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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sanjay Kapoor

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-09

Sanjay Kapoor of India studied business in America, and now he's back to do business here.

"What better place than New York as our first stop overseas?" Mr. Kapoor, managing director and CEO of India's largest fashion company, Satya Paul, said yesterday. "What better place to put on a show?"

The show features Indian beauty queens and runway models displaying apparel created by Mr. Kapoor's designers. The gala is likely to be a riot of colors, and of fusion music and style. His new trouser-sari, for instance, promises to intrigue both the audience and the trade. The audience will be studded with Indian film stars and Indian corporate tycoons who've specially flown over for the event, which doubles as a benefit for Pratham, an Indian humanitarian organization.

Present, too, will be wealthy Indians who populate the top ranks of American corporations, the sort who can fluidly write out $25,000 checks for a table at Mr. Kapoor's show.

With his lean, angular looks, tailored suit and turquoise tie, Mr. Kapoor could easily feature himself in his own show, which will take place tomorrow evening at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The American idiom that he acquired along with an MBA at the University of Rochester, and the familiarity with the American corporate scene from his early professional years at Citigroup, certainly are assets in dealing with any audience in America.

But he won't be primping on stage. He's here to seek customers in the country that's India's biggest trading partner, with imports of more than $10 billion in textiles and clothes alone. With President Bush's recent moves to strengthen bilateral ties with India, entrepreneurs such as Mr. Kapoor are anticipating a dramatic growth in bilateral business as well.

There's also the fact that Indian culture seems to have seized the popular imagination in America.

"India has become 'hot' in America - just look around you," Mr. Kapoor said. "Indian restaurants, Indian authors, Indian software, Indians making fortunes on Wall Street. India isn't some distant place any longer, it has arrived."

Mr. Kapoor wants to make Satya Paul India's first truly international brand. He hopes to open boutiques here and in San Francisco, where he will stage a fashion show next week, to complement the 16 stores he has in India. And while his annual sales of $25 million may seem modest by American standards, that is a formidable figure in India, where the domestic economy has been opened up only recently to wider private entrepreneurship after years of a stifling "Socialist Raj."

This isn't Mr. Kapoor's first venture overseas, however. A decade ago, he sold ties to European fashion houses, which then sold the cravats under their label. His tenure with Citigroup involved a stint in Singapore, and Mr. Kapoor has dabbled in real estate and investments.

"I am a serial entrepreneur," he said. "I'm as motivated as anyone else to succeed - but I need to have fun in what I do."

It's hard to discern how much fun Mr. Kapoor had when he acquired Satya Paul in late 2001. The company, which was founded in 1985, was stagnant. There was virtually no marketing, and other fashion houses were cashing in on the rising incomes and broadening tastes of the growing Indian middle class of 400 million.

Mr. Kapoor's turn-around strategy was anchored in the recognition that this middle class, while favoring Western attire at work, inevitably reverted to traditional clothes during the evening hours of socializing. He sharpened traditional sarees by injecting a couture touch into his designs. He also invigorated his retail operations, applying the acumen he picked up in Rochester and at Citigroup. Now Satya Paul's revenues are growing at nearly 100% annually.

And what gives him the confidence that his business will be successful in America, a brutal market for fashion designers?

"The Japanese came here but retained their cultural look in the clothes they sold," Mr. Kapoor said, noting that already 50% of his web-based sales originated in America. "We're giving Americans the Indian experience. I think Americans are ready for that."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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