Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Everyone got the proverbial front row seat: FDCI's Sunil Sethi

Fashion Design Council of India chairman tells Forbes India how 2020 turned the Indian fashion industry upside down and why restrained luxury and personalisation in clothing will be the new cool

Published: Dec 16, 2020 01:31:33 PM IST
Updated: Mar 17, 2021 04:52:20 PM IST

Everyone got the proverbial front row seat: FDCI's Sunil SethiSunil Sethi, chairman, Fashion Design Council of India

Until this year, it was unimaginable for the Indian fashion industry to not have on-site fashion shows and witness that mad rush for the prestigious front row to watch models strut the ramp.
Covid-19 and its challenges changed all that, forcing the Indian fashion industry to go online, thus making it democratic and environment-friendly.
Sunil Sethi, chairman of the FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India), an organisation of over 400 designers, and which was the first to organise an online showcase in the country, speaks about the unusual year 2020 has been.
Q. Had you and the Indian fashion industry ever imagined a virtual runway before the lockdown?
To be honest, we may have never imagined it, but, frankly, it is where the future of fashion is. With augmented reality and the world shifting its axis online, this is eventually going to be the ultimate move. However, I loved the beat of a physical show, the adrenaline and the sheer excitement gave each ensemble a character of its own. But going virtual has its advantages, the biggest being its reach and viewership, which is far beyond what an on-site show can provide.
Q. How was the transition from offline to online?
The Fashion Design Council of India was one of the first to take on the new challenge and launch the digital version of the India Couture Week (September 18 to 23), which gained huge mileage as everyone got the proverbial front row seat.
It was a great learning experience to adapt to the online medium and showcase collections with the help of new and relevant technologies. Not just the ICW but even the Lotus Make-Up India Fashion Week (October 9 to 13) was a success. For the latter, we got massive engagement from small towns and big cities. The key was to keep the content visually engaging and pepper the programme with industry talks.   
Q. What were the biggest challenges and achievements of the online showcase?
The biggest challenges were to get our interface right and keep the social media buzzing minus celebrity appearances or surprise elements. Shows had to be filmed, edited and presented in a format that could be savoured by a new kind of consumer, who is not just tech-savvy, but also understands the prowess of the digital medium and uses it extensively.
The best achievement was to be the first fashion body in the country to host online showcases and motivate designers to participate, despite the falling sales.
All in all, it was more about understanding and accepting that the future belongs online, and the new buyer is there. ‘From bricks to clicks’, as someone rightly said! 
Q. How would you evaluate 2020 business wise?
Fashion has been hit the hardest. There is no denying that. Businesses have taken a massive nosedive; some were forced to shut down. The FDCI also started a Covid Support Fund Trust to help small designers stay afloat.
I think the festive and wedding season will see an upswing, albeit, the pace will remain slow, as the economy is still under duress and may take a long time to recover. As WGSN (A New York-based trend forecasting company) predicts, only the resilient and creative will survive this onslaught.
Nevertheless, we are a nascent industry as compared to the West, but we have made our name globally. Indian handwriting is now visible all over the world, whether it is our embroidery or just our unabashed love for colour. Many Indian style gurus have also been able to find a foothold in the competitive international sphere. Khadi and the ubiquitous sari have found universal appreciation and so has the love for Indian aesthetics. It has been a journey to marvel at as ‘Made in India’ has now become a badge of honour!
Q. Which industry trend surprised or impressed you?
There are a couple which were both surprising and impressive. Let’s begin with the trend of not following trends. The others are the popularity of comfort wear, relaxed dress codes, acceptance of everything basic and grounded and going trans-seasonal. Other trends that were much needed and refreshing to see were, first, to make each ensemble multi-functional and versatile, and the preference for classics over the need to update constantly.
Q. Which is the most important business lesson that you learnt this year?
The biggest lesson must be to never rest on your laurels, as you don’t know what the future holds. Keep working and approach each day as your starting point, no matter how successful you are. Covid-19 has taught us to be prepared for the worst; one needs to be flexible and adapt to new technologies, whether it is e-commerce, Instagram baits, website makeovers or using new visual narratives to serenade a reluctant customer.
Q. How would you evaluate your performance as a leader in this very unusual year?
It is for others to judge performance. My desire to accept challenges wholeheartedly as a fashion body and experiment, innovate and charter into unknown territories would make FDCI a winner in more ways than one. Look at our trajectory. From only doing physical shows to two magnanimous online showcases (54 presentations) in just two months, and creating new platforms to increase business for the designers is certainly commendable.
We have a small but extremely efficient team at the FDCI who put the show on the road impeccably! We are the thought leaders as we initiated the process and got the ball rolling, setting the bar high for others to follow. We need to work on a full digital transformation that will help us reach out to more people in the next year, as the brick-and-mortar store is now getting obsolete.
Q. What will be the five big fashion trends in India next year?
Comfort, comfort and comfort! I would say revisiting classics and making each piece stand out by innovatively mixing and matching with something old in newer ways. Creating something out of what already exists. Choosing timeless fashion over fads is what will be the blueprint for the future.
Q. How do you predict the next year to be for the Indian fashion industry?
Immersive, mixed media experiences will rule the style world, as our screens are going to decide what we finally buy and wear. Clothes, they say, reflect the state of the world, and I believe the glam factor will be subdued, with made-to-last being the one quality everyone will look for. There will be a marked rise in simplicity, restrained luxury and, of course, reset and rebuild is the overriding emotion. Personalisation in clothing will be the new cool as will making the process sensorial and innovative. Working under pressure without a definitive supply chain will ignite fresh ideas and result into more collaborations and better storytelling.

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