jennifer earned about Rs 27,500 each month. She was occasionally stung by the disparity between the world of luxuryand her life back home. 'We can't spend this kind of money even on medical care,' she said, the sincere, bright smile never leaving her face as she sipped her mango panna.

Only a couple of belts and small items cost less than her monthly salary; sometimes, she said they sold products worth five or seven times of what she earned. I wondered if she was resentful. If she was, she succeeded in concealing it well.

'What would you buy for yourself if you could afford it?' I asked her.

'A Louis Vuitton Canvas Monogram Neverfull bag,' she said, without a blink, her hand unconsciously touching her faux leather handbag.

Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion by Shefalee Vasudev (Random House, Rs 399).

Image: Not all glitz: Shefalee Vasudev's book travels beyond the runway and tells the story of Indian fashion in a way never told before
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera


REVEALED: The inside story of the Indian fashion industry

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Up next is another extract from the same book revealing the struggles young models face before they become known names in the business.

Agencies now work hard to make celebrities out of models.  'Both sides should start making money in three years,' says Atul Kasbekar, 'if that doesn't happen, I'd rather bid a cordial goodbye than continue,' he added.

Sushma Puri of Elite agreed. 'It is not like Paris that you go to a mall at any given time and find 200 girls ready for modelling.  Here, it takes time to work on them and get them ready for ramp or print. And it takes ever so much more to make them a star.'

Perhaps this is why Lakshmi Rana said that it is hassling to see the industry make way so easily for fair skinned models. 'It is not easy for us to break into contracts in Europe. They take only two or three foreigners at a time, but here we hire them by the dozen,' she said.

Pressures on models are severe. The biggest reason is the raging war with Bollywood divas for endorsements, magazine covers, and showstopper appearances on the ramp. Girls like Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Anushka Sharma who were all models and had contested for Miss India now stop a show while their colleagues like Lakshmi Rana have to walk as part of the herd.

The stress to maintain super fit and slim bodies, with a now fixed Western ideal of feminine beauty -- tall, thin, leggy, small busted -- has only increased. The body, the site, cause and reason behind all success and failure in modelling is a big bone of contention.

Yet as Prasad Bidapa says, 'Everything can be fixed. Bring me anything, anyone, I can fix and alter it and make a model, except height, which I can't manufacture.'

Once 'fixing' is done, they all look the same.

'Shut up and walk' is the unspoken code, as Nagma told me. 'And network hard,' she added.

Models must get their networking and PR right to keep getting contracts, agencies notwithstanding.

Not everyone becomes a Miss India.

Even those who do, find that the crown can be thorny. They have mentors to tell them how to walk and talk, dieticians and fitness experts to worry about their already thin figures yet, it is 'an intimidating and sometimes frightful journey,' a Femina insider told me. She had seen girls slip into sullenness from the time they entered the contest, to when they became winners (or losers).

'They forget to laugh except giggle on cue and lose the spontaneity they had as free spirited girls who had come to win the pageant,' she said.

Some have nervous breakdowns, crack under pressures of surgeries for face, nose or chin, articulation in speech and manner, punishing fitness regimes, starvation diets and recovery from it all before they leave for the international beauty contests.

It reflected in the breakdown of Miss India first runner up 2009 Pooja Chopra had on the Miss World stage in South Africa.

The girl who had broken her ankle days before the contest was disallowed from using a wheelchair and broke down on the stage in the final round, sobbing till she was ushered away.

Gautam who has worked with all models and often styles the tall, dark and handsome Lakshmi Menon, also the only model whose name has a recall value in Europe now, says she is the story of the New Indian Female Model.

Lakshmi is the only model who was invited by the American Vogue to feature in their pages for a solitary fashion editorial. She was also the only Indian model whose photograph was displayed as part of 'Beauty Culture', an exhibition in Los Angeles that ran till November 2011.

It focussed on female beauty and its evolution through the twentieth and twenty first centuries and was seen through the work of globally acclaimed photographers. Among photographs and digital images, classified under labels like 'The Hollywood Glamour Machine', 'The Marilyn Syndrome', 'Barbie Doll' or the modelling industry, was a photograph of the tall, dark, and distinctly androgynous Lakshmi Menon. She was among girls from different ethnicities like German Claudia Schiffer, American Cindy Crawford, British Naomi Campbell, Canadian Linda Evangelista, Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, British Kate Moss, American Megan Fox and Sudanese-British Alek Wek.

Lakshmi, said Gautam, is underwhelmed with fashion's snobbery and doesn't give a damn. 'She has a quality of intelligent arrogance which no one else has. That makes her the current top model,' he said.

Nagma New, as I would learn to later call her (shaven armpits, fewer F words) agreed with Gautam. Emotional distance, she said, helped her deal with the demanding clauses on their contracts, and post-show partying as non-negotiable for the IPL Season 2 last year.

The noose has become tighter for models as a maniacal media chases them 24x7. On the one hand, it wields the Photoshop, quick to airbrush reality. One the other, it zooms in on slender limbs, shrieking about starvation, and gleefully flashes every fashion malfunction.

They all come with good intentions from good families, who don't want them to enter the profession. But once they are in, they are surrounded by parties, drugs, egocentrics, long hours of work, putting on and peeling away of make up, false lashes, false boobs, clamps and have to master the art of expressionless talent, a model coordinator told me.

The smaller ones start doing escort services and sex work on the side. It is not rampant, and boys do it too, but if you looked hard enough, you will find enough cases, he said.

Amit Ranjan came up with an important argument. Models no longer just compete with Bollywood, he said. Now a designer is free to bring a transgender person, a Kathak dancer, a ghazal singer, or a nautanki artist on the ramp to rustle up a 'spectacle' giving even the best model competition from unknown and unpredictable quarters.

Rajesh Pratap Singh brought musicians from rock bands like Parikrama to walk his ramp among professional models for his show at Men's Fashion Week in 2010. Designer duo Lecoanet Hemant brought Queen Harish, a drag queen on their ramp.

Nagma New was trying hard to be a bit removed from it all. It worked well for her, even though she is a nobody in the industry. She made good money, smoked, did some drugs and booze, bought a lot of designer clothes, sometimes flew abroad for magazine shoots and lived the fast life.

She couldn't break into the league of A-lister models till the end of 2011 when I concluded this story. She was nowhere near becoming India's next Mehr Jessia and there was no sign of 'Bollywood' happening to her. 'If I can't become Mehr Jessia, I will marry Boss,' she said when I prodded her about her frustration.

To Boss? Vinegar with Rajnigandha paan masala and no sex?

She laughed nervously. She stumped me. I thought she liked to go out with different boys every week and here she was suggesting marriage with someone who had never touched her. What was going on?

I would never find out.

Powder Room: The Untold Story of India Fashion by Shefalee Vasudev (Random House, Rs 399).

Image: Powder Room: The Untold Story of India Fashion by Shefalee Vasudev

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