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Interview: Mandira Wirk, fashion designer

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-31

THE name of Ms Mandira Wirk is rapidly become a household brand in India, Europe and, increasingly, in South-east Asia these days, especially among young people who seek out fusion fashions that are affordable. Ms Wirk never trained as a designer - her talents for colour and form were innate, as she told The Straits Times the other day. She was determined to be known not only as an Indian fashion designer but also as an international one. By the age of 20, when most young people are still scratching about in search of a career, Ms Wirk had already set up her own fashion line. Now she's a celebrity in the fashion industry - and still not quite 28. She represents a new generation of ambitious, resourceful Asians who successfully blend creative skills with marketing savvy in this age of growing globalisation. The following are excerpts from an interview:

Why did you get into the fashion industry?

As a child, fashion magazines fascinated me. Thereafter when I was in college studying history and literature, I started designing my own wardrobe, without any theoretical or practical knowledge. And while still at college, I also started a really small unit with two tailors. They worked out of their homes. I started getting a lot of compliments from my friends and relatives, some of whom even bought my apparel. So here I was, still a college student, and already making decent money. That was really the turning point. Before I even graduated, I realised that fashion was going to be my career.

What was so special about your apparel that made people buy something from a college student?

I love straight clean cuts, very simple and very classy. The look was simple, no frills, yet very classy and most importantly, wearable. Perhaps even more importantly, my clothes were affordable. My way of starting out was to emphasise classiness and affordability. I sought not praise but business opportunities from the very start - both domestically and internationally. You could call me a college capitalist who championed globalisation before that concept became fashionable, as it were.

Did you go out and get any formal training in fashion after graduating from college?

I interned briefly with Ms Rina Dhaka, who was well established in the fashion industry. She did not view me as a competitor, and was delighted to share her vast experience. This was all a really good experience. Thereafter, I expanded my own unit at Shahpurjat, a dusty New Delhi suburb, where the rents were relatively low. Launching a full-scale fashion label requires lots of perseverance, dedication, capital investment, hard work and luck. I learnt from my own mistakes about things like proper in-house management, proper accounting procedures, and people skills - although it was an expensive learning experience.

Did you make an attempt to familiarize yourself with business law as well?

Yes, most definitely. I wanted my self-education to be as complete as possible. In India, where there are still antiquated labour regulations on the books, an entrepreneur - particularly a young one running a business entirely on her own meager capital - needs to understand the legal aspects of business - sales tax, labour laws, intellectual property issues, excise and duties, etc. When I started out, at least, there was little guidance forthcoming from the government on these matters. You were expected to sort things out for yourself. Well, that's what I did. It was on-the-job education for me.

Is the government being more helpful to small-scale entrepreneurs these days?

I believe so. It's a 'New India' - it appears to be going in the right direction as far as economic reforms go, and this means encouraging not just the big business houses to expand but also the small-and-medium-sized businesses, of whom there are literally hundreds of thousands in our country of 1.1 billion people. I think Indians are natural entrepreneurs, but they haven't had the opportunities to demonstrate their abilities because of our unfortunate love affair with socialism since independence. But now there's a lot of awareness of global competition - and there's also growing Indian influence in the West's fashion industry. But here at home, we need to speed up our economic liberalisation, and we need to make significant improvements in what's still rather poor infrastructure.

From where do you draw inspiration for your designs?

Well, it could be anything - it could be just a plain glass, could be nature, flowers, old building or some old fabric and the texture and colour of that fabric. It could be just a woman in a village carrying water from the communal well; just her expression can set off something in me. A fashion designer needs to be a keen observer of the environment around her. It should stimulate you. India - Asia - is a zone of dazzling colours and forms. How could you fail to find inspiration here?

What's the daily routine like of being both a designer and a businesswoman?

It's hardly routine. It's 24/7. One has to understand the latest trends, colours, silhouettes, and the availability of fabrics. This means constant research on my part, talking to potential customers, understanding the evolving sensibility of a growing middle class that increasingly has the money to spend on affordable fashions. New patterns, new motifs, new fabrics don't just come about through osmosis. There's a relentless amount of homework that I've personally got to do all the time.

You design fashion for both men and women. Are Indian men becoming more fashion conscious?

Definitely. In fact, I've been doing men's wear since December 2003. My recent Fall Winter 2004 fashion show had a significant amount of content concerning men's apparel and accessories. The fashion consciousness that we're seeing - certainly in India's cities - flows from access to foreign fashion channels, MTV, movies, and the Internet. Sociologically, too, things have been changing with bewildering speed in India. For example, dating has become more acceptable among the urban youth. I see that young people want to be trendier. And because of growing economic opportunities, particularly for the middle classes, their purchasing power has also increased.

What are India's young people looking for in their clothes?

To start with, affordability. Haute couture is certainly around in India, especially in traditional designs for women - such as saris and ethnic attire. But I also strive for what I continually call 'the perfect balance.' I feel the perfect balance is to revive old traditional embroidery and combine it with western cuts. While purchasing power is rising among urban professionals, it's still nowhere near what you see in the industrialised countries. That means someone like me always has to keep costs down - both in production and in prices for the consumer.

You have a calm demeanour, but you're reported to be a driven woman. Would that be an accurate assessment?

I'm a child of the age of globalisation. You've not only got to go with the flow, you're got to run ahead of it. In the consumer fashion business, it's all about anticipating what your consumers want - not just today, but months down the road. So yes, you can call me an obsessed woman. But I like to think that my obsession with developing a business that can actually serve everyday consumers who're looking for affordable elegance - that such obsession is a healthy one. I simply don't believe in failure. But I think I'm experienced enough to know that there will always be obstacles in your way. In fact, obstacles give me added challenge. Tackling them makes me stronger.

So where do see yourself going now?

I'm not trying to be immodest, but your question relatives to my driving dream. It's to become a very successful, self-made businesswoman with stores in all Indian metros, with a growing reputation and presence overseas - especially at this time when Indian influence in fashion is very much in vogue with top Western design houses. There's a lot awareness of Indian culture and heritage through the embroideries and craftsmanship of India.

What do you say to young, would-be fashion entrepreneurs?

Never ever give up. It always makes good sense to climb the ladder step by step. Be very focused, be totally dedicated to achieving your goals, however difficult they are. At the end of the day it's your personal satisfaction that counts. I'm not daunted by competition. Competition is healthy - it helps you to perform better in your work. We still need to build an ethos of competition in India. Sometimes, there's just too much fatalism - too much acceptance of the inevitable, especially among women. Well, call me a different kind of a young Indian woman, if you wish. Nothing's inevitable - other than success, if you work hard and smart for it. I would especially urge more of India's young women to become entrepreneurs. This is going to be the "Decade of the Indian Woman." More and more opportunities are opening up for women in the professions. But I happen to think that women make for natural businesspersons. Good organizational sense, people skills, and societal sharpness are wired into us.

And what's your advice to India's market-oriented new government?

I'm hardly about to give these very senior people any advice, and they are unlikely to ask me for any. But I do feel that most important in their economic liberalisation efforts should be labour reforms, as this will lead to an increase in productivity, accountability and the quality of work. It will make India much more competitive in the international manufacturing sector. We are nowhere near where we could be.

How would you sum up your life's philosophy, even though you're still on the right side of 30?

Mahatma Gandhi once said that work is worship. He lived well before my time. But if I have a philosophy, it would be what he said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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