Designers Hemant Sagar and Didier Lecoanet started off with haute couture. After more than a decade in ready-to-wear, they now launch a denim line. Shalini Shah has the details

Express dismay at the trend of actors as ‘showstoppers’ in fashion shows, and Hemant Sagar ventures, “Yeah, it literally stops the shows. It’s a very appropriate name; how to stop a show. And how to kill fashion totally.” We’re meeting designers Hemant Sagar and Didier Lecoanet on a drizzling end-of-winter evening at The Dirty Martini at Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mehrauli, where they’re launching their new denim line, Genes, as well as a capsule collection with online fashion store Freecultr.

LH Lab, their denim and casual wear store, has just opened in New Delhi’s Khan Market, and they have an eye open on the price points (denims go up to Rs.3900 and other casuals up to Rs.8000) and customers’ preferences. “It’s very affordable, it’s meant to be that way. And it’s all manufactured by us in our own factory. So the guidelines that direct the drop-dead red carpet gown are the same as for a pair of jeans — it has its own details, its originality, its own cut and pattern, its own life, its own existence.”

But denim is tricky business. Barring an occasional capsule line or collaboration here and there — Tarun Tahiliani once designed a line for Levi’s Diva range — Indian designers have stayed away from full-fledged manufacturing.

“Because it’s industrial manufacture. You can’t make jeans on the sewing machine in your garage. That’s a big, big challenge because you have to have a lot of machines to make denim. That’s why it’s called engineered, right? You need engineers to make it, you need textile engineers, people who understand the fit… So that’s many things that many people don’t know about denim,” Hemant explains. “The whole notion of know-how is totally underestimated in this country. People think that shows are what make fashion. The fact is that it’s the clothes that make fashion.”

Denim’s contexts are changing; with labels like Chanel and Balmain integrating it in their collections, the sturdy fabric has been getting a high-fashion makeover.

And denim’s far away from what they duo started off with — haute couture. The designers studied couture at Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris, and set up their label right after passing out in 1978. Ministry recognition for the couture label came in 1984.

“We met at school. It was very classic. School boys, full of ambition and wanting to do a collection at the fashion show, which was the ultimate thing in the whole world. He (Didier) was lucky he had an apartment. I was living in a small hotel in Paris at that time. On his kitchen table we started cutting our first garments. He did the jackets, I did the skirts. At that point of time we knew how to sew, we knew all about draping — we already had our clients before finishing school. It was self-made, not ‘Masterji, yeh karo’,” Hemant recalls.

Real value addition, when they opened their studio on Rue Faubourg St Honore in Paris, came when Juliette Cambursano joined their atelier, bringing with her a wealth of experience earned at Balenciaga, Mila Schon, Valentino and Pierre Cardin. “It replaced our actual schooling because we were a bit impatient to get going by ourselves. Today it’s the norm; that time it was totally unheard of to come out of school and start off by yourself. For many years, I must say, we did miss the actual schooling after school, the 10 or 15 years you should be spending in somebody’s workshop to learn all about couture. That’s what she kind of replaced and taught us,” says Hemant.

However, the move to India in 2002 meant that ready-to-wear replaced haute couture. But things, he explains, haven’t changed completely. “It’s about making exclusive, beautiful day clothes. That was always our thing. The first piece we made together — the skirt and jacket — was a day suit. It was about elegant but potentially day dressing… So when you don’t have an haute couture workshop, you have to bypass a good amount of creation, which many people don’t understand. They don’t understand that creating a garment is completely different from copying one or having it copied. And that’s, of course, the best way of having a collection that represents nothing; I mean, from the emotional point of view. Which is not something that many people understand — that there has to be an emotion behind the clothes.”

The lack of understanding rankles in various spheres; right now he’s slightly amused, and flabbergasted, that someone asked him the selling price of the recent lighted installation pieces at India Gate as part of the ‘Bonjour India’ festival.

Over the years, Hemant maintains that while the location might have changed, the philosophy hasn’t. “When you’re judging a garment coming out of your own creation, you have to be very sure that you have to be a little uncomfortable in front of it. There has to be 5 to 10 per cent of uncomfortable, unexpected newness to it, otherwise it’s not worth anything. If the garment in front of you is completely reassuring, beautiful and calms your nerves down to the end, you can be sure it’s something that you have done before, so it’s not interesting.”

Clothes maketh a designer

At the ongoing Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in Pragati Maidan, Lecaonet Hemant won’t be showing on the ramp, though they do have stall presence. Point out the season-to-season sameness that tends to creep in amongst most labels, Hemant Sagar wryly observes, “Being a successful designer is just like being an Olympic champion. What is the difference between the champion and the other participants? It that extra 3 or 5 per. What is the extra 3 to 5 per cent? It’s the dreams during your show. It’s the stuff that won’t sell that makes people dream. And these people are so down to their cash registers, they’re only making clothes that’ll sell. And no one dreams about them. How do you make your name as a designer? Not because you’re pretty, not because you dress Melanie Griffith, but because you’re good. Talk about your clothes, not who wears them… The bonds between fashion and cinema are as old as cinema and fashion. You must not kill fashion but putting it on an actor, and the actor shouldn’t kill it by wearing it wrong. There has to be an understanding. The real beautiful stories are when they’re continuous. Stories like Catherine Deneuve and YSL… those are beautiful stories. Or Katherine Hepburn dressing only in Givenchy for 10 or 15 years. To have your clothes hanging on a rack and having 15 actresses pass by and one choosing a t-shirt does not mean dressing a person; it means she got an offer. It will not make your name, it will not make anyone recognise your talent as a designer.”