Certain pandemic-born brands display a nuanced knowledge of the shift in market demands during the pandemic and an irreverence towards seasonal fashion and conventional modes of production and marketing.
During the core lockdown months of 2020, some of fashion’s biggest names, both international and in India, took a harsh blow as studios shut and production was halted. Uncertainty, fear and insecurity brewed as established design houses either shut shop and/or declared bankruptcy. While in many cases, trouble lingered even before COVID-19 hit, the worldwide crisis served as an accelerator of the major problems and trends in the fashion industry, be it the sustainability issues or questionable supply chains of big honchos. During this time, a handful of small Indian brands were blossoming from the cracks over Zoom meetings and social media platforms. And while each of them have a distinctive design DNA, the learnings from the pandemic they imbibed in their production, operations, and marketing continues to be a binding thread. They display a nuanced knowledge of the shift in market demands during the pandemic, an irreverence towards seasonal fashion and conventional modes of production and marketing, and are digital-reliant; these brands are maneuvering the uncertainty of these times by not only doing away with the old rule book, but questioning the need for one altogether.
“The pandemic has changed a lot of things fundamentally, and most of all it forced everyone to slow down. And this has allowed brands to evaluate what is important and refine their offerings, especially the ones which launched during that time. They have been shaped by circumstances and hence are more informed and conscious about what they produce. It also created a market comprising people who are more deliberate about their choices now, and it’s a perfect match,” notes Rin Jajo, creative head of Ogaan India. “A lot of fashion brands in the past started with some great collections and then slipped in keeping that ‘freshness’ alive. I admire labels which started something beautiful in hard times like last year, and that gives me hope that those brands will be particular about sustaining in better times,” shares Kshitij Kankaria, stylist and founder of creative agency Soak.
“In our story, we always say that we are a COVID baby. It is a very strong part of our story,” says Arunima Sahni Vig, founder of contemporary womenswear label Ura, which launched in January 2021. To her, the challenges of bringing a brand to the market during a worldwide pandemic were thus far unpredictable. “As we were not being able to touch and feel the fabrics together in the office, we were forced to find new ways to keep going. We couldn’t carry out any active sourcing or production during the actual lockdown. We simply had to work with the sourcing which was already done and stay prepared to fill in the gaps as soon as we could. But the truth is, in fashion, everything changes when you see it in person,” she adds, highlighting one of the key roadblocks in making clothes during a pandemic.
However, for Neha Celly’s Nece Gene, physical production wasn’t an obstacle initially as her creations were born on the digital screen itself. For Nece Gene “digital pieces came first and the physical collection went live in Jan 2021” as the brand came into being after its digital pieces made on CLO 3D (a fashion design software) were showcased virtually at the Helsinki Fashion Week 2020. Celly’s zero-waste denim brand Nece Gene uses denim waste to make avant garde products, diverting it from the landfills. “Denim is a very natural resource-intensive industry. My mission as a denim expert is to make products using minimal resources and the highest degree of design,” expresses Celly. Following the showcase, Celly launched her brand on Instagram, which, she says, turned out to be beneficial as people had extra time on their hands due to the pandemic. “All the brand activities and initiatives were looked at differently. In a normal scenario, I could look at a launch event but instead, social media was given the most importance for the launch.”
The amplified reliance on digital platforms for sales and marketing saw a steep upward shift during the pandemic as people spent more time on social media in the confines of their home. A survey of 25,000 consumers across 30 markets showed engagement increasing by 61 percent over normal usage rates. For countries that were hit the hardest by the virus, messaging across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp increased by 50 percent. “The best way to reach an audience during the pandemic was through social media as the attention of the audience was greater during the pandemic, and people were absorbing good content. We took it very seriously because the reach is much greater than what we could achieve at any given point through a physical event,” observes KH Radharam, founder of contemporary classic label Alamelu.
Amit Hansraj, founder of ‘seasonless’ womenswear label Inca, was unperturbed by the concerns of sales and marketing departments as he admits to the brand being born solely out of the want to be productive, and not as a commercial venture. “The lockdown actually helped me create Inca,” says Hansraj. He found his team over Instagram as people who were laid off during the pandemic turned to him for help. Unable to find them other opportunities, Hansraj decided it “would be the right time to explore their talent by offering them this opportunity to work from home. Since they had no other engagements, they gave my work a lot of priority.” For Hansraj, being isolated in his new house in Delhi pushed him to innovate, which inspired Inca’s first collection launched in September 2020. “The thought of Inca came from the house I was living in. I had just moved back from Mumbai to Delhi in February before the lockdown, so my house was an absolutely new territory for me. I started noticing the terrazzo on the floor, the walls, the tiles in my bathroom, the marble and granite slab in the kitchen. The brand is about the things we see everyday but we don’t pause to notice them.”
