CHATLINE: As Pankaj & Nidhi bags the finale slot at Lakme Fashion Week, the designers behind the label about keeping an open mind and why they don’t show Indian wear on the ramp
Collection notes on stencil-like fluorescent paper greeted those attending the Pankaj & Nidhi Fall/ Winter 2012 show at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan earlier this year. With the collection based on Wycinanki, the Polish art of decorative paper-cutting, that little square piece of paper was adequate enough preview of what was to come. Hand-intensive, textural, smart, with Wycinanki translating to embroidery and appliqu? in floral, linear and avian motifs on predominantly black dresses (with leather toughening up the daintiness of embellishment), the collection was typical of what the label has come to represent. Regular participants in the Capital’s fashion week, designers Nidhi and Pankaj Ahuja now prepare to show at the finale of Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) in Mumbai along with Kolkata-based designer Kallol Datta.
It’s a coveted slot, the finale, and previous editions have seen that being taken up by the ‘seniors’, the likes of Rohit Bal, Suneet Varma and Sabyasachi. So this must be a welcome leaning towards younger talent.
“The finale was quite a surprise — obviously a very, very pleasant surprise,” smiles Pankaj, when we visit them at their Noida factory. “It’s quite encouraging and, without sounding too clichéd, I think it would have been great had any other young designer done it… Well, I wouldn’t call ourselves young designers because we have been in the industry for six years, but you know… Even if it was anybody else I would have been happy because I would be like, ‘Okay, next season would be my turn, or maybe after that’.”
Things are in the initial stages — concepts, swatches, etc. — but will soon get hectic. With LFW changing its format a few years ago and deciding to showcase current collections instead of the six-months-in-advance model followed elsewhere, the team will have to put out a Winter/ Festive line in Mumbai. This will have to be followed by a Spring/ Summer 2013 line that’ll showcase in New Delhi barely a couple of months later. But then, as Pankaj tells you, they like making things difficult for themselves.
Before setting up Pankaj & Nidhi, Pankaj was working with Rohit Bal (almost a decade-long stint there). It was here that the two — both NIFT graduates from different batches — met, worked together and married, before Nidhi quit and joined export house Creative Impex.
In 2006, the two set up their eponymous label. While Western wear is what they showcase on the ramp and are, consequently, known for, the label also has an active Indian wear line that forms an important part of the brand’s business.
As Pankaj explains, “We started our business with a completely open mind. We were not sure what direction we would take in terms of whether it would be entirely Western or Indian wear. We both love doing Indian wear and we wanted that to become our staple because we live in India. We’re not apologetic about the fact that we love doing it, and we have that kind of sensibility and training. Indian wear is, eventually, the biggest market in India.” And Indian wear provided the business its foundation. “I don’t think a churidar-kurta or salwar-kameez is the thing to be showcased at fashion week. Maybe if you’re doing couture week or if there is a special Indian wear fashion week it would make sense. The show that we do at fashion week is largely targeted at an international audience. It makes sense to show a collection that is contemporary, which can sell anywhere in the world.” So, without naming it, there are two lines happening — contemporary on the ramp, and a mix of Indian wear and contemporary in stores. (Sometime in the coming years, the distinction between both lines might be formalised, we’re told.)
It was a large order from American retail chain Anthropologie that prompted a shift to the present premises after almost two years in a smaller setup close by. “We shifted here because there was no way we could have done it over there. Those were days when we used to make 200 or 100 pieces a month. Suddenly we had to make 2000 pieces in some crazy Banarasi hand-woven fabric. So it was a huge challenge. We shifted here, bought new machines, a new team, new production… everything. We were like ‘Pata nahin iske baad kya hoga, khali baith jayenge.’ That capacity was used when we expanded business years later,” Pankaj informs us.
While Poland and Wycinanki formed the theme of their last collection, it was Japan the season before that. Sashiko, a form of reinforcement stitching from the island nation, formed the base that time.
“Our design philosophy is very culture-driven. We know it’s an overused word, but we’re constantly looking out for interesting things — in museums, in bookshops, in flea markets. I’ve never been to Poland or Japan, the countries we’re most inspired by. But one day, hopefully. Any country that has a history of art and craftsmanship is an inspiration — that way India has a great craft landscape as a resource, but also countries like Guatemala, Venezuela or Portugal, Russian, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. We like to make things with our own hands. There’s very little computer work in our office. Even our presentations we do mostly by hand. In terms of technique, we like intricate things. When other designers see our clothes they’re like, ‘You guys will go blind doing that kind of intricate work,’ but that’s what we enjoy.”
Of course, it’s different things that each brings to the table. “I, being a girl, like feminine things. I always encourage Pankaj to make things that a woman would love to wear, because he’s very, very creative. So, he sometimes tends to be too creative, so I tone him down. The wearable quotient is more of my thing, and Pankaj, being the artist, only worries about his one creation at a time,” grins Nidhi. “I’m right here!” Pankaj reminds us.
“We started out as individual designers, so both of us have our own strong aesthetic. Luckily, we both like similar things, and agree on a lot of things,” Nidhi adds.
The pipeline is getting packed. Currently, besides their two flagships in Mumbai and Delhi, they retail from 15 stores internationally. The designers hope to start a menswear line eventually, and also diversify into accessories. “I think the techniques we do take quite well to accessories, like scarves, artificial jewellery. We get asked very often why we don’t do bridal wear but we, as of now, want to focus on the two really strong lines we have going right now,” says Pankaj. The label’s in the final 10 nominated for the International Woolmark Prize, besides being in contention for the Vogue Fashion Fund, so fingers crossed and knotted.