— JASMEEN DUGAL
Pankaj & Nidhi stun guests, buyers and fashion media with the sheer intricacy of their work, rethinking the vocabulary of ready- to- wear with couture lens and intelligently applying their unique design aesthetic to each show narrative. The duo won Grand First Prize at International Apparel Federation's International Fashion Award, Hong Kong in 2010, International Woolmark Prize in 2012, and were honoured Elle Designer of the Year 2012. We spoke to Pankaj on the eve of their most- anticipated debut at FDCI India Couture Week.
Where do you feel haute couture is heading, I ask? ''In the past, couture has been bridal- centric. But the future of haute couture, in my perspective, is not going to be just about the bridal market. It's going to be a more evolved market. Girls would invest in couture for bridal occasions but also for a friend's destination birthday or film premiere. It could be an author wearing couture at her book release or a musician wearing it for a album release. The occassions where couture could be worn is becoming very diverse and that's what makes it exciting!''
While ready-to-wear collections are important only with couture can you do the most intricate design, I ponder. Pankaj disagrees and appraises me of how the duo rethinks the vocabulary of ready to wear with technique, craftsmanship and detailing. ''It's a question of scale. With couture, one can do intricate design, intricate embroideries on a much larger scale. The canvas becomes bigger… the short skirt becomes a longer skirt… the minidress might become a long gown. The platform is exaggerated and magnified, so to speak, but we have always made our ready- to- wear collections with a couture lens. Hopefully it may have been evident in the techniques, the craftsmanship and the detailing in each look. Where is the difference? The pieces were designed to be ready- to- wear so there are shorter jackets, pants, dresses… all things that could be manufactured in S, M, L sizing to be sold on racks readily. Ready- to- wear doesn't mean it has to be inexpensive; it means it must be available on the racks and not something that is custom designed. We have ready- to- wear collections priced at INR 10,000 — 50,000. The expensive ones have intricate design whereas the less expensive pieces have intricate design in smaller measures. The quality of embellishment is always intricate. Agreed, in ready- to- wear the fabric base may not be expensive; that helps in the price points and it's sold in numbers. For us, at least, this blurring of boundaries between ready- to- wear and couture is quite interesting. Our past collections have been borderline couture. That's just the way we were designing them. It wasn't a conscious effort to do this or that. That's just the way we love to make our collections.''
Since this is the first time you are showcasing at FDCI India Couture Week, what does this platform mean to you as one of the most prolific designers, I ask? ''We are very fortunate to have the FDCI platform. It's been there for years, for the ready- to- wear weeks. You know, it’s not easy for a new or established label to put up a show on one's own. With everybody coming together under the FDCI umbrella, for fashion week, it has the best design talent, the best models, the best choreography talent, the best lighting and the best marketing machinery that goes into propagating that message… it's the same with FDCI India Couture Week. A designer could pull off a couture showing on one's own, and there's nothing wrong with that, but India Couture Week brings a certain energy and a focussed look at what key designers intend to state for the season. It is so much easier for the customer to grasp if it's all happening under one roof. The press can focus on the idea of couture and that's what makes it so exciting. The effect is magnified. In cricket, all eyes are on the world cup. Likewise, in fashion, all eyeballs are on India Couture Week. It's all very exciting!''
Are the challenges involved in designing a couture line an adrenaline rush to push all boundaries of creativity, I wonder? ''Yes! It's not easy making a collection whether it's ready- to- wear, diffusion or couture. I can't say it's easier for a ready- to- wear designer or tougher for a couturier. The process, from the inspiration to creating a mood board and colour palette… swatches of fabric, textile development and embroideries… to silhouettes and pattern, is an adrenaline rush! I wish I could make you speak to my team who is working tirelessly since the past few weeks. It's exciting because it's hard work but there's a lot of creativity involved! I don't know if, as a chartered accountant under a deadline to file tax returns, I would have found it exciting. I would have died of boredom!! So I might be working as hard as a chartered accountant or lawyer but the fact that something new has been created make it exciting! When the deadline gets closer, it gets more exciting because the result begins unfolding. It's as though you've been sowing seeds for months and then the fruits begin to appear!! Almost every other day in the run- up to couture week, a model comes into our office and we try out a new look… to see a new piece take life is amazing. Of course there are times when it's sad that something we had conceived didn't end up looking the way we had visualised. It may be the fabric or the fit. But that's all part of the creative process, to rectify it, to make it work, to make it come to life the way you want it to.''
Research is incredibly important to your work. What are key influences when you design, I continue to prod? ''We like to think of ourselves as thinking designers who put in a lot of hard work into coming up with a concept. If you look at the history of our ready- to- wear shows, each collection has a name and brief. It is like a new idea for a film or theatre — it has to be exciting for us to develop it. Whether it's samurai warriors or Polish paper cutting, x-rayed flowers or matadors, it is creatively diverse. This story-telling each season contributed to our brand's success. Yes, we have to be classic, we have established a design vision and there are consistencies we adhere to, but a new theme is important.''
What is important in a couture showcase—retail appeal or creative force? ''Very interesting question… the creative idea is paramount. The seed of inspiration is, after all, where a collection takes birth. Along the way, retail appeal — be it effective pricing or wearable silhouettes — is a reality check. It's important that retail appeal becomes part of the creative process at some point. We have got to think real. The Pankaj- Nidhi design philosophy is about making it real. We use intricate embroideries and ornamentation on beautiful silhouettes. But we dont do something outlandish where customers wonder 'where am I going to wear that?' That would be pointless. For the couture showc, we've embraced the Indian silhouette but kept it real. The result: contemporary haute couture that you can wear to a spectrum of occasions.''
Looking at your career graph… what is something you wish you knew when you started out? ''Well, we were always slow and steady. We took two-three years to do our first show. It wasn't as though we launched our label and jumped onto the catwalk! We focused on the infrastructure and what worked on the racks before we ventured on to the catwalk. And, as you can see, we took twelve years to do a couture show! If there is anything I wish I could change, and this is wishful thinking, it is a longing for a situation where we could just focus on the design process and merchandise, customer traction and marketing while someone could take care of the painful management and marketing! Yeah, I wish for a studio where we could just design and not have to worry about the business of Fashion!''