As she rummaged through her research of over six months, Harleen Sabarwal, then in her twenties, was staring at grim headlines mourning the crash of dotcom businesses and a possible stagnation of the economy. That was back in 2002. Working in Bombay as a trend forecaster for Raymond’s, she had to come up with ideas to revamp the festival collection of its brand Park Avenue that year. She had to make it younger and ‘zippier’, as it were. “There was grimness in everything I picked up,” says Sabarwal, “most of it building up after the 9/11 attacks—terrorism, war, economic stagnation. And here I was, looking at redoing an entire collection asking people to come, buy and celebrate Diwali.”
Looking at Raymond’s usual designs—checks, stripes and solids—she knew that nothing would work that season. There was tension in the air. People felt restricted and had a rising interest in spirituality. “Feng Shui became extremely popular those days,” she says, “Checks, which were usually part of half the designs, were out of the question as checks would have added to the ‘boxed’ feeling that the world was going through.” Stripes would not have appealed to buyers either, since stripes suggest ‘flow’, a sentiment that seemed blocked by anxiety. Likewise, solids would have been too plain; they held no promise of a better future.
It all looked rather bleak until Sabarwal hit upon a self-help book by American psychologist Sign A Dayhoff. Titled Diagonally Parked in a Parallel Universe: Working through Social Anxiety, it offered a way out for the season. “Diagonals it was,” she says, “That was my brief to the designers of the collection. It fit with the climate of that time.” Unsure of the market response to this idea and discouraged by a failed photo shoot with model Milind Soman (who reportedly backed out as he saw it as too ‘risky’ for a comeback campaign), Raymond’s withheld all advertising and slipped the new designs into the market quietly. “Despite the soft launch, we were sold-out for the next season too,” says Sabarwal, “Diagonals clicked because we were all stuck emotionally and customers were subconsciously attracted to them… the pattern reflected the state of mind of an entire generation.”
Eleven years later, Delhi-based designer Urvashi Kaur has zeroed in on minimalism as the season’s sentiment. It has inspired her 2014 Spring Summer Collection, the final trimmings of which she has just about finished for Delhi’s fashion week. It is a theme in response to the pressures of economic recession and climate change, and so the fabrics are soft, flowing and also organic. “It is more about serenity and minimalism,” she says, “Eco-friendly fabrics are in, as we are more conscious about the environment.” It is what she expects to see on the fashion runway this season.
Designer Ranna Gill, on the other hand, believes that the neons of the last season will continue to dominate summer fashion for another year. “It’s all about youth and brightness,” she says, “[About] trying to be cheerful.”
What unites their efforts is the fashion industry’s need to look ahead at choices of the future. Without it, what they make could be woefully out of sync with what sells.
Fashion forecasting is about predicting colours, patterns and designs that are expected to make waves the following season. “It is a whole process of studying economics, trends and even psychology to come up with options like colour palettes, designs and even fabrics that are available,” explains Kaur. “Emotions, mindsets and the general sentiment all reflect on culture,” she says, “and fashion is where it is most visible.” She cites the classic example of the female tuxedo that came into fashion after World War II as a feminist symbol of escape from the feminine.
Trend forecasting, which has a wide ambit, takes into account social influences ranging from automobiles and lifestyles to food & beverages and medicine. Most fashion houses in the West have inhouse forecasters who travel widely, study street fashion and track trends on the internet, apart from keeping tabs on innovations in fabric and materials. Much money rides on their forecasts. Guided by these, fashion labels like Donna Karan and Gucci work 9-12 months ahead while designing a collection for a season. “Forecasting is all about market economics,” says Sabarwal. “A designer running a brand will look at what is economical and trendy enough to attract buyers, the basics of business.”
In India, the practice is still in its infancy. Some firms have inhouse forecasters, but many others go by the word of forecasting agencies like Style-Sight and WGSN in London that put out a global handbook for designers and fashion houses. “Designers in India broadly look at these trends and then appropriate them to our climate and culture,” says Gill, who specialises in Western wear.
