Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh talks about fashion’s opposite perceptions and going online.

It was the grand finale of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in the Capital in March 2010. Rajesh Pratap Singh, showing his Fall/ Winter 2010 line, took the theme of “Bespoke Tales” to tell the story of fashion. Thousands of toiles constituted the backdrop, while a choir sang “Us and Them”, symbolising the contrast between insiders’ and outsiders’ perception of the fashion industry. With a row of smart, tailored separates, minimal makeup and frills, this was a grand finale detox — a welcome change from the overdose of irrelevant entertainment and peripheral ostentation that grand finales generally tend to become. While many welcomed it, one question from the post-show press conference stood out: “Aapke finale mein koi showstopper kyun nahiin tha? (Why wasn’t there a showstopper in your finale?)” The response came as a gentle “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Now, at his Faridabad factory, sipping sherbet made of some citrus fruit grown on the premises, remind him about the incident, and he winces. “There’s a serious problem with fashion journalism in the country. We’ve got some complete clowns out there. There are some people who understand fashion, who do some good work. And some of them switch between the role of blackmailers and users and people who don’t know anything about the trade… A lot of them are in the electronic media, and unless that gets sorted we’ll always have problems like that. Maybe in that finale I should have had an actor, and they would have loved it. But that’s not my point. I guess they didn’t get it, they didn’t understand why there were muslins at the back and why this amazing choir sang ‘Us and Them’. The point was ‘Us and them’, which was basically people who are in the industry, who understand, and people who don’t. But people didn’t get it. People just didn’t get it! I didn’t want to argue after that.”

In a scenario where designers are asked what colours and silhouettes they have used in a just-concluded show, things could get irksome. Rajesh explains, “There’s this element in our fashion journalist community which is completely on a tangent. This time (Fall/ Winter 2013) I did wool and Ikat. This person — I think she was some “official” journalist, something to do with Wills Lifestyle or the FDCI — spoke to me about how certain designers had already used Ikat in Paris. And I tried to explain to her that Ikat is not a print and that it’s a tie-dye technique. And she obviously didn’t understand the difference between an Ikat print, which is just a replica of what Ikat is, and doing an actual Ikat. We should be more careful taking people like that. Ninety per cent of the people didn’t understand what I was trying to say at that point (in 2010). So then I shut up. I was like, ‘Yes, you’re right… go for it.’ But having said that, there is a 10 per cent that understands. It’s again a story of us and them…”

The NIFT graduate of the 1994 batch — Manish Arora, Namrata Joshipura, Himanshu Dogra, and wife Payal Pratap are batchmates — set up his eponymous label in 1997.

“It was fairly simple then. We had two-three layers of generations of designers. One was Mr. (Rohit) Bal and gang, and then there was Ashish (Soni), JJ (Valaya), people two or three batches senior to us, who had already moved into the market. And then all of us were in some kind of a job. Some of my batchmates started their own businesses, and the brighter ones, the intelligent ones, stayed back in jobs.”

For a person hailing from Jaipur, the fascination with fabric and clothing, however, started before NIFT happened. “We had certain heroes in Jaipur who were into textiles already, like John Singh and Faith Singh from Anokhi. They really were our cult heroes — for other reasons also, but also because of the amazing work they were doing. There was Brigitte Singh, who really started everything… These were the people we looked up to. I’m not an exception; a lot of people who were growing up in Jaipur were influenced by them,” Rajesh recalls.

Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi followed, and alongside a stint with David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore at Abraham & Thakore, and “textile genius” Martand Singh.

“When you’re in Jaipur you either join the Science stream or you go to Stephen’s or SRCC. So I just happened to go there. Obviously it was an amazing experience — some of my closest friends are from that place — but I think doing CA or an MBA was not something I had the brains for.” NIFT followed.

Late 90s, Indian fashion started travelling out and the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) was set up. Rajesh argues that the FDCI-initiated fashion week’s biggest value lies in giving the industry a timetable to adhere to. “At least that was the intention — that buyers would come at the same time, and designers would get into a routine of producing, sampling, showing, selling… I think it has helped. For all the criticism for fashion week — and I mean the FDCI fashion week and not the drama ones — that was the intention, and that’s what it’s given to the industry. That’s something that we should be proud of.”

In a field fascinated with “USP” and “philosophy” and all terms fancy, Rajesh is dismissive in his self-deprecation. “I don’t think about things like niches and styles and these marketing focuses but I think I’m not so organised. What I do is make new things. Having a niche or a marketing thing is for people to fit in later. Basically, whether it’s jackets or anything else, it’s garment construction, new ways of making a fabric, new ways of making a garment more structured, more constructed, new materials, blending it with the virtues of Indian craft or handloom, taking the positives from both areas and just trying to R&D in that and trying to make something out of it… that’s what it is.”

E-retail is the future

With expanding markets and the consequent need to address that, e-retail is an important area; the Rajesh Pratap Singh e-store will be launched soon.

“I am quite positive about the online market. My problem with the online market is people who’re coming up with their shopping websites, and all these investors and this big number and big drama that’s going on. The ultimate aim of all these guys is to sell to a VC. For me that’s the core problem. I have a problem with that, because I think there is no soul in it. Somehow business and investments like that take away the charm of doing a pure thing. Having said that, it’s amazing; it’s the future. If people don’t have the time for some staple things they’re going to buy online. For a client who doesn’t have the time to go to a brick-and-mortar it’s easy. I buy online all the time. I can’t go to a book shop to buy a book,” says the designer.

Online shopping serves another customer — the shopper who doesn’t like shopping. “A lot of people don’t like shopping. I just can’t go into a shop and buy — anywhere in the world, wherever it is. For me, going to a mall is like an onslaught. More and more things are moving into malls, which for people like me is uncomfortable. For a lot of my clients, we shut the shop when they come to the shop sometimes, because I understand how they think. So for a lot of people like that, online is a great medium. It’s impersonal, you don’t want to meet people, you don’t want to see them. You just want the product. You don’t have the time, or you want to spend the time on something more productive than being bombarded by a sales team.”

Everybody knows Rajesh Pratap Singh likes his bikes. His “scissor bike” is a bit of a legend — it now sits at Evoluzione in Chennai. “It goes back to where I come from, actually,” says Rajesh. “I’m from Jaipur, and in Jaipur everybody has a bike. At least when I was growing up — and there still is — a serious culture of motorcycles. It’s something that was always there. Now you get great bikes. At that time it was much simpler pieces, so people worked on it with whatever they had. Again, John Singh was one person who had the best bikes. All the boys my age were influenced by two things — motorcycles and polo. These things were big in Jaipur, I think they still are. I had all bikes — RD 350, a Yezdi, (Yamaha) RX100, a Vespa. I started with a scooter. Now I have a Bullet. The RD350 was a beautiful bike! The problem was the spare parts; you had to go down Faridabad to the factory if you wanted a spark plug. It was a beauty. I don’t see them anymore. I don’t know what happened to all those bikes.”