NEW DELHI — Marking a decade as president of the Fashion Design Council of India, Sunil Sethi shows little signs of slowing down.
The FDCI has been the driving force in the business as the industry itself has grown more than tenfold since 2008, with both the domestic market exploding and increasing global opportunities. A successful businessman and formerly senior vice president of the Li & Fung Group, Sethi has become the face of the industry, showing up at events, connecting the dots, planning the growth of the business in a succession of different formats. In an industry peopled with burgeoning creativity, and sometimes reckless egos, there has been a play of forces to reckon with and Sethi has had both his devoted followers and some strong detractors.
His own sourcing and buying company, Alliance Merchandising, has worked with global brands including Anthroplogie, Crate & Barrel, Armani Casa and others.
As Amazon India Fashion Week closed in New Delhi earlier this month, Sethi talked to WWD about the industry, what it has meant to lead it and how he’s weathered the storms that have been a part of the growth of Indian fashion.
WWD: There’s been a huge change in the fashion industry in these 10 years that you have been president of FDCI. The nature of the fashion weeks themselves have changed.
Sunil Sethi: The fact is that Indian fashion had potential. That is the main reason it has grown so much. A lot has happened in these last 10 years. We started the India Couture Week in 2008, we started the India Men’s Week, we have two seasons of the India pret week, where more than a 100 designers showcase their work and take up stalls. So, it soon strengthened itself as a place which became the business of fashion.
What is also important is that these fashion weeks became no longer just glamour events where everybody went only to see large sets and film actors but rather that things changed so that fashion became the showstopper — the designers’ creativity became the showstopper. We were doing almost 40 shows [with each fashion week] at that time. Young designers were getting a lot of opportunities. All this didn’t happen in the past.
And the best thing to happen to FDCI was that our number of buyers doubled, tripled, quadrupled because there was strength in what the stalls were showing. There were new names coming in, and so many of the big, well-established names that you see today were growing. So really, FDCI has played an important role in this time.
WWD: Indian designers also seem to have become aware of the potential of the local market, while growing in the global arena. As president of FDCI have you had to steer this along?
S.S.: Yes, the Indian fashion designer became conscious of the fact that they need not only to travel abroad, but also to concentrate on the Indian market. So we had both things working for us.
The fashion weeks became a mecca for every single multidesigner store that exists in the country. They just had to come in, pick up the 10 to 20 designers they wanted and the international buyers realized the same. Now, the designer decides whether he wants to stay local, or go global. That’s up to him/her. FDCI just provides a platform.
Being at the helm of this has been an important position and other major things have happened in this time as designers have moved from being a cottage industry to voluminous business, that factories have moved from being small boutique outfits toward more compliances, into large industrial areas of Delhi and that National Capital region of Noida and Gurgaon and other parts of the country. I think that it is also important that the Indian fashion designer has worked on the supply chain logistics, and is now understanding the need to get foreign agents for their business abroad, and also to strengthen their production capacity. Our designers are now taking part in the best exhibitions around the world, and in large numbers.
WWD: There has been a changing recognition of the fashion industry by the government in this time, too.
S.S.: The government has supported us so much in recent times — that support was not there earlier. So, be it the ministry of textile, the ministry of commerce or others, they have been acknowledging the body [FDCI], and the seriousness of its intent.
It was not possible when I first started to get a politician or a serious bureaucrat to sit in our front row. And today, a lot of the designers are able to do it themselves, not only through events organized by the body. So, more power to the fact that we are considered a serious player in the textile sector and the handloom sector.
That has been a big change.
WWD: How has the industry really changed in terms of business?
S.S.: Look at the industry now! When we started it was something like a 50 million rupee [$770,000] estimate for the entire fashion industry. Now, each of the shows brings in from 20 lakhs to 50 lakh rupees to a crore. Now each designer is doing business in millions of dollars a year. That the Indian designer has come to the point domestically and overseas where they can make millions of dollars or millions of pounds and are no longer struggling is a very big achievement.
WWD: And are there many voices of dissent?