Not only does India not have agencies that issue fashion forecasts, designers are divided over whether it works or not. “Now I cannot have leather pants for the summer in India,” says Gill, “It might work in Paris or London that dictate the trends in fashion, but not here.” In any case, a huge slice of the Indian market is traditional wear. “We have different sensibilities, cultures and a huge range of climatic diversity,” says Kaur, “We also have a huge trousseau business that most designers rely heavily on. Indian bridalwear doesn’t necessarily have to follow trends ushered in by Milan or Paris.” In sum, she says, “We may look at the general colour palette, but we have our own designs to match our cultural sensibilities.”
Delhi-based designer Arjun Saluja, who has a label called Rishta by Arjun Saluja, is not even sure of global colour forecasts. “We cannot use a colour palette given down to us because that’s not how we are organised as a country,” he says. “Also, colours that might work in, say, north India, may not work in cities of the south. The choice in fabrics will be different across cities—mainly due to climatic differences, culture and general thoughts.”
Pallavi Mohan, a designer who focuses on Western wear with her label Not So Serious, however believes that global forecasts are indeed helpful in competing with global apparel labels like Zara and Mango, which put out new collections at affordable prices even before these trends get off the runway. “I am already working on my 2015 line, so keeping abreast of trends is essential,” she says, “I have a business to run.” The forecasts, though, are only reference points. “If a Bolero jacket is in fashion, I will also make a Bolero jacket but it will be in line with my creative thought and style.”
Sabarwal is critical of the way India’s design fraternity operates. Most Indian designers, she alleges, work as ‘one-night stand’ designers who only work from fashion week to fashion week and have no coherent line of thought in what they do. This, she says, is why they do not understand the value of fashion forecasting. “Most do not even have a signature style,” she says.
In Sabarwal’s opinion, Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi are among those facing an identity crisis over their style. “Only now is Malhotra looking at developing a signature style after years of experience in dressing up leading Bollywood actresses, while Sabyasachi, who happened to be the only designer with a signature style, has now become repetitive.”
Sabyasachi, who popularised khadi and a deglam look, did admit in public that he’d become repetitive after the somewhat jaded look he gave Vidya Balan at Cannes this year. That he now offers bridal makeovers on the TV show Band Bajaa Bride has not done anything to quell that criticism. Malhotra, meanwhile, is trying to make up for lost time in promoting his signature style.
“Fashion in our country is only restricted to glamorous stars, Middle East buyers and pastry events after fashion week,” says Sabarwal, “We lack an Indian identity as we blindly follow the season diktaks of the West. In most parts of the country, we don’t even have spring and fall as seasons, but we continue to bring out collections [for those].”
Kaur believes that Indian designers need to adopt a cohesive approach to fashion. “As an industry, we are divided into factions,” she says, “There is a fashion council, but it functions between two fashion weeks. Then there are bloggers and writers who haven’t been tapped [properly]. We have to function as an industry to promote the Indian design sensibility internationally.”
Professor Kaustav Sengupta, an associate professor at National Institute of Fashion Technology and a youth trend anthropologist, sees a bright future for fashion forecasting in India over the next few years. “We do have a very diverse cultural range,” he says, “but with the internet and social media becoming popular, fashion choices made by the young in today’s times have become ‘flatter’ than [those by] the previous generation—a boy in Patna and a boy in Delhi have access to the same brands and fashion information on the internet. They look the same.”
While working as a forecaster for Nike in India, Professor Sengupta says he noticed an interesting trend: consumers in Pune and Bangalore appeared to have the same choice of footwear. “Most of them were IT professionals who would travel abroad on projects,” he says, “They would end up buying the same kind of shoes.”
With forecasters like WGSN opening offices in India and with the country opening up to foreign investment in the retail sector, Sengupta expects fashion forecasting to gain in importance. “Most foreign brands setting up shop in India will engage forecasters to study the Indian market,” he says. However, he does rue what these trends imply: a gradual loss of diversity in how people dress. “We might just end up looking like people in London or Milan,” he fears, “Everyone in these cities seems to dress up in the same colours, same silhouettes and same style—maybe just different brands.”