Narendra Kumar Ahmed gains in influence even as he shuts down stores. His new job at Amazon India lets him focus on his designs and give techies style tips
In a career spanning two decades, celebrated couturier Narendra Kumar Ahmed has never needed a resume to validate his achievements,until last October when Amazon India offered him the role of creative director. He tried to wriggle out of writing one but the Human Resources department insisted. Ahmed hurriedly jotted down a few points that he thought were highlights of his career,being a part of the teaching faculty of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and launching India's first fashion magazine, Elle, as fashion editor, to name a couple. He just about filled a page.
He was also asked to turn in his graduation mark sheet from Bombay University, which he had misplaced. "I kept telling them that I have a BSc in Chemistry with 43 per cent," says an amused Ahmed at his workshop on the fourth floor of a crummy industrial estate in central Mumbai. "Did I really need a mark sheet? It is not like I'm claiming a 90 per cent!"
His office extends over three large rooms packed with masterjis squatting amid piles of colourful materials, beads and shiny sequins. Ahmed's staff members stand vigil, spouting instructions barely audible above the whirring of the sewing machines. Along the walls are rows of hangers wearing freshly-sewn sherwanis, suits and evening dresses. It's now been four months since he started work at Amazon and Ahmed still hasn't found his mark sheet. He has filed an affidavit, which he will have to produce at the University in order to get a duplicate.
Since May, Ahmed has been leaving his home every Monday morning at 4 am to catch a flight to Bangalore, where Amazon's office is located. On Friday night, he flies back to Mumbai to attend to his own business. This constant back and forth has to be tiring, but Ahmed makes it sound effortless. "My only challenge is learning how to use Microsoft Outlook," he jokes.
There has been speculation over whether his new job will leave any time for him to make clothes, but Ahmed looks relieved to have escaped the day-to-day management of his two stores. "I have a team that's been with me for years to look after my business," he says. "This way, I'm actually concentrating more on my designing."
On his new role, he offers limited insight. He explains that he's not at liberty to reveal much except that he is working with a team to build Amazon India's new fashion stores. "I will use my years of experience in various areas of fashion to make Amazon.in the premiere lifestyle portal in India. On 19 September, we launched our 'Fashion Jewellery' and 'Watches' stores–the widest selection in the country. We have many more things planned for the future," he says.
What drew him to the project was the opportunity to learn the ropes of e-commerce, and he couldn't have asked for a better place than Amazon for that.
Ahmed was grilled over 12 rounds of intense interviews with various heads of the company based in the US and Japan before landing the job. He's not sure if there were other designers in the running. Looking back, he seems befuddled at how he made the cut. He remembers being quizzed on his leadership skills and ability to guide a team. To that end, Ahmed's selection doesn't surprise much. As he catches up on work at his Mumbai office, he speaks to his staffers with warmth and respect and attends to each of his visitors patiently.
"My team hasn't changed in 13 years and that's saying a lot in this industry. After working for me, many of them had the option to go elsewhere for double the salary, but they chose to be here because we believe in what we do."
His colleagues at Amazon, mostly techies in loose-fitted jeans, casual shirts and chappals, are still reeling from their first meeting with Ahmed, who turned up in lime green pants. Now they wait eagerly to see what shade he will wear next. On the rare occasion that Ahmed wears regular pants, they seem disappointed. ÒWhen I met one of my bosses a few weeks later, he said, "So you're the guy with the green pants." But that's the great thing about fashion, it allows you to be yourself," Ahmed says. He doesn't dole out fashion advice to his colleagues but says he's happy to guide the few who come to him with sartorial queries.
In January, Ahmed touched another milestone. His store in Mumbai's Khar area was listed as one of the world's best for menswear by Esquire magazine's Big Black Book of Style. For the uninitiated, the Big Black Book is considered the definitive guide to men's style by industry insiders and fashion aficionados. Ahmed is the first Indian designer to have found mention in the publication, along with names like Tom Ford, Burberry and Louis Vuitton. "It was a huge honour for me. I think I can die now," he says, while trying to fish a copy of the magazine out of his office desk. He was unaware of the news till a friend in publishing informed him. "I couldn't believe it. I asked him to send me three copies. To think that my label, which has only been around for 10 years, was in the same list as the other big names made it [even] more special," he says.
There aren't too many places where one can get hold of a Narendra Kumar ensemble. Ahmed once had a store in Bangalore's Leela Palace Hotel, but he shut it down. About three years ago, he also closed his store in Delhi, considered the nerve-centre of the fashion industry. "I find that city too aggressive for my liking. I didn't feel like managing that store any more. I studied for two years in Delhi [at NIFT] but that's it. I also had a couple of job opportunities there but didn't take them," he says. He's now left with his store in Khar and one in Pune. "I'm not interested in having a hundred stores. I just concentrate on my cuts and fits," he says.
Ahmed doesn't claim to be an astute businessman. He's used to getting paranoid calls from his accountant Suresh when he hands out clothes for free, which he does quite often. He once gifted a blue velvet waistcoat he was wearing to a woman he met at one of his shows. "She told me she liked it, so I gave it to her. There are very few people who appreciate good work and then come up and tell you [so]," he says. The most affordable Narendra Kumar suit is for Rs 25,000; they go as high as 1.5 lakh.
What he lacks as a businessman, he makes up for in creativity. At fashion weeks, Ahmed's shows are always highly anticipated. They play out like mini movies, complete with story, script and music. He chooses themes that are powerful, relevant and sometimes deeply personal. The show closest to his heart was at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. It was inspired by a love letter his father Rukunuddin Ahmed had written his mother Lakshmi when she was being coerced into marrying someone else. "My father was a Muslim and my mother a Hindu. At their time, an inter-community marriage was almost like asking for death. I wanted to do a show on love and courage," he says.
Ahmed speaks about his shows passionately. So when his message is lost on the audience, he feels disillusioned, even a tad angry. He considers his show at the Lakme Fashion Week in March,titled 'The Thought Police' after a concept from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,one of his best. "The show was the first of its kind and something that has never been attempted the world over. But I got no reaction from the press."
He hired bouncers for the show and dressed them in police khakis. They lined both sides of the runway, obstructing the audience's view of the models. Those sitting in the front row managed a fleeting glimpse of the clothes. "It was a reflection of what was going on in our country, Nirbhaya being sent to Singapore for treatment when the Government knew she wasn't going to make it, two girls being arrested for an innocent comment on Facebook, and Dhoble's crackdown on nightclubs. We were being ruled by fear and that's what I was trying to show. But the photographers kept complaining about how they couldn't see anything," says Ahmed, shaking his head ruefully.
Could this cost him an audience or even potential buyers? "I don't care," he shoots back. After a pause, he adds, "As long as I can sleep soundly at night, I'm happy."