Since 2005, the Gen Next programme at the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) has been turning India’s young designers into formidable stars. Think péro’s Aneeth Arora, Kallol Dutta, Masaba Gupta, Ujjawal Dubey and International Woolmark Prize winners Rahul Mishra and Ruchika Sachdeva. Little wonder then that the mentorship programme, which culminates in a show during fashion week, has editors and retailers sitting front row to spot the next big thing. Emerging designers from across the country apply for the programme and a jury of buyers, editors and consultants reviews the entrants’ collections and chooses a handful.
Over the years, 27 batches have been part of the initiative, creating a community of 260 designers who have gone on to launch their own stores and e-commerce sites, win awards and land major collaborations. These platforms are certainly powerful networking opportunities. As Jaspreet Chandok, head of fashion at IMG Reliance—which co-organizes the LFW—says, “By training under fashion consultant Sabina Chopra—who has been involved with the initiative for years now—Gen Next participants learn to enhance their creative skill set. They meet retail store owners and editors to learn about the business of fashion.” In recent years, however, a number of industry developments and socio-economic changes have exposed young designers to new opportunities. Does the Gen Next platform hold as much significance as it did when it was started? More importantly, how is the platform staying relevant in these times?
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In 2005, the Gen Next programme was one of its kind. But a number of similar platforms have emerged over the years. In 2018, in collaboration with sponsor Smartwater, the LFW also launched “The Platform”, a showcase for emerging designers. Publications such as Elle India and Vogue India, for instance, have their own programmes for spotlighting new designers. Ellepresented its First Cut Designers show at the Fashion Design Council of India’s (FDCI’s) India Fashion Week editions between 2015-18, and later presented its Elle Graduates show at LFW’s 2018 Winter/Festive edition. Vogue India ran the Vogue India Fashion Fund from 2012-17.
Moreover, the rise of e-commerce and social media has enabled brands to be discovered directly by customers. Take, for instance, the fashion and lifestyle brand Runaway Bicycle founded by Preeti Verma, former creative director at marketing communications agency DDB Mudra.
“When I started, people were advising different ways to me to become successful—one of which happened to be to participate in the LFW,” Verma says. “I did participate in its 2016 Winter/Festive edition, but I realized that it didn’t work for me since I wanted to work according to a more international business model by producing in limited batches and keep Runaway Bicycle’s presence exclusive.” She does, however, believe that platforms such as Gen Next provide young designers with exposure and publicity.
A number of labels, such as The Jodi Life, Rashmi Modi and MIUNIKU, have built their businesses using visual campaigns, social media and word of mouth to capture attention, without participating on platforms like Gen Next.
But Tina Tahiliani Parikh, executive director of multi-designer store Ensemble, holds such programmes necessary for designers to build strong retail connections. “It’s very hard for designers to get a large following on their own. The market is overcrowded and there’s a lot of information being flung at consumers all the time. Thus, a platform such as this offers some credibility.” Tahiliani Parikh was on LFW’s Gen Next jury in 2018 and her store includes Gen Next graduates like péro.
Sangita Sinh Kathiwada, founder of the Mumbai-based multi-designer boutique Melange and a member of the LFW advisory board, agrees. “Platforms such as Gen Next help designers meet buyers and stylists directly and network. They then understand the pulse of the market and can gauge if consumers will wear their clothes or not. The platform also shows the designers’ styling abilities and cohesive creative vision, on the runway and at their exhibition stalls.”
She reasons that the ease of online fashion discovery can’t take away from the fact that customers like to physically feel clothes before purchasing them. “While mature customers are still loyal to brick-and-mortar stores, social media has let designer clothing become accessible to younger customers. Both forms of business are important today,” says Kathiwada.
Mentorship is arguably the most important impetus given to Gen Next graduates. Stanzin Palmo, a 26-year-old Ladakh-based designer and founder of the label Zilzom, is one of the finalists of LFW’s forthcoming Winter/Festive season. “Sabina Chopra pointed out what our strengths and USPs are, and explained how we should translate our inspirations showcased in the presentations, to create garments for clients,” she says.
While the publicity received from showcasing at the LFW is a boost for designers and puts their creativity in the spotlight, the platform is now focusing on helping brands understand the commercial aspects better. For the last two seasons, Gen Next participants have been taken on a road show titled On The Road. They have travelled to fashion boutiques, such as Ensemble and Aza in Delhi and Mumbai, Azra in Raipur and Bombaim in Kolkata, to learn about retail and business management. Chandok says, “At these stores, they not only learn about retail management but also receive promotion as they are encouraged to retail their garments on an ‘only order’ basis, so as to not block any working capital.
After the programme, designers are free to move on to any kind of business model they see fit for their brands. What’s important is that brands are established for longevity, rather than sticking to singular brick-and-mortar stores that are expensive investments. It allows for better investment in advertising, leading to a more wholesome digital experience, Chandok says. He has found that while many designers have the creative talent to succeed in the business, not all are capable of clearing its commercial hurdles. It’s why the programme emphasizes learning about commercial business and retail management.
If designers want to focus on the creative side of the business, they are advised to work with partners who can help their brand grow.
The next step, Chandok says, is to “connect designers directly with investors”, blurring the line between the creative and commercial aspects of fashion for designers in the future.