S.S.: There is sometimes a complaint by a small section of people is — that I can be — I hate to say this — but I can be a bit authoritative, but sometimes you need to do it to put a structure. Because sometimes the fashion designer himself is so creative that these things are left to other people, even in their organization, to regiment, while they have to concentrate on the creative bit. So my job, even though I understand design and craft, and art — I have more than a 30 years experience in that I have recently been given an honorary doctorate, a professorship, I teach as a faculty in many design colleges, I go and mentor many design students all over the country — the fact is that you cannot survive if you do not have some discipline in what you are doing. And if you will see, whenever we do fashion weeks it is true that there is some resistance, the resistance is for us to show…you know we have to set certain rules, how many clothes each person is able to show in each show, what is the branding being able to be done over there, how many sets of things we have to do there, what can be…those rules about the facilities we are able to provide at the fashion week are all in black and white. And it seems that it has settled very well with the fashion fraternity.
WWD: That the FDCI office is based out of your own offices enables it to save money on rent, but isn’t that a criticism you come up against as well?
S.S.: It is a well-known fact that both my services and my office space is being done in an honorary way.
I’m happy for it to go out, but the rentals and so on make it prohibitive because where are we getting our money from? FDCI is a not-for-profit society. We are looking for people who are going to sponsor things for us, who are going to help us with this. It is a big advantage to me that it is right there. I must mention that I spend less than 5 or 10 percent of my time on my own companies, and so 95 percent of my time is being spent only on FDCI. But yes it is true, we are hoping to get some finances as soon as — there is a case going on against the Delhi government on excise and entertainment where a lot of our money is blocked. As soon as that is released we would be more than happy to buy a separate office space for FDCI.
WWD: And are you going to continue as president, having completed this decade already?
S.S.: I am waiting for that next wave of designers and managers and administrators to come up and take different responsibilities in the key positions of FDCI. It is something I am looking forward to.
I will be associated with FDCI in some form or the other because nobody wants to let go of experience and wherever I can help, and I am quite happy to be able to do that. So many people in different fields consider me to be a big brother, take me on as an adviser, as a consultant, they are always wanting for me to be part of the group in some way. And I am quite happy to be able to do that.
WWD: So, when do the next elections happen?
S.S.: Well, we can have an election at any time now. We are already a bit delayed in that. But I have not been part of the election base, every year I have been unanimously chosen. Basically there is no election for the president of FDCI, once a board is formed — mine was not really a fixed term — but once the new board comes in and if they wish to have other people in a post that is always a possibility for people. I feel that in public offices like this people have to be accountable and as long as they are accountable people keep them there, but if they are not…but there has never been any stress on that as far as my role goes. I am doing this in an honorary capacity so it is not going to affect my working in the field of fashion in the future.
WWD: You bring an incredible amount of energy to what you do connecting people, connecting events. Keeping this pace for 10 years, it hasn’t been draining?
S.S.: Well, I have always lived like this, all my life. In my earlier career it was always about running against time, you’re always playing catch up, you’re fire fighting all the time because in international business there are no compromises — there are deliveries that have to be met, there are schedules to be kept. I think it is just a continuation of that role in this industry. I take it in my stride and, you know, it has not exhausted or drained my energy.
It is only the fact that when you can’t fight certain things and you are bound by certain rules and regulations which are either bureaucratic in nature or the fact that trying to get cooperation, or trying to get new sponsors — in today’s day and age it is not possible to find so much money available to us. I think all those are the challenges which are draining me a bit.
But absolutely in being there — I am there 24/7 for the fraternity, and holding the flag high on fashion, I don’t think there has been a let-down at all in these last 10 years.
If anything it has gone up, it has encouraged me — my father often used this line when I was a kid, ‘bin mare swarg nahin milta’, which literally means you cannot go to heaven without dying. I don’t think the English explanation sounds as good, but it means that you have to do a lot of hard work to achieve something — that the bottom line is you have to work at it, and you have to put your heart and soul in it — and then that surely something will come out of it.