As our world became limited to our homes and the grim news of the pandemic engulfed us from time to time, inspiration sources ran dry. In the midst of this, Leh Studio’s Himi looked back on memories and personal belongings that sparked his first collection, Home Sweet Home, which “explores the ecstasy in the ordinary; an approach to reflect the highs and lows which make home a place like no other”. The brand, launched in July 2020 on Instagram, aims to revolutionise the Indian fashion industry and bring about a fresh narrative through its sustainable, seasonless, and gender-fluid pieces. “As people become more aware of the importance of slow fashion, supporting small local businesses, sustainability, start-ups like ours, whose core lies in the ‘made-to-order’ module, have begun to benefit,” he says.
The designer is hinting towards the longstanding demand and gradual shift towards sustainability-driven design that got accentuated and catalysed during the pandemic. A McKinsey survey in April, 2020 reported that brands’ promotion of sustainability was an important factor in customers’ purchasing decisions. Additionally, people were also forced to turn to homegrown brands and shop locally as travel was banned, giving birth to the #VocalforLocal campaign and the “Support Small Businesses” feature on Instagram. “There is a tendency among people now to be more open to supporting homegrown brands, a wonderful change to see,” shares Amalie Othilia Brandi Mikkelsen, who co-founded Amalie with husband Karandeep Singh Chadha in September 2020. The brand’s design ethic is rooted in Indian textiles, embroidery and the easy-to-wear mentality of Scandinavian fashion. “We want to represent traditional Indian crafts in our garments, but give it a modern take — whether it’s a kind of hand-block motif or a different way of using ancient weaving methods or embroidery techniques, we have paired it with easy-to-wear silhouettes in our first collection Culture,” says Mikkelsen. Malie exemplifies the growing trend of contemporising Indian textiles and craftsmanship for the cosmopolitan wearer.
Moreover, with veteran brands scrambling to align themselves with the demands of the hour by launching webshops, turning to lower-priced daily-wear lines while downsizing due to capital crunch, new brands like Dash and Dot have imbibed those lessons from its inception. “Very early on, we took a call that we wouldn’t furlough people in their time of need. Rather, we pivoted, and put our resources in design, tech and fabric to bring Dash and Dot to market. We worked extremely closely with our weavers, artisans and mills while establishing strict protocols from day one to ensure we could chart a sustainable path forward,” says founder Ashray Gujral. On the changing consumer behaviour during the lockdown, he notes, “The expectations of the brands to deliver a personalised, responsive service are heightened, and comfort and great design are not seen as mutually exclusive. One of our key performers has been our work•play collection that is built to look like formal/work wear, but feels like track suits. Given that consumers were skewing toward comfort, but there still existed a need for sharp, tailored work clothing, this was our response to the moment that has become a signature of Dash and Dot.”
Despite the notable shifts in consumer behaviour, the overarching business predictability continued to hang by a thread amid a worldwide economic crisis. As Radharaman points out, “In the face of such epic uncertainty, it is difficult to maintain a business outlook of how things are going to be three or six months down the road, especially in prêt wear, where we are planning the next collection even before the present collection launches. But what happens if the next season goes into a lockdown, what happens to your inventory? The uncertainty breeds fear.”
However, these brands seem to have found a way around the problem of inventory not only with the help of small-scale production but also by adopting a seasonless, multi-occasion, and utilitarian approach to design. Ura’s contemporary essentials in classic and seasonless shapes are made to last. The staples give the wearer the freedom to dress the pieces up or down, wearing them for a Zoom meeting or an intimate gathering. According to Hansraj, their easy silhouettes are something “you don’t want to think twice before wearing”, while Alamelu’s seasonless outlook is aimed at ensuring that “what looks good in today’s collection will also be relevant in future seasons. Our silhouettes are designed like that because they are not very form-fitting, barring two or three pieces,” says Radharaman.
Even though the pandemic continues to rage on in parts of India and the world, the hope remains that restrictions will slowly loosen and people will be able to meet, gather, and shop offline, as some of these brands look to cultivate a physical presence while simultaneously sharpening their digital media influence. “We do see brick and mortar in the future for the brand, but at present, we want to try and improve the online experience and make it even more comfortable for an increasing number of customers,” shares Gujral, while Hansraj adds that even though he isn’t planning on a physical space in the near future, he does look forward to creating “a collaborative space where it’s not just about the product that I make but also products from designers with similar aesthetic and brand ethos”. Celly plans on a space with a similar approach: “I wouldn’t invest in a physical space all for Nece Gene. If it has to be, it’ll be my brand along with a whole lot of other sustainability champions I know.”
The havoc that the virus has wreaked all over has already left irreparable dents in every industry; for the fashion industry, it has acted as an eye-opener. The challenges and lessons of operating a business during this time has prepared these brands for the worst as they continue to find innovative ways to operate in an oversaturated market during a global crisis. “The lesson that I have already imbibed is taking nothing for granted. Nobody in the world expected something of such epic proportions. So, I think all we can do is be resilient to withstand any shock that may come our way,” notes Radharaman.