A look from Amit Aggarwal's show

MUMBAI, India Less than four weeks after his first solo grand finale show at Lakme Fashion Week, Amit Aggarwal got busy redesigning his immediate future, pushed by what he saw as an imminent change even before the 21-day total lockdown in India was mandated to arrest the coronavirus spread.

“There was a spike in retail sales and people coming to my store right after the event on Feb. 16,” he said of his summer-resort 2020 show. His flagship store is in the prestigious Kila area in New Delhi, and he retails through numerous multibrand retailers. “But we realized that despite all the additional publicity after the grand finale, we had to protect our staff and labor and needed to close down the store even before the curfew began. I realized that it is time to step up the voice of the brand as we are surrounded by a changing world, and we will begin this with a new initiative on Instagram kicking off on Friday.”

Lakme Fashion Week, which was held here from Feb. 11 to 16, was fortuitous in its timing this year, held just before COVID-19 really arrived in India. The fashion week, which is held twice a year, appeared to be on an awkward calendar, planned in the midst of the global fashion week dates even as it pre-empted the last-minute cancellations of many others, including those in Tokyo, Shanghai and New Delhi.

It also gave buyers, and customers, a head start for the summer — Lakme Fashion Week is focused on the current season.

With several noteworthy shows — one by couturier Rohit Bal showcasing his first jeans collection (for men), highly embroidered denims with roses, flowers and peacocks; a collection of light-sensitive clothing for men by Kunal Rawal at the Bandra Worli Sea Link promenade, and a slew of established and up-and-coming talent showing during the week — it was the grand finale, with its choice of a younger designer, that had the most drama.

While most of the event was held at Jio Gardens at the Bandra Kurla complex, the grand finale was offsite, in a historic and unusual setting at an abandoned textile mill in Colaba, in Southern Mumbai. Mahesh Mill came replete with ghost stories, unfinished walls, and a series of abandoned buildings. The show incorporated all of that into the main theme of the fashion week, “Better in 3-D,” with the walls lit up in wavy patterns of changing 3D lighting, and an elaborate collection of 60 pieces, structured and geometrical, in Aggarwal’s signature style, which has been described as futuristic, primarily as a result of its use of industrial materials.

“It was my first solo finale, but it was also the calmest I have ever been. Even my team was surprised,” Aggarwal said with a laugh, talking about the show and the retail spike that followed. “There were all these additional things — putting the music together, the seating, the visuals, the set design — but I was ready for it.”

Designer Amit Aggarwal

Amit Aggarwal  Courtesy

Retail sales often follow the grand finale of a fashion week, and this time the choice of a younger designer set off a flurry of expectations. “I think it is a balance of showmanship and of a product that is salable as well,” Jaspreet Chandhok, vice president and head of fashion at IMG Reliance, said.

Lakme Fashion Week is jointly organized by IMG Reliance Ltd. and beauty brand Lakme. “You can’t keep creating art and then not selling any of it. The products do get a little more extravagant because it is the finale but I’ve heard good things about how the collection has done with consumers as well, he said. “The finale gives him the opportunity to jump into the consciousness of the consumers, who start looking at the finale designer in a different way – as do the buyers. But that being said, it is really up to the designer to leverage themselves. If you look at the International Woolmark Prize, for example, there are designers who have won the prize and then taken their brand to a completely different level, whereas others who were visible for a short season after winning — the onus lies with the designer on how they leverage the event.”

The event also saw a new makeup launch by Lakme, a subsidiary of consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever and one of the biggest beauty brands in India, with a grand finish with Lakme brand ambassador and Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor walking the runway.

“A week after the finale, we had a promotional activity at the store [which opened last July] with clients coming in to meet me, being able to discuss what they are looking for in terms of outfits etc. It was a crazy time, also with a lot of requests for sourcing for shoots and celebrity spotting,” said Aggarwal.

Aggarwal has been working in fashion for 18 years, starting out as an intern for designer Tarun Tahiliani; working with export house Creative Impex; creating an independent designer label, Morphe, in 2008; his couture label Amit Aggarwal in 2012, and the ready-to-wear brand Am.It in 2015. His brand is also a regular at showrooms along the sidelines of Paris Fashion Week.

Over the years, Aggarwal honed his skills in tailoring and structured designs, which still managed to keep a note of fluidity. But perhaps what differentiates him most is his use of industrial materials — polymer sheets upon which he builds his clothes, pipes and waste, and other products that complement his largely industrial designs, inspired early on from the work of his engineer father.

“I come from a humble background, where we lived in a very small flat in Mumbai growing up,” he explained, and although it is common for parents to push their children — especially sons — toward engineering or medicine, Aggarwal said his parents were always “very supportive of his choices.”

“Polymer, or a derivation of polymer, is a constant element in our clothes. It doesn’t have to be in a flat form, it could be tubular, it could be in multiple applications of the same thing. But I firmly believe that the future lies in the concentration of natural and man-made because the race or living organisms cannot live without technology that we need for constant growth, and combined with traditional craftsmanship it is something that is much needed, and in design it is the need of the hour. There are certain times it is picked up as a waste, or especially sourced. But the language of it changes each time. The only time it is constant is when we use it in a linear form. Like polymer strips,” he said.

The collection for LFW helped in working in this language into the floor-length gowns with embroidery and sequins. “I knew I wanted to cement a lot of the techniques that the brand has used continuously over a period of time, and evolve them. But I don’t think it changed the base of the ideology or the core beliefs of the brand,” he remarked.

“Younger people are looking for fantasy. There is always a dramatic shift in terms of what people are looking for in terms of fashion. The sari dress, for instance, is 35 percent of our business. People like to invest in it because it is something you can wear anywhere,” he said. “Eight years ago people looked at what I did and said, ‘oh my god this is fabulous!’ I would like to put it as an installation in my house,'” Aggarwal explained. “That has changed dramatically to, ‘I would love to own it and would like to wear it on a special day in my life.’ I think that journey where something that was considered an object has finally found a place on their skin, and in their heart, is very fulfilling.”

His plan to grow his retail, with a second store planned for Mumbai/Hyderabad, is on hold at the moment due to the pandemic.

“I’m not worried whether people will come back for this collection, or disillusioned or disheartened. It is a time to focus on safety and then to step back and look at the larger perspective, the entire story now is about the earth speaking,” he said.